Each campaign is built like a horror flick, from a slightly ambiguous beginning all the way to the big end, after a violent endeavor and survival efforts that seem taken out of a Romero movie. At the end of it all, any number of Survivors can make it or they can literally be postered to some bloody wall. Their speech lines are many (over 1000 each, apparently) and many of those are contextual, but they perfectly fit the event that triggered them, to the extent that you might even miss they’re actually triggered by something.
What’s even more remarkable about the design is the manner in which is combines eye-candy with usefulness, how a dark atmosphere is created through Film Grain, Color Correction and Vignette without compromising the bigger picture. The feel is dark and pressing, but you will almost always know where to go and you’ll rarely be hindered by the pitch black and the lack of a compass or a GPS; the graffiti pointing towards the next safe zone are enough while not breaking the immersion. Incapacitated teammates are pointed out by an orange border, even through walls, and the high level of detail doesn’t distract you from noticing pills, ammo and weapons in the game world.
Additionally, the synergy formed between sound and design works great. A competitive tactical FPS player will always tell you that what you hear is just as important as what you see. In Left 4 Dead, sounds can mean the difference between life and death.
The Survivors’ flavor remarks aside, each danger manifests itself in your headphones or speakers – dangerous enemies have their own noises, a wave of Infected that runs towards the group can be heard long before it’s seen and the car alarms I mentioned earlier have an easily anticipated Pavlovian effect on more experienced players: they’ll try to hold the Horde off in a corner, covering all angles and orifices out of which monsters may come out of.
I was pleasantly surprised how quickly you adapt should you make the minimum effort of paying attention to background noise, in addition to using a microphone to speak to your teammates.
And since we’re on it – Left 4 Dead is the perfect reason to purchase a headset with a microphone. On top of the tactical value (and considering that tactics are absolutely mandatory on higher levels of difficulty) of using it, I can’t emphasize enough how dynamic and interesting the game becomes when the Survivors talk to each other and organize themselves properly. The “holes” in the story aren’t there because of the producers’ laziness when it comes to this aspect, but rather because they get filled by what the survivors are doing in each run, and using voice communication really stands out in this sense.
However, minimalism in storyline details might become an insufficient argument for the replay value after a while. Even if there are slight occasional possibilities to deviate from the fixed path you have to take, I kinda wished for more freedom when it comes to campaigns that you can go through in under one hour each. Inevitably, after a few runs, the same walls, the same corridors, tunnels, sewers and streets will get boring to some, despite their sublime design.
Graaaagh! – This is an exclamatory. Usually indicates the zombie wants to attack.
Left 4 Dead introduces a pretty solid concept for any gaming genre through The Director, an artificial intelligence system that populates maps with Infected, pills, ammo and weapons. It guarantees scalable difficulty, a decent degree of replay value as well as preventing the gamers from memorizing events in every level.
Up until now, initial attempts at bringing successful innovation were mostly fragile and lacking projects, which required years of ulterior work to function at maximum potential, this “Director” doesn’t have much standing against it and considering that after the first few hours you’ll be experiencing different events with the same background, a major part of the “hook” you’re supposed to get grabbed by depends on this feature.
In terms of mechanics, it’s the Valve standard. Ballistics are realistic enough not to “touch Halo” and arcade enough not to frustrate people who never held anything more dangerous than a squirt gun in their hands. There are only a few weapons, but this aspect actually works for the game, because each of them has its use in certain situations, and a varied group in terms of armament will often survive a lot longer than one that’s swimming in machine guns. Usually, better weapons are only found after a while, but I can’t say any of them is vastly superior to all the others, because, if perception serves, they sort of work on a “rock-paper-scissors” basis.