November 9, 2008

First Impressions of Left 4 Dead

Shawn Lebert Says: A helicopter sweeps over the thundering skies like a whip in a rainstorm. Someone screams that there’s rescue at the hospital, leaving you in a momentous decision to find a way to the haven or to stay right where you are because of safety. You gaze out over the roof ledge of a tenement, staring at the burning streets below, and smelling nothing but rain and gunpowder. Everything seems unnaturally quiet after the helicopter roars away. Would you take the scoop and head to the new sanctuary and risk to experience new horrors that wait? Or will you confide in this apartment house as refuge?

Either way, the truth is: You’re never safe. And Left 4 Dead makes you completely aware of that fact. Wiping out a building with the undead doesn’t mean anything. It just means you managed to survive a few seconds longer. You’d be wiser to reload your current weapon, rather than take that sigh of relief. For a long time, games have always been about What’s behind that corner? Stop thinking that way completely. L4D starts making you think What could be in front of us as well as behind us? That creates a new fear for us as we journey from one place to another. This idea alone keeps you constantly on your tippy-toes. This game is scary and intense.

The demo gives the player only two chapters to play from one level and this one is titled “No Mercy.” It gives a brief introduction to find a means to get to the hospital. Each chapter begins and ends with the characters finding a safe house where you can restock your ammunition and health packs.

Right from the beginning of the level, you’re given the opportunity to test your skills with either a submachine gun or shotgun as a primary weapon. Your handgun is secondary, with unlimited ammo, and forever fastened to your character.

When they said that working with your teammates was essential for survival, they weren’t lying. It is imperative that you stick very close to your partners in this nightmarish battle or consider yourself zombie bait. Remember how I mentioned that not only did you have to wonder about what was lurking ahead of you, but also behind? This is what makes cooperation with your teammates so important. Not only do you have to worry about running zombies smashing their bloody, undead fists into your back, but let’s also introduce other baddies like the “Hunter” and the “Smoker” to make things start to tingle a little bit more.

Don’t let the Hunter hoodie fool you. This guy is super fast on all fours and shows no mercy. He can leap tens of yards from his original position, just so he can pounce and scratch the living hell out of you. If this guy ever connects with you, you better hope your partners are close and friendly enough to load a few rounds into this sucker as you are completely vulnerable to the Hunter’s attacks.

In fact, you’re pretty much vulnerable to any of the attacks that these special enemies have, rendering you helpless and absolutely depending on your friends that are in the battle with you.

The second guy we’ll come to love is the “Smoker.” His scary move is the ability to lash out his unbelievably huge tongue, to grapple and squeeze his prey into submission from a distance. Once again, you are completely vulnerable to this, so watch your back at all times, even your front.

The Boomer makes a more obvious presence in the game. His huge, rotund figure is so much easier to spot, however, don’t assume due to his size that he can’t chase you down. His special ability is to vomit on you. And if you think that’s bad, imagine not being able to see for a matter of nearly 10 seconds as well as attracting a horde of zombies right to your position. That’s right. This vomit is no ordinary vomit. Its pungent smell will alert other undead and hunt you down within a few seconds, so get ready for a group of the undead before you can say ah-na-man-ah-pe-ah. Yeah, I timed it…

Fourthly is the Tank. He is nothing but brute force and he will do nothing but destroy things in his way. His favorite thing to do is Hulk-smash you to kingdom come, so if you got some nerve with him, make sure you’re packing a lot of heat.

Lastly, is the Witch. This creature is the deadliest of them all as one swing from her long claws will leave you sprawled out over the ground, open to any further hits as she so desires to dig into your flesh.

In the demo, you come across each one of these special creatures. There is a chance you may see only a few, too. I suppose consider yourself lucky that you don’t encounter the Witch during one play through. But if you do, be prepared.

Left 4 Dead’s experience is never the same exact thing twice. The developers heavily emphasized that every single play-through is always different. So far, from what I’ve seen, it’s very true. As an example from the very beginning of the level, sometimes zombies would mindlessly stand in a living room of the apartment. Another time, the living room would be absent from anything that moves. And even after playing through and going a second round, you can no longer figure out what’s behind that corner. That alone is what keeps us coming back for more, and what ups the intensity.

What’s more frightening than hearing more than a handful of undead horde screaming and hissing as they grow closer to your location and not knowing which way they’re coming? With every play through, the creatures are randomized and tossed in other locations, and along with that, your ability or perhaps, inability to play the game smartly, creating a literal difficulty change in real-time. Also, don’t think for a second that you can just get distracted by something else while playing. Things will always manage to break in, craving your blood.

Rooms have never been darker; alleyways have never been so ominous. The music soundtrack for the game melds into the events of the game as light piano keys resound and echo in a moment of grief or even silence. The music doesn’t seem to be scripted when getting to a certain point of the level, because what you experience is never the same, so the music is obviously different. If one player is in mid-battle with a few of the undead, the player may hear a distinct music track of turmoil, while the other player, who happens to be in another room, may hear no music at all. It’s all based on what you’re exposed to. It’s minimal, enchanting, and downright spooky.

Everything feels realistic. There’s a plethora of zombie death animations that mix with other animations according to the environment, presenting something new and refreshing every time. Killing a zombie has never been so satisfying. There’s actual weight to the firing of your weapons; meaning, they react to an actual shotgun blast. If you have a 9mm handgun, they react to that differently, as well. Gone are the days of obvious animations no matter what gun you chose to use against the ill-fated zombie before you. You’ll have fun just watching how zombies react and fall. Zombies aren’t impenetrable forces either. One could take just a few rounds into the chest and they’ll go down, while others may take even more. You just can’t know, and there’s no obvious zone (head, chest, limbs) that tell you how many shots you can pull off before they go down.

The visuals were astounding with character models that look nearly photorealistic, as it ran perfectly and smoothly in frame-rate, in a horrific world that felt genuinely disturbing. And that’s what I like. To know there can be twenty zombies flailing on screen and beating the pulp out of me, but knowing that it still runs just as smooth makes me retain that smile. The game uses dialog in game to make sure your partners are aware of what other characters are doing. Covering someone as they reload is essential, and announcing that someone is healing himself or another character is a definite plus. For once, I couldn’t actually complain with the A.I. I never felt like “Oh, silly computer controlled teammate,” as he kept running into the wall. Nope, none of that ever happened.

These are one of the very few games that I could say I thoroughly enjoyed from start to end. From the beginning to the rooftop of the apartment complex, through the murky subway station, there were lots of wide open spaces, but still somehow felt claustrophobic and caught in a world that I seemingly could never escape. You’re never safe and you have to move forward.

I could say the demo was a good length, yet, of course, I always wish for more, and when November 20th hits for the release of this game, this could seriously be up there as one of the best first person shooters I’ve experienced in a damn long time. From Valve, what more can you expect? It’s a damn fine game and I want more. If I was the little kid walking down the street, licking my lollipop, Left 4 Dead would be my candy.