Left 4 Dead Review

Left 4 Dead Review

Left 4 Dead Review

They’re coming again, screaming down the hallways towards us, clambering through windows, leaping over barricades – a frenzied, wailing wall of savage zombie death.
Discretion is the better part of valour, we decide, and stagger backwards into a waiting elevator, firing our last few rounds into the closest zombies as the doors slide shut. Survival, for the moment, seems sure. Then we notice the displaced ceiling tile above.

They’re coming again, screaming down the hallways towards us, clambering through windows, leaping over barricades – a frenzied, wailing wall of savage zombie death.

Discretion is the better part of valour, we decide, and stagger backwards into a waiting elevator, firing our last few rounds into the closest zombies as the doors slide shut. Survival, for the moment, seems sure. Then we notice the displaced ceiling tile above.

Tense seconds pass as the lift grinds upward, all of us still wordlessly staring at this dark gap, awaiting whatever might burst through. Even when nothing happens – especially when nothing happens – Left 4 Dead is an intense experience, cultivating the panic and stress of a survival-horror shooter in multiplayer.

Normally, the giggling distraction of co-op promptly shatters whatever atmosphere developers had intended, but somehow Valve inveigles four players into the horror of its setting. It’s a pretty nerve-jangling scrimmage; rare is the game in which, shrill with panic, you find yourself shouting into the microphone: “Oh, Christ! It’s a Witch! It’s a Witch!”

Valve has achieved this through its usual understated storytelling genius – taking something unscripted and dynamic, and seeding it with the right amount of narrative flavour, pacing and spectacle to make it feel like you are participating in an orchestrated horror set-piece. The director – the AI that determines the flow and placement of zombies – makes every run an unpredictable but cogently dramatic terror. The lulls between swarms seem perfectly timed to unnerve; the swarms between lulls lasting just long enough to reduce your resources and health to almost nothing.

There are, on release, only four scenarios to play through, and though their varied settings make for different arenas of combat, each follows a similar beat. On normal difficulty, should you survive, a scenario lasts a little over an hour, broken into five segments which see the survivors fight their way between safe-houses before a climactic showdown and, ultimately, rescue.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that this is a slight offering, even when you consider the degree to which it lends itself to replay. Nonetheless, what there is has been excellently crafted. Movement is tight and responsive, the feel of weapon fire suitably shocking and cruel, and the result of each blast more than satisfies the grindhouse remit for splatter.

Environments have clearly been pored over – every one a creepy homage to horror films past, from the urban nightmare that precedes the ascent of Mercy Hospital, to the cold, rural desolation of the Blood Harvest chapter. Visually, the Source engine performs a crisp and economical job, but it’s upstaged by the inspired audio design. The creak of gantries, the rattle of water through piping, the sigh of wind or the rustle of corn – Valve has managed to imbue all these things with a powerful foreboding.

Most of the time, Valve’s level design does a fine job of convincing the player that the near-linear route you take is a natural choice among many possible paths, but occasionally the illusion of a much larger  environment proves disorienting. This can easily mean death, as lingering will invite further waves of zombies, and ammunition and health are sparsely distributed, necessitating speedy progress. Fortunately, Valve has lavished a good deal of automatic dialogue upon the survivors – alerting you and your teammates to the presence of ammunition, or pointing out the correct route to take, as well as simply adding character.