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Review: Left 4 Dead

Like many of you we stayed up last night to see if Valve would pull the switch and make the full version of their zombie co-op shooter Left 4 Dead available to those of use who pre-ordered and pre-loaded the game via Steam. Thankfully Valve did not disappoint and the game was indeed live on Steam with little to no fuss (compare the rather smooth Left 4 Dead launch to four years ago when Steam debuted Half-Life 2 and had all sorts of problems).

So we have been playing the game, both offline and online, in between getting some work done on the site. Our final verdict on the game is similar to our first impressions which we had when playing the demo. Left 4 Dead in single player is very fast (most people should complete all the game's levels in single player in just a few hours) and multiplayer is a lot of fun.
One thing that did surprise us is that all of the game's levels are unlocked in single player. While there is a narrative structure to the game's campaign mode you could just play any level you want at any time. In other words, Left 4 Dead's single player most closely resembles bot mode in games like the Battlefield series. Sure there are objectives to accomplish (request evac from a helicopter, extend a bridge, etc) but because all the game's levels (four campaigns stretched out over 20 levels) are unlocked for offline play there's no sense of a building up to a major crescendo. The AI Director does take some of the sting out of that as they randomly place zombies and stage attacks at different points and different times.

Make no mistake, Left 4 Dead is a multiplayer co-op game at its heart. The regular co-op mode, where you and three live buddies on the Internet, team up to go through the waves of zombies in the title, is fun but then you most likely played the demo and know that already. The Versus mode, which finally unleashed to the public today, is the mode that most players will enjoy as four human players have to face off against not just the AI zombies but four zombie bosses that are controlled by the players.

Because there are zombie AI opponents in Versus mode, that means you could conceal your presence until you are ready to strike, whether as the fast and high jumping Hunter, the tongue-lashing Smoker or the other bosses. Valve for some reason has decided not to give you control of which zombie boss you get to use in a multiplayer game; it's randomly chosen for you. You might find yourself playing one too many times as a Hunter when you rather play a Smoker. Hopefully Valve will offer some choice in this matter for players via an update.

And that's actually one of the best thing about Left 4 Dead. The co-op multiplayer is tons of fun online and there are lots of variety in the level settings. But Valve will most likely be adding even more content and features to Left 4 Dead over the next year or two, just like they have for Team Fortress 2. And PC owners of the game will be getting that content for free (yeah, we aimed that at you, Xbox 360 owners).

The game uses the Source engine and while the art design and direction are first rate, Valve's in-house tech is showing its age somewhat. It's certainly more than enough to do the game justice (we love the blood effects of a good zombie head shot) but when we see the occasional clipping issue (zombies showing up through walls and doors for example) it takes some of the game's reality away. On the other hand, there are lots of art-oriented Easter Eggs and humor that we noticed as well.

Left 4 Dead certainly accomplished what we expected it to do. We wanted to play a real co-op game made from the ground up to play with friends and this title does it in spades. Single player is fun for a few hours but the real treat is playing regular and Versus online modes with real people and you could find yourself playing that for hours at a time. Make sure you drink a lot of fluids.

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