Left 4 Dead

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Left 4 Dead

Postby Blín D'ñero » 17 May 2008, 15:36

Gwynne Dixon
01/05/2008


Valve turns the screw on co-operative and multiplayer gaming yet again, but this time there are zombies...

In the rich tradition of Valve, Left 4 Dead certainly looks innovative and original. It may not be quite as groundbreaking as last year's Portal, but it's sure to come somewhere close. It's a shooter that will be released on both Xbox 360 and PC, and yet it's not really designed for extensive single-player bouts through its main campaign. Instead, the stress will be put on a 4 player co-operative campaign and an 8 player multiplayer option, but even these aren't what you'd normally expect from conventional co-op and multiplayer gameplay.

The main campaign option is made up of four separate scenarios which stretch through 20 maps (five maps per scenario). Our hands on was with one of these scenarios in the campaign mode. Here we had to fight our way through a house, onto a street filled with hordes of rampaging zombies, and then up through the various floors of a hospital in order to get up to the roof for a helicopter extraction.

It certainly played like a level from a conventional single-player campaign in a shooter, with the general feeling that you're being shepherded through a linear map progression, rather than the free roaming arenas of multiplayer maps. Where it differed, however, is in the scripting of enemy NPCs, mostly because there wasn't any. A conventional campaign would have you fighting through the same amount of enemies, coming from the same places, and taking up the same attacking positions when they get there. Left 4 Dead, on the other hand, opts for an entirely different approach.

Multiple playthroughs of the same scenario allowed us to see that zombies, of which there are literally hundreds (occasionally at one time), spawn in completely different places and in different numbers every time you restart the scenario. Some areas will always be denser with zombies than others, but the game's AI Director seemed so finely honed that just when you thought you knew what to expect in a section, you'd be ambushed by a group of necromancers from somewhere that you hadn't anticipated for a second. Crucially, this will add significant replay value to the game when it's released this coming autumn.

So, to summarise, the campaign mode is co-operative through various scenarios for up to 4 players (empty player slots are filled by bots). Throughout each scenario's map you'll be facing off against zombies who come at you when you least expect it, in huge numbers, and freakishly fast for the living dead. Utilising weapons such as Molotov cocktails, explosives, sub-machine guns, shotguns, and pistols to fend off the zombies, you'll then be tasked with surviving through the scenario. This obviously requires the usual co-op techniques such as warning your team mates of oncoming zombies, reviving them when they get ravaged, and using your fire power to take down walls of zombies in unison.

Traditional survival horror games are all well and good. You'll cautiously go through the single-player campaign, facing necromorphed enemy NPCs that attack with all the usual trimmings of suspense. However, because these games are traditionally single-player affairs with less stress on multiplayer play, there's an obvious limit to the amount of NPCs that the developers can throw at the player at any one time. As a result, many solitary survival horror games lack that feeling of being overrun by an apocalypse of brain thirsty zombies that you get from movies such as Dawn of the Dead.

Because Left 4 Dead (notice how it also ends with Dead) is co-operative, it multiplies the amount of zombies that the developer can dish out to players at any one time. This creates that zombie apocalypse feel, which is then amplified by the camaraderie of co-op gameplay and the unpredictable AI Director. Never knowing where the next army of squealing rotting people are going to come from provides the sweaty, tense atmosphere; sharing that with other gamers helps to heighten the feeling that it's you against the world. It may seem paradoxical, but that's definitely how we came away feeling after the hands on experience.

In addition to the regular zombie foot soldiers in the game, there are also a range of bosses. These include the smoker, boomer, hunter, and tank. Some of them appear to have the ability to spew blood plasma in your face and temporarily blind you, but a good rule of thumb is that they're generally bigger and harder to kill. It's these boss characters, however, that are key to Left 4 Dead's multiplayer offerings for up to 8 players.

It's essentially the same set-up as the co-op campaign mode, but as well as having 4 players on the survivors' side, there are also 4 players on the side of the infected zombies. These four players can choose to be one of the boss infected characters (with the exception of the tank), and they are then placed ahead of the survivors and amongst the other AI zombies on the map. Here they have the opportunity to take up an ambush point and wait for the arrival of the survivors. Valve's Doug Lombardi described this as a "Griefer's paradise" in our Q&A and, although we haven't had any hands on with this feature in the game, it certainly sounds interesting and original. Valve might have to coin a new phrase for this gameplay style, because it's essentially co-op with an adversarial twist and we really can't remember a game that offers a similar style of play.

Another neat little feature that we saw in the game was how Valve allows you to see where your team mates are. If they aren't in your line of sight then they'll appear as a green silhouette through a wall or ceiling. It doesn't detract from the visuals in the game and is certainly more helpful than the puny arrows that other shooters utilise. This way you can tell if they're above or below you, which was crucial in the multi-floored buildings we traversed during our hands on.

Our one worry is that, with this stress on co-op and multiplayer, the content may be flagging for a standalone release at retail. Yes, the AI Director adds replay value, but with four scenarios you really have to ask how many hours of enjoyment players will get out of the game before their attention begins to wane? It sounds ideal for Steam, or perhaps bundled with other games in a similar manner to The Orange Box, or Counter-Strike Source with Half-Life 2. However, as a standalone box at retail, we fear that it could be slightly lacking, particularly for Xbox 360 gamers who demand an extensive single-player campaign.


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