Retro Review

RETRO Review – Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360)

Revisiting Valve’s cooperative zombie survival game fourteen years later is still a thrill ride. Pills here!

Promotional image of Left 4 Dead

There are so many games to choose from these days and different platforms that it can be overwhelming deciding where to start. And, sometimes you simply want to delve into an old favourite or a series you have heard great things about but never played. Nothing wrong with it, no judging here. In fact, I am definitely guilty of spending many hours playing the old timers as much as the shiny new stuff. So, in this particular section, I will take the time to play a game of the past which could range from the NES era all the way to the Xbox 360/PS3 generation and share my thoughts with a rating out of five.

Left 4 Dead released in 2008 on Xbox 360 (PC too) and was a phenomenon because of its simple and original take on the online co-op first-person shooter and even two generations later is still an intense zombie apocalypse experience.

Developer Valve (Turtle Rock Studios specifically) took all the right ingredients from your traditional survival horror series – the chilling atmosphere, the tense encounters, the ammo/ health limitations, lots of flesh eating zombies – and created its own deadly concoction. But that’s pretty much where comparisons end as the game is intentionally simple in terms of plot, going along the lines of your typical manifistation of the rabies virus into a mass epidemic, ultimately leading to the destruction of a nameless small town in America. There are four survivors amidst the chaos and it is your job to get them to safety. That’s it, and really that’s all we need to know.

Including the downloadable content released the following year, there are six campaigns with (mostly) five chapters and provided you survive long enough you will reach the level finale – a timed stand–off against the relentless zombie horde as you await rescue.

The four characters have a lot of personality, are very likable and work really well together as a unit. The dialogue and voice acting are tight and actually serve as a gameplay factor in times of crisis. They will shout to each other when in need of assistance, point out if you need to reload or heal yourself or even just talk to each other when things seem calm enough. This combined with Valve’s ‘show don’t tell’ style of environmental story-telling (messages written in blood on walls) helps furnish the game with enough context that your imagination can do the rest.

Left 4 Dead promotional image
Bill spotted the arm on the ground and knew instantly the Christmas party had gotten out of control

Stick together, team.

The game is built to encourage teamwork. So any gung-ho radicals who decide to rush ahead or leave their counterparts will always regret it, as it is incredibly difficult to fight off the hordes even as a team of four, never mind alone. Survivors have to stick together, watch each other’s backs, help each other out when pinned down by the Special Infected (I’ll get to them in a moment) and even dish out health packs or pain pills where a survivor is clearly near death. This brings out a level of tactical thinking to the campaigns and is exceptionally fun online over Xbox Live.

A chapter is complete when the remaining survivors make it to the safe room and shut the door. If one survivor is killed but the rest get to safety, the dead survivor will be mercifully revived by the next chapter.

During each stage you and your group will face off against a variety of awful creatures. Firstly, the common infected are pretty numerous. When they say hordes, they mean HORDES. It can get crowded real fast and with just one teammate down you’ll notice the difference as they swarm the remaining survivors. It can be overwhelming.

But as well as that, you will occasionally come up against the Special Infected. These are pretty much like boss characters which have their own special abilities and characteristics. For example, the hunter is a zombie that can leap across large distances and pounce on a helpless survivor and it is up to the others to save them. This is similar to the Smoker, which can fire out its tongue to reel in an unsuspecting player and if there is no one around who can help, that character is as good as dead. These two are primarily the reason it is essential for players to stick together as a cohesive unit.

Left 4 Dead promotional image
Bill stood over the corpses and accepted that next year’s Christmas party will be a much quieter affair

Sincerely not ok, Boomer.

The Boomer is a slow-moving obese zombie that pukes on survivors and if a Boomer pukes on you, you’re in real trouble. Firstly you will be temporarily blinded so your screen turns completely green and you have no idea what’s happening. Then, attracted to Boomer vile (yup, ugh) a swarming horde of zombies will spring out of nowhere and attack you. The survivors are then forced to jump to your rescue before it’s too late, adding to an already tense experience.

There are two more boss infected which occur in fewer numbers but are arguably more dangerous. The most interesting is the Witch; a crying undead girl that can be heard from a distance. The Witch will not instantly attack you and is meant to be avoided at all times. Trust me, you don’t want to anger the Witch as it’s instant death on one hit as I learned on my first playthrough. The second is a gigantic boulder throwing monster called The Tank (and they don’t call it the Tank for nothing, either). This thing is tough and will really do serious damage to you and your teammates before you can kill it.

Left 4 Dead boasts a clever engine. The developers really worked hard to make the game a different experience each time you play it. The AI Director, as it’s referred to, will randomly generate zombies anywhere in the maps based on algorithms calculated through its performance tracker, meaning each campaign will be different on every occasion. For example, the first few times through the system will go slightly easier on you, with less moments with overwhelming hordes, and once it feels convinced that the player is experienced enough, then it will unleash its full potential. This goes for the special infected also. For instance, in one playthrough I recognised a location where I thought I was safe for the moment, recalling a previous playthrough, and was ultimately horrified as a Tank suddenly smashed through the wall and incapacitated me instantly.

The atmosphere can be really tense throughout the game and this is helped through outstanding moody lighting and shadow effects. Although the models aren’t as detailed as some Xbox 360 games, they are helped with the lighting and nice silhouette effects which remarkably hold up even today. The eerie music also matches the AI Director in that it will assess the level of intensity of score based on the moment to moment action as well as it can give a clue as to approaching dangers. For example you will hear the Boomer or Witch’s audio cue before you can work out where they are hiding.

Left 4 Dead promotional image
Bill was adament the staff camping trip would go a lot smoother than the disastrous Christmas party

Reloading!

The locations are suitably dark and dreary, ranging from the typical abandoned hospital, deserted streets, railway lines, woodland areas and even in a spooky cornfield. However, it feels like there could have been a little more although with the added DLC and online modes there is a fair amount of content to be satisfied. The subsequent sequel would make do with an abundance of content as well as re-adding in all of this game’s maps.

This game is pretty much expected to be played online (and amazingly the servers are still running), so those without an Xbox Live account would really be missing out with this title. The campaigns are the same online as offline but the addition of human teammates is always going to be a winner. Although the AI of the computer controlled teammates is actually pretty solid (they will heal you regularly but won’t use pipe bombs), the ability to interact and communicate directly with your fellow survivors is always good fun and on the harder difficulties is imperative.

Online players are also given the opportunity to play a mode called Versus, which pits two teams against each other in a round based campaign, where in each round the teams will take turns as the survivors, whilst the other plays as the Special Infected. This is a novel concept and can be tremendous fun. As a hunter, smoker or boomer you can choose to spawn anywhere in the level and wreck havoc on the survivors, adding a new dimension to the gameplay. Smarter players will employ different tactics depending on which character they are; hunters and smokers are more effective at attacking survivors who have strayed slightly from the main group as there will be less chance of being saved, whereas the boomer is designed for simply jumping into the fray and getting as close to the survivors as possible. It’s a fantastic mode although unfortunately hard to get into games nowadays.

Verdict – Left 4 Dead combines all the necessary elements of standard first-person shooters with the thrill of co-operative survival horror. The game constantly raises the bar for veteran players and is one of the best online experiences of the Xbox 360. Simply put, it’s tremendous arcade fun. It can be instantly played by anyone who is familiar with first-person shooters and the combination of tense moments between skirmishes and the outright madness of battling hordes of speeding zombies is an exhilarating feeling that few games can match.

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