“It’s totally worth giving up TV real estate to be able to punch your buddy in the shoulder during friendly fire incidents,” says Valve’s Left 4 Dead development frontman, Chet Faliszek. He’s talking about the split-screen mode on the Xbox 360 version of the spectacular multiplayer zombie shooter – something that inquisitive players recently dug out of the PC demo code. As it turns out, the PC will actually support that split screen version too, although you might need someone on an Xbox pad and someone on mouse and keyboard to make it work.
I was lucky enough to sit down and play the full game on a high-end PC with a huge Dell monitor, alongside three of my closest friends, all of whom had a similar rig. Ideal conditions, you might say, for a four-player PC shooter. Especially since we were playing against Valve themselves… But however you intend to play this game, you’re definitely going to get a special kind of kick out of it. The 360 version (there will be nothing on PS3) has already generated massive interest, and Faliszek revealed that early numbers outweigh even the pre-orders of Valve’s previous console outing, The Orange Box (Portal, Team Fortress 2, Episode 2). The zombie apocalypse is coming, and it’s going to be multi-platform.
It works like this: you play as one of four survivors who must co-operate to escape the zombie hordes. There are four hour-long campaigns, each with four sub-sections. Getting through them is a grueling, thrilling cycle of zombie horror and astonishing slaughter. Even if one person drops from a survivor team there are still four characters: Valve’s remarkable AI takes over within moments, allowing that person to return a few minutes later, or not at all. (As my buddy discovered to his peril when we argued that we’d rather keep the bot after his restroom break.) This seamless AI handling means that the game can be played solo, or with just a couple of people: the vital four-man fireteam of the survivors remains intact – a vital necessity, as you can’t survive without buddies to drag zombies off you, or to save you from tumbling off a roof.
The computer intelligence goes even further than this, however. Left 4 Dead is never the same on any single play-through, and that’s not just down to human free will, there’s also an unseen hand at work: The Director. This smart piece of programmer effectively controls the ebb and flow of the teeming zombie masses. And we mean teeming. The Zombies are fast – 28 Days Later fast – and they come pouring out of tower-block windows or churning over fences. The Director’s job is to make things dramatic each time you see this, and it does that by varying the pacing, and delivering huge surges of zombie attackers when the moment is right. Think you’re just about holding off that screaming mass of bodies coming towards you down that alleyway? Then look behind you…
The aptitude with which this artificial system delivers moments of surprise and terror is quite startling, even spooky. Portal writer Erik Wolpaw claimed that “We’ve started attributing real-life events to The Director…” And you can see why. Just when you’re about to make it to the safe-room, or to get yourself out of a tight spot, things only get worse. The Director knows exactly what’s happening on the level at all times, and it’s going to make things harder for you. Particularly when The Witch is involved. This is one of the boss infected – super-zombies that are vastly more powerful that the sprinting, rotting hordes you face moment-to-moment. The Witch doesn’t like to be disturbed, and if you can avoid her it’s best to leave her alone. Startle her with bright lights, gunfire, or close proximity and, well, things get bad.
The boss infected each play their own crucial roll – vomiting on you to attract and enrage nearby zombies, strangling you with prehensile tongues, or simply pinning you down to rend your flesh. It’s in the Versus mode that these abilities will really have an impact – as players step behind the scenes of the zombie flick to become the infected. Versus mode sees two teams of four-aside swap places across the four sections of each campaign, and the competition becomes fierce as each one tries to outdo the other in griefing the survivors as they run for their lives. Play well and the survivors won’t even make it out alive, fail to make the most of your unnatural abilities and a co-ordinated survivor team will come through with nary a scratch. Needless to say, Valve flattened us quite firmly in our Versus session. A harsh-but-firm lesson in how much skill it actually takes to play the bad guys.
It’s hard to see Left 4 Dead failing to be anything other than a critical and commercial smash hit. The concept was fully playable almost two years ago, the full focus of the Valve team in the intervening months has smoothed and sculpted this into another multiplayer masterpiece. Between the B-movie in-jokes, the rounded, chatty characters, and the sublimely-timed moments of sheer panic, it’s hard to imagine another zombie game ever having quite the same impact again. The question that hangs over Left 4 Dead isn’t so much about how much players are going to love it, but more about /how long/ they’ll love it for. Will those four campaigns really be enough to satiate our hunger for novelty? Will the asymmetric Versus mode stand up to long-haul competition?
Perhaps the true, crucial question going forward is whether Valve are intend on supporting this game as they have Team Fortress 2, with free follow-up updates in the coming months? “Definitely,” says Faliszek, and they’ll be knocking out detailed tutorials for people to build and implement their own campaign maps too. “Turning your college or office into a level should be relatively easy,” says Faliszek, as if that’s the most natural urge in the world. And, with a few hours of battling the infected under your belt, maybe it is.
Left 4 Dead is available on Xbox 360 and PC from November 18th. The demo is out now on Live and PC.
[Jim Rossignol is an editor at RockPaperShotgun.com and the author of This Gaming Life, an account of the life of modern videogames and some of the people who play them. Ragdoll Metaphysics is his Offworld column exploring and analyzing gaming's vast world of esoterica.]