By November 11, 2008

Left4Dead demo impressions

Left4Dead is a co-operative, multi-player shooting game set in a zombie apocalypse. It will be available for Windows and the Xbox360 on November 18, 2008. I have anxiously watched the game’s progress. My love for the zombie genre is well documented, and the concept of blasting the undead with three of my friends seems too good to be true.

Thanks to a tip from Ars Technica member and Gibberish reader Agreschn, I was able to get early access to the game’s demo. I debated playing the game after getting my access key for two days. I was disappointed by the 360’s zombie breakout hit Dead Rising, and the fear of disliking Left4Dead was almost greater than my interest in playing the demo ahead of everyone else.

I also had two competing objectives when I played the demo: I wanted to write as much as possible about the game, but I didn’t want to spoil the experience. Some demos are just a tutorial, some are a random chapter of the game, or is a special-made level. Left4Dead starts you off at the beginning of the storyline: you are one of four humans trying to escape a city overrun by zombies. A helicopter passes by, loudspeakers blaring the location of an evacuation point. I played the first level a few times and the second level once. My initial observations may change once I play the full game, but here they are so far.

How true is it to Romero-esque zombies?

  1. The zombies are modified shamblers. The zombies walk around until they detect you, and then they sprint towards you. They felt similar to the creatures in the recent I am Legend film. They can run, climb, and jump. I was hoping the zombies would be more Night of the Living Dead and less 28 Days Later, but given the multi-player aspect I knew the zombies would have to be fast and agile.
  2. There are “special” zombies. One of them is super tough. One of them is very sneaky and pins players down. One explodes into a shower of goo when slain, and the goo acts as a pheromone for other zombies. I was hoping for a more traditional zombie game, so I don’t like these additions. But if you are going to play as the zombie team online, you’ll want something more than a shambler. Another concession.
  3. Zombies can be killed without a shot to the brain. It takes more damage to destroy them this way, but it’s possible. This is necessitated by the game’s super-fast pacing …
  4. and that you can’t aim, at least with the starting weapons. Again, I think this was done to support the cinematic, frenetic feel of the game. I also think it’s a huge mistake.
  5. Wounds from a zombie don’t automatically turn you (at least from what I’ve learned in the first few levels). You have hit points, and can be healed back up, like in most FPS games. I would expect a slow, inevitable health loss if you take damage from a zombie. This would recreate the cinematic “sickness” associated with being bitten that eventually ends in death and reanimation. I don’t think it would be possible to build a realistic zombie game that also happens to be fun — my Year of the Zombie experience taught me that. It’s another concession to the genre to keep things moving.
  6. Friendly fire is on, but damage isn’t as lethal to your team mates as it is to the zombies. Another game mechanic concession, but what are you going to do? The console version of the game is already in a tough place because the controls won’t be as responsive as the Window version’s keyboard and mouse.

Game play
The controls are okay. You can only carry one primary weapon at a time, so switching between your primary and your handgun(s) is easy via the Y button. You interact with objects with the X button, the B button reloads. Right trigger shoots, left trigger is a melee attack to push zombies back. The A button makes you jump, left bumper makes you crouch/stand, and the right bumper pivots you to the right. Your limited inventory is managed via the D-pad. You can only carry one first aid item, one explosive, and one primary weapon at a time.

There are many weapons in the final game, apparently, but the demo initially gives you the option of a pump shotgun or a sub-machine gun. You also have a single handgun (with unlimited ammunition); there is an option to pick up a second handgun later in the level so that you can shoot with one in each hand. I chose the shotgun. It works pretty damn well.

Shooting zombies is fun.

The game is partially illuminated by street lights or whatever lights were left on different buildings. Oddly, you can’t turn any room lights on or off. Miss. There is also a flash light on each weapon that provide pin-points of visibility in dark areas. I am sure there is going to be at least one part of the game where you will have nothing but your gun’s flashlight to guide you.

As with most “survival” games, I found the overall lighting to be too dark. Details of lit objects were fuzzy, and the darkness was unrealistic. For example, I opened a closet door, but could only see where my flashlight pointed. It is as if I had tunnel vision. The binary control of what you can and can’t see is annoying, but this isn’t really unique to Left4Dead. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t like games like F.E.A.R. or Half-Life.

The game artificially keeps the action moving by swarming you with zombies if you stay still for too long. I hate this already. I found that standing in the same spot for as few as thirty seconds would summon another wave of zombies. Having read Max Brook’s Zombie Survival Guide, I would expect to zombies to eventually gather to wherever you are. Staying mobile is staying alive. But for the game to vomit forth a bunch of undead from a random location just feels cheap. It’s an obvious prompt to keep moving. Like lighting, I dislike it when game technology is used to advance the story or reinforce the tone.

Left4Dead has some limited tactical relevancy; holding funnel points like a doorway or the top of the stairs is important. I am not sure if moving around with the flashlight off and in a crouch will help you avoid zombies, but the game does penalize you for setting off car alarms. I am uncertain if shooting also draws their attention. I like this, but it goes against the game’s other objective of keeping you running. You should sneak to avoid attention, but taking too long to do anything brings on a wave of running randomly-spawned zombies.

I think the game has a lot of compromises if you like the traditional zombie genre. If you are interested in playing a zombie apocalypse simulator, this game may leave you disappointed. If you are interested in a co-op shooter game that happens to be set in a zombie world, Left4Dead may be your cup of tea. I look forward to playing it with my friends on the 18th, but I am already nervous about paying full price for it.

Verdict: recommended.

Posted in: games, review, zombies

3 Comments on "Left4Dead demo impressions"

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  1. Agreschn says:

    Sadly, I haven’t been able to get any hands-on time with the demo yet as I’ve been busy with a new Playstation 3 and Gears of War 2. Additionally, I’ve had a buddy over for the past couple days and he doesn’t do zombie games so I’ve avoided it so I don’t bore him.

    I am going to give this a try tomorrow or Thursday for sure though. If you’re up for it, we could try and get some co-op going to see how that works. I should be able to spend quite a bit of time on it Thursday night as my girlfriend works late and I won’t have anything else to do. I’m on Mountain time so I believe I’m 2 hours behind you, but not sure.

    Edit: The demo should also be available for free today for members who didn’t get keys providing early access.

  2. erin clare says:

    I just saw the advertisement the other night, but it’s not available for PS3. I was thinking it would be more apocolyptic, so I’m glad you mentioned that it would be a disappointing experience if that’s what one is expecting.
    Meh…I don’t feel like I’m missing out, though the graphics looked great.

  3. Yeah, turns out Left 4 Dead is a great game! I cant wait to do a review of it on my blog, Lights Out Gaming, would you mind if I use some of your article as a reference?