A zombie goes down, limbs flailing wildly as I pump it full of lead from my twin pistols. We’re cleaning up. Only a few of our attackers remain in the narrow alleyways, but we were separated during the last wave. I can see the blue outlines of my comrades scattered throughout the surrounding area.
Valve’s Chet Faliszeck, writer of Portal and one of the leading devs on Left 4 Dead stalks back and forth behind us. “Stay together, ” he warns.
It’s sound advice. Left 4 Dead is all about teamwork. One glance at the screen will tell you that. The interface displays not just your own health bar, but those of all of your teammates, so you’ll know who to protect and who to heal, or if you’re low yourself, who has the medipacks to replenish your energy.
We regroup and I find more ammunition for my assault rifle. We catch our breath for a moment, and then we head out.
We’re doing well. The entire team is healthy, but in Left 4 Dead, the world’s more dangerous when you’re on top. The AI Director, A remarkable bit of software, is operating behind the scenes recording every step the player takes, accuracy, health levels and even the number of traumatising events the player has endured. Based on this data it will mediate the intensity of the assaults upon your team. This means that if you’re close to death, the game will do its best to stretch your experience to breaking point, and if you’re doing well, it’ll make sure that you won’t be in a few minutes time.
Knowing this made me especially wary, everyone else on my team seemed to feel it too. We were out in the open streets, cars scattered about the place, odd zombies pottered around, fodder for our pistols. It was almost unbearably quiet as we rounded the corner, darting out into the open to check ahead. Then Player 2 fired off a few shots at some undead in a doorway accross the street. One bullet hits a car and the car alarm goes off. a message appears.
‘Someone has alerted the Horde.’
That’s when all hell broke loose.
A grey tide of undead came pouring out of an alleyway. Countless numbers of them dashing at full tilt, vaulting over cars, falling over each other, utterly fearsome and completely rabid. The motion of the horde is unlike anything I’ve ever seen animated, they run absolutely full pelt, and it looks completely real. It makes running animations in other games look awkward and stilted. What’s more when you open fire they react brilliantly to your bullets, collapsing into quivering heaps as others leap over them, or sometimes flying backwards, stopped dead in midair by your shotgun blast. Spectators regualry cried out as the drama unfolded. There’s a reason why each level, made up of five different maps, is referred to by valve as a ‘movie’. It has deliberate pacing, great performances from the undead, and countless moments of climactic action.
We survived the rush, but not before I had fallen before the great multitude. When your down your character will automatically draw a pistol, giving you a chance to frantically shoot the Undead as they claw at your face. Even as you lie on your back, besieged on all sides you’re given the chance to heroically defend yourself. However, your survival in these situations is entirely down to your teammates. Whenever someone is down all of the other players on his team will recieve a message. It’s up to them to run over and shoot off your attackers, and to take a few seconds to get you back on your feet. This device is the great leveller. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you will be taken down, and when you’re down, you’ll always someone else to pick you up.
If nobody does then you don’t die completely, you’ll be taken out of the game until the team reaches the next safehouse, you will respawn and rejoin your teammates, giving you ample opportunity to slap them for not saving your life.
I haven’t even mentioned the boss characters you’ll find scattered through the levels. Hunters can pounce from hidden corners of the room, always from an unseen angle, and they take you down instantly. Boomers, great fat bloated monstrosities can be waiting for you behind any corner, and as soon as they see you they explode, covering you in green bile. This vomit sends the Horde mental, and you’ll be instantly swarmed. If you’re not screaming and shooting wildly in every direction when this happens, then you should check your pallor, you might be undead yourself. The tank is a vast muscled creature which will take several clips to down, if he lands a blow on you you’re not likely to remain standing. Finally, the most disturbing of them all, the Smoker, who reels you in with his huge tongue and constricts you to death. At one point, on a rooftop beneath an overhang we were stood shooting the horde as they climbed up to reach us. Suddenly, from behind, tongues came lashing down from the overhang. There was no way to shoot the Smokers, who were safely concealed on the higher rooftop. All we could do was watch our team mates hanging in mid air, being slowly strangled.
“Shoot them,” said Chet. I looked for a way, I couldn’t. I shot at the tongue, but it wouldn’t let go. Then I realised – I had to shoot my own team mate. A few moments later the tongue dropped the dead corpse of my ally, and I rushed over to revive him.
Valve are going to be showing massive support for the game after release, adding extra ‘movies’ and even making videos for each level, add onto that the massive community features that will be added to steam with L4D’s release, and the added value the modding community will bring and it becomes clear that this is really going to be something special. Left 4 Dead is breathtakingly intense. It’s not a game about perfect headshots, it really is about teamwork, sticking together, staying organised. You might think you hate online shooters, you might think you’re not a good enough shot to be useful. Put all that aside, Left 4 Dead really is for everybody.