Saturday, December 6, 2008

Left 4 Dead

Right. Zombies. What makes a good zombie game different from a bad zombie game? I mean, there's only so much you can do with zombies. Resident Evil's had to switch it up from the slow shufflers to runners, and they've had a diversity of enemies from the beginning. And tons of weapons. Dead Rising also had tons of weapons, and the whole point was basically to kill as many zombies as possible.

So where does this leave Left 4 Dead? It only has 6 types of enemies. It has 10 weapons. Four scenarios with 5 levels each, you can play through it all in 4 hours. And yet it's an amazingly fun, and engaging game. It's all about the details. Let's break it down. 

The Characters (aka "The Survivors"): The characters all have identical abilities, so it doesn't matter who you pick to play as. And the characters fit standard stereotypes of characters, as well. Francis is the tough biker, Bill's the hardened war veteran, Louis is the office drone and black guy, and Zoey's the plucky female. They're all different enough that you can tell who is who from a simple sillouette, which appears around characters when they're not in your line of sight. The character models are very detailed though. They get bloody when hit, or when killing zombies at close range. They limp convincingly when hurt. And the dialogue works. It's present, but not overbearing. It's subtle, and helps develop character more than any instruction manual background ever could. Bill hates stairs, and will let you know, occassionally. Zoey's often got a snappy line, with my favourite being when in the elevator in No Mercy she calls "zombie bullshit" about how the zombies can run and jump. 

The Zombies: You've got the basic Horde zombies. They're the ones you know and love from every zombie movie ever, only they can run, jump, climb, and do whatever it takes to get to you. It doesn't matter where you are, the Horde can find a way to reach you. Valve took a lot of care with the Horde. When not attacking you, they'll lean on scenery in various ways, sit down, lie down, or even fight each other. They'll also die in interesting manners. Some collapse, some stagger, others will cartwheel off from the force of your guns, and the momentum of ones running can carry them on for a few feet before they hit the pavement. 

After the Horde, you have the special zombies. Hunters, Smokers, Boomers, Witches, and Tanks. These ones always look identical, which is a bit of a letdown with the visual variety of the Horde and the details of the playable characters. However, more often than not, these will be the ones you're on the look-out for, so you might appriciate the visual consistency. Hunters are probably the easiest to deal with once you learn the trick. And I'm going to tell you the trick. Hunters leap huge distances and try to tackle you, and when they do, they rip your guts out until someone else comes to save you. However, while they're jumping at you, they're pretty vulnerable. If you're a steady shot, then you just need to unload at it, but the best way I've found it to use your melee attack to stun it while it's leaping at you, then pump rounds in to it until it's either recovered or dead. Boomers are next easiest, usually. You can hear them coming from miles away, and they don't move that quickly. The problem with boomers is their bile attack, and the fact they explode bile when you shoot them, so you have to shoot them from a distance. Anyone who's hit by bile attracts the Horde with singleminded determination. Depending on the difficulty, you could have 50+ Horde zombies gunning for you, and your vision will be severely comprimised. Smokers can be a real pain. They're easy to spot, since they're tall, skinny, and trail smoke. However, they can attack from very long ranges, from behind cover, so being easy to spot isn't that huge a deal for them. And the attack's very annoying, too. They wrap their tongue around you, and drag you off until you're either dragged to them, or you're caught on an obsticle. This not only renders you helpless as you're being constricted, but it seperates you out from the other survivors, meaning rescue's just that much further away. Hunters, Boomers, and Smokers are the 3 special zombies you'll have to deal with most often. The other two you'll see only a couple times per scenario. And you'll see why.

Witches are odd. They sit there, crying. And you'll hear the crying from a goodly distance away. Which is very good for you, because you do not want to stumble across one. Witches startle if you shine a flashlight on them, or if you're too close to them for too long, or if you shoot them. And if you disturb them, they're going to run straight at you. And if you don't kill them before they reach you, they incapacitate you in a single blow, and don't stop hitting you until you're dead, or they are, and they can take as much damage as they can dish out. Your best option is to sneak by. If not, and there will be cases where you can't, then try and set them on fire first, as that will greatly simplify the process of killing them. Ideally, the person to do that will have a shotgun, since the Witch will be running straight at them, and shotguns do more damage to closer targets.

Tanks are the worst zombie to run across. They can take thousands of points of damage, even on easy difficulty. Their attacks will send a survivor flying huge distances, deal a lot of damage, and stun you for a few seconds. They usually focus on one survivor until that person's dead, though after sending someone flying they sometimes switch targets. There's really only one strategy for Tanks. Shoot them a lot. Set them on fire if you can, and run around and hope like hell you don't get hit.

