2008 was a good year for post-apocalyptic video games. Like the aforementioned Fallout 3, last year also saw the release of Left 4 Dead from the Valve Corporation (for Xbox360 and PC). Zombie games are nothing new in the gaming world—we’ve had plenty, from the Resident Evil series to the humorous Dead Rising. But for my money, none of them quite capture the feel of a Hollywood zombie movie the way that Left 4 Dead does.
While it has a single player component, Left 4 Dead is meant to be played with four people in online cooperative play. Players take on one of four roles, each one a character you might see in a zombie movie. You have Bill, the Vietnam veteran; Louis, the corporate IT guy; Zoe, the college student; and Francis, the biker. The choice of characters doesn’t influence the gameplay except for different bits of dialogue offered during the game.
The game is set in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Zombies roam everywhere and only a few pockets of uninfected people remain. Your job, very simply, is to survive. There are four different levels with different settings and layouts, but your objective in all is the same—to get through to the end where some kind of rescue is possible.
The gameplay is fairly simple. It mostly revolves around shooting zombies. Or running from them. You can also pick things up, like first aid kits, or gas cans that you can strategically place, and you can open doors. Additionally, there’s a melee option that can be used to beat back zombies and is invaluable when they swarm.
Oh, yeah, they swarm. This isn’t one of those slow-moving zombie games. Some of them, of course, are shamblers. Some you’ll find just standing still, staring at the wall. But then you’ll encounter a horde and all the zombies in the area will come running for you. Which is when beating them back can be helpful. And when having someone to watch your back makes all the difference.
The rest of the time you’re mostly running and shooting, using a variety of weapons that generally fall into three classes—automatic weapons (a submachine gun and assault rifle), shotguns (in pump-action and semi-automatic styles), and the sniper rifle. Of course if you run out of ammo, you always have a backup pistol and that never runs out of bullets. But they’re only so effective (though you can wield them two-handed).
There are also Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs scattered throughout the levels which enable you to do damage to numerous zombies at once. But you can only carry one of these at a time.
Each level in the initial game is loosely based around a movie theme, complete with a movie poster when it’s loading up. One takes place in a small town with your final stand on a lake. One takes place in an airport. Along the way there are checkpoints where you’ll be able to take shelter in a safe room to heal and refill on ammo and just breathe for a moment.
The rest of the time, as mentioned, you’re fending off zombies. But if that isn’t bad enough, there are also special enemies, mutants if you will, who have abilities the other zombies don’t. There’s the Hunter, who leaps onto its prey and pins it to the ground, tearing at it with claw-like hands. There’s the Boomer, incredibly bloated, who spews out a vile liquid that attracts any zombies around and starts a horde (the same liquid also splatters out of them when you kill them). There’s the Smoker, who can stand on the tops of buildings or hills and snare people with his tongue, immobilizing them and bringing them back to be eaten. There’s the Tank, who is basically what it sounds like—huge and strong and murderous. And finally, there’s the Witch, frail and small, but vicious and cruel and incredibly difficult to put down. She can kill with just one strike.
The game isn’t easy. To get through you have to make use of teamwork, covering one another, helping out if someone gets pinned down or overwhelmed. Many a life has been saved in-game by one player coming to another’s aid with a medkit or bottle of pills.
To break up the action, there are several stand-off points where you have to activate something (a radio, a lift, etc) and the zombies start to swarm at you, together with the special creatures mentioned above. Again, these moments require teamwork, but none so much as the end boards which is where the game throws everything at you. Even with experienced players, it’s not uncommon for several people to die in the final battles, crushed by a Tank or just overwhelmed by a horde.
All this makes for an amazing multiplayer game that is great for a night of playing. But to add some variety to the mix, Left 4 Dead also includes additional game modes as well. There’s the survival mode where a group of four tries to last as long as possible against endless waves of attackers. And versus mode which allows up to eight players and pits the normal group of four survivors against a team of four infected with players randomly taking on the roles of Hunter, Boomer, Smoker, and Tank. Versus play works in the same campaigns as the multiplayer and single player modes with players switching sides after each segment. Each side receives a score based on how many players survived and how long it took them to reach the end of the stage.
The game has been successful enough to spawn a sequel which is due in November of this year. But that shouldn’t discourage people from checking it out now (it’s currently available in a Game of the Year Edition for Xbox360 on Amazon for $30 at the time of this writing). More DLC has been announced for September called Crash Course. Feel free to look me up on Xbox Live if you ever want to play a game. My username is Rajanyk.
If you’re looking for an immersive single-player game, Left 4 Dead is not what you’re looking for. But if you want an exciting and sometimes scary game that is great for a night’s worth of playing with three to seven friends, Left 4 Dead is, in my opinion, one of the best multiplayer games ever made.
Rajan Khanna is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop and his fiction has appeared in Shimmer Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn with his two cats, Chloe and Muppet.