Sunday, November 23, 2008

Left 4 Dead

A slight lack of content and a few connection issues are the only things holding back one of the most enjoyable shooting experiences I've had in years. The normal gameplay isn't particularly deep; there are only a few weapons and a few types of enemies. They're not particularly smart. There's only four "movies" to play, none lasting even two hours on normal difficulty. But none of that matters. Holding off a ravenous horde of zombies with a few friends, desperately huddled together and waiting for rescue, is an extraordinarily exciting and memorable experience. The key to the game is how well the cooperative aspect of it works. In most other games, you can split up and do okay. But in Left 4 Dead, sticking with your teammates is vital. The game rewards you for protecting your buddies as much as yourself, and if you get knocked down or attacked by certain foes, it's impossible to survive without a friend giving you a hand. It's best if you're playing with people you know and constantly communicating, but even with a group of strangers you can develop a camaraderie before the campaign is over. Tearing into a horde with a mounted gun, taking out a bunch with a homemade pipe bomb, working together to bring down a tank - everything is scientifically designed to be as satisfying as possible.

And when did Valve become so funny? Earlier games had occasional humor, but starting with The Orange Box they've had consistently great writing, and the graffiti on the walls and dynamic conversations between the survivors are always worth experiencing. That dialogue is part of the game's pretty impressive technology that keeps the experience fresh, with the locations of supplies and bad guys always changing so you don't know what to expect. It prevents the experience from being too sophisticated, but makes it extremely replayable, which is the real goal here. Normal is fun, but my group probably had a better time playing on Advanced, making the experience much more intense but still manageable. It can get a bit frustrating when the same place kills you over and over, but we got markedly better as a team just playing through all of the maps once, and I bet it won't be long before we try Expert. Versus mode is also a blast, where teams alternate between playing the survivors and the infected, seeing who can get farther before usually getting wiped out. Playing in the infected takes some getting used to, but is also a unique and extremely gratifying experience when you get it right. Setting up the perfect ambush to screw over the other team is pretty damn awesome.

Hopefully Valve works on some of the online stuff, though. The first time we played, it took at least half an hour before we could get a game going, and games will crash once in a while. Also, sometimes the achievements don't seem to unlock when they should, a couple friends didn't get the campaign completion ones when they should have. Overall, it wasn't that bad for a game that just got released, it was just frustrating to see happen when we just wanted to be. And I do wish there was a bit more to play with. We can count on Valve coming out with some new stuff, hopefully an entire new movie or two, but I'm certainly glad I got it for $45 on Steam instead of $60 for the Xbox. Still, that doesn't matter that much. A couple nights ago we were playing Versus on the last map of No Mercy, waiting for the helicopter to arrive. Louis just got knocked off the roof by a Tank, and after we remaining three killed it, rescue came. We raced towards the landing pad, but on the way I was grabbed by a Smoker and pulled off the ramp. My teammates freed me from its grip, and I ran back towards the ramp, desperately shoving the ravenous horde away from me, slowly carving a path towards the exit. I limped as fast as I could for the helicopter, bullets whizzing past my ears as my buds who were already on board picked off the creatures trying to stop me. Just as I reached the vehicle, a Hunter pounced and knocked me on the ground. Before it could incapacitate me my friends saved me once again, and with 3 health left, I got on the helicopter just in the nick of time, and we escaped. It was completely amazing, and this type of thing happens in Left 4 Dead all the time.

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