Well, this is a strange one.
Just last week a game came out that was neither truly single player or multiplayer, but a strange combination of both. It plays like little else available and is perhaps one of the best Zombie games available today but sadly, it is flawed.
Let me make this clear - Left 4 Dead is good, and it is worth a purchase. I do not hate the game and there is plenty to love. You and a few friends can basically run through your own Zombie movie working like a team and having a blast. Teamwork is key, and fun. If you don't stay with your team and protect them, nobody will protect you so you will die. You can even take over the roles of the 'boss' infected and play against the humans which is a nice spin on things as rarely do gamers get to play the bad guys directly. The atmosphere is great, with each setting playing and being presented like a horror movie fan's wet dream. The written messages left around by other civilians for you to discover on walls are as creepy as hell, and do give you that '28 days later' feel.
You really need to work as a team. Often, special infected will hold you or restrain you so you can't fight back and will keep hurting you until somebody you have begged for help from in a blind panic will shoot them off you or you die. If you wander too far from the pack people won't be able to get to you in time and you will die. When a powerful special zombie attacks (like a Tank) all four of you will need to focus your fire to take him down. You really do have to work as a team which is the game's greatest design success, but also it's worst flaw as I will explain in a moment.
There are a LOT of zombies at times, so many on screen that you start to feel like you are playing Dead Rising instead of a Valve game. The action is fast and frenzied, and the game has the quality build you would expect from anything Valve have a hand in. I could go on and on about the strengths of this game but they are A) obvious and B) you probably have already heard them bandied about repeatedly so let me stop the bandwagon here and rain on the Zombie parade.
The second problem is the difficulty. I usually like hard games but in an environment where you need to constantly co-operate with four human players, you often die or fail because you did nothing wrong yourself which is not fun or fair just like the AI itself at times. You might be sneaking around a witch to avoid wasting ammo or health when a team mate DELIBERATELY makes her attack in a vain attempt to get an achievement who then ends up half dead, needing you to revive him and waste a health pack on him - if you manage not to be eaten alive by the horde attack he has triggered that is. It's hard to get four people you know well to show up regularly to a game like this, so you will often have to stick with at least one random, but even then they are better than the bots who run around aggravating any enemy they can to make your life hell. The game constantly spawns enemies so often sometimes you can see them pop into existence in rooms you just cleared. This kills any sense of realism. If you play versus, no survivor has a chance at survival. It's really just a game of waiