Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.
Written by Kevin Kennedy, @thekevmiester
It’s been 5 years since Valve released Left 4 Dead, their high octane zombie shooter which is low on story but heavy with action and a dreary atmosphere. Online shooters are a tricky beast to review after the fact; while having an online component may well keep people playing your game for slightly longer, there may come a time when it isn’t actually possible to play anymore, at least not effectively. I thought I’d dive back into Left 4 Dead and see how it holds up.
As previously mentioned, Left 4 Dead is light on story. Simply put, zombies are about and they want to smash your head in. There are 4 campaigns to survive, each consisting of 5 chapters, as yourself and three other characters (players or AI controlled) make your way across the areas. From a college student, a war veteran, a bad ass biker gang member and an unemployed office worker, the characters aren’t designed to be deep. They spit out the occasional funny line and can interact with each other, but it’s only really people that spend a lot of time with the game that will even remember or like the characters.
Upon first entering the game, everything can seem very daunting. You’ll most likely be teamed with players who know exactly what they’re doing and will run ahead, leaving you feeling rather anxious as you both try to keep up whilst learning the controls. While not a dreadful thing as it adds to the tension, the lack of any real tutorial and any real help does throw you in the deep end. While I don’t mind this too much myself, it may turn some off.
The zombies themselves may be mindless charging monsters, but they have some smarts to them. They can climb fences and jump through windows easily enough. You may see the occasional simpleton that goes the wrong way and they don’t seem too bothered by fire but there’s nothing that spoils the experience. The special zombies however have slightly sharper wits among them.
The smoker will cautiously follow you, waiting for an opening before sticking it’s tongue out. The Boomer will hide behind corners hoping to catch you unaware while the Hunter will usually just leap erratically at you until it lands a hit. The same can be said for the Tanks and Witches, which when called into action, will usually just charge head first into the action.
The real AI comes in the form of the Director, the program used to subtly change the game each time you run through. Things like enemy placements, music cues and character dialogue will change with each play-through. While the game experience will hardly change, it does keep things from getting too stale too soon and also keeps you on your toes.
There is very little horror in this game, only tension. Barely a moment goes by without at least one thing trying to kill you. After enough play-throughs you may start to feel somewhat confident and complacent, but that’s when a single slip up or a Tank will be thrown into the mixture and put you back on your toes. It’s exciting stuff!
As excellent as the game is, it is always down to the people you are playing with. You’ll occasionally run into a scumbag who deliberately shoots you five times before disconnecting, but for the most part everybody is keen to have fun. That being said, it’s hard to feel that the stats revelled at the end of each chapter only encourage people to focus more on getting kills than working together, but going off alone is usually the best way to remind people how important team work is.
If you’ve played other Valve shooters you’ll be right at home with how this controls, though the “shoot first ask later” mentality won’t serve you too well here due to friendly fire, which isn’t too much of an issue on lower difficulties, but can be game ending on higher settings. As for the controls themselves, they are as great as you would imagine though given the speed of the game and number of enemies on screen, I recommend you play with a mouse and keyboard.
When you have completed each campaign a few times and feel the challenge disappearing, there is always the option to enter Vs mode which will drop you right back off in tension alley. In this mode there are two teams of four and you take turns playing as both zombies and survivors; the survivors trying to make it to the safe house as per usual, but with player controlled zombies trying to stop them. This mode was met with some criticism upon release due to the fact that the zombies have too short a life span to actually enjoy.
While I don’t necessary disagree, I feel that some people approached the game in the mind set of charging down survivors like some brutish monster, when actually it should be played much more methodically than that. Sure you can just charge as soon as you spawn, though much more effective is to attack together from vantage points that serve your character. It can be greatly rewarding to pull off the perfect attack and watch the survivors either desperately run for cover or see their health bars slowly deplete. Conversely, escaping such an attack as survivors can be more satisfying than any moment in the single player can be.
Oh, there is also a single-player portion of the game which allies you with bots, but put quite plainly, if you don’t like playing with others, this is not the game for you. The only offline activity worth taking is the developers commentary, which I’m always appreciative of.
While all this is well and good, you all most likely read the majority of this stuff back in 2008. The major selling point though is wether or not the game is still playable. The answer to that query is yes. Well…. mostly. I’ve been checking in over the last few days and there have still been a fair few number of people still playing (667 at time of writing). Not nearly as much as there was upon release, but enough to warrant downloading it again should you fancy a game.
On the other hand, if you’re wanting to start a new campaign from scratch with three other players, you may have to set up your own lobby and wait a while. A long while. Bottom line, there are still enough people playing to warrant getting in, though it may still be best to jump in with friends you can talk to and reliably make a new game with.
While there is no real story to speak off, the atmosphere is very thick in Left 4 Dead. Gabe Newell supposably based the outbreak heavily upon the Spanish influenza in regards to how people reacted and what the government’s response to it was. The palate is decidedly grim; very little colors to be seen here, which can also be said of the zombies. You rarely see them long enough to study them, though you will notice the occasional repetitive design and fall animation but quite frankly none of it really matters. There’s enough visible feedback and detail to keep you invested and the dead have just enough life in them to register them as a threat.
If there is one usual defining feature of a Valve game, it’s the superb level design. There may be the occasional sign against a wall that outright tells you where to go, but the world feels vibrant and even open while still being very much linear. While you may walk into the occasional empty room, you will never get lost, even whilst running through the corn fields.
This is one of those games that absolutely require a good set of headphones. Not because the sound design is good, which it certainly is, but because using sound to accurately pinpoint where unseen enemies are is almost essential to playing the game. Without them, you’ll be jumping and spinning around whenever you hear any of the special zombies making their noises. The aforementioned AI Director tries to affect the mode every so often with changes in music. While somewhat effective, they act more as cues to what danger is around (you’ll come to recognise the “Tank” music very quickly).
The Final Word: Left 4 Dead holds up. The servers may not be as full as they used to be, but those who missed out before still have time to jump back in. Given Valve’s behaviour lately though, I wouldn’t be surprised if Left 4 Dead went free to play some time in the near future. I can imagine the servers being far more busy then. Regardless, still an incredibly tense, repayable, unique game that stands the test of time.