Now that we're familiar with the Rogue's Gallery, let's see what you get to combat them with. The weapons are fairly basic. You start out with a single pistol, and can pick up a second. Pistols have unlimited ammo, and fairly good accuracy. In sparsely populated areas, you'll probably want to have these out to conserve ammo for your other weapons. The shotgun and uzi are available as your secondary weapon choice from the start. Standard pump-action shotgun, holds 8 shots before needing to be reloaded, and good for close combat. Uzi has a 50-shot clip, has minimal stopping power, but slightly better accuracy and damage than your pistol, and fires much faster. Which you take depends on playstyle and what areas you're going in. The country areas are usually wide open, making a shotgun a poor choice, since zombies can come from any direction. City areas, zombies tend to funnel, so a shotgun can take out 3 or 4 a shot, without much difficulty. Then there's the next teir of weapons. Auto-shotgun, assault rifle, and hunting rifle. The auto-shotgun is just that. A shotgun that can keep firing without a pump in between. These make excellent tank killers and defence against Horde rushes. Assault rifles are basically upgraded uzis, as they fire quickly, have good accuracy, and better stopping power, and do more damage. Hunting rifles are the only weapon to get a scope, which gives them the best accuracy, and they do good damage. However, the slow rate of fire makes them an awkward choice when you're being swarmed. That's it for guns. Six. Seven if you count dual pistols seperately. That's not it for weapons though. There's 2 more things you can carry in your inventory. Molotov cocktails and pipebombs.

Molotovs are good impromptu barricades. They create a wall of fire of decent size, and any Horde zombie that wanders through is done for. Great way to protect your backside for a few seconds while you're dealing with a special upfront. They also help take out Witches and Tanks, if you can hit them. If you need to defend a point, they're excellent. 

Pipebombs are just fun, in my opinion. Pipebombs have the guts of a smoke detector taped on to them, and since loud or high-pitched sounds attract Horde zombies, all the zombies in the area gather around the pipebomb until it explodes, turning them all into pink mist. If you're in a large area with a buttload of Horde, or you're running low on ammo near a safehouse, these are the way to go. Unfortunately you can only carry one explosive at a time. Not one of each. One. You get to pick pipebomb or molotov. Fortunately, there's "environmental" items. These are things laying around that are usually explosive in nature. There's gas cans, oxygen tanks, propane tanks, and a few other things. You can pick these up and carry them, throw them, or set them down, and then shoot them. Gas cans act like molotovs, but oxygen tanks and propane tanks just explode when shot. The downside to these items is they don't go in inventory, you actually carry them, meaning you can't shoot although you can still use a melee attack. The last environmental item you can use, you can't take with you. A minigun. There's fixed emplacements where you can man a minigun that has unlimited ammo, though it does overheat if you fire constantly for too long.

Limted number of enemies, limited number of weapons. Yet the game is incredibly fun and involving. Why? Two reasons. First, it's a co-op game. There's always 4 characters active. If there aren't 4 players, then the others are AI-controlled. If you're incapacitated, the others can revive you. You can heal your teammates. You can give them pain pills to temporarily boost their health, and if you're pounced by a Hunter, or entangled by a Smoker, a fellow Survivor has to rescue you. Being dependant on others makes you feel very vulnerable, and ratchets up the tension several levels.

The second reason this game is so engaging is the AI Director. The Director will actually dynamically alter the game experience depending on how well you're doing. Weapons will spawn earlier or later. Ammo stockpiles more freely given, more health packs or pain pills. But that's the least of it. It will also send more zombies at you if you're doing well, and more of the special types. If you're doing poorly, or if you die even, it will ratchet back the difficulty, spawning fewer zombies, and making them slightly easier to kill. And after fairly extensive testing, I'd have to say it works very well.

The only real downsides for this game are: a) no passworded games, so people can randomly pop in whenever they want, since you can join mid-game. b) A fairly limited selection of weapons. c) A fairly limited selection of enemies. d) A fairly limited selection of scenarios. However, since this game is made by Valve, there's probably going to be additional content later, similar to Team Fortress 2.

Overall, this is an excellent game if you enjoy co-op multiplayer and/or shooting zombies. It runs off the Source engine, so you don't even need a beast of a computer to run it. Now excuse me, I have an infected city to escape.

No comments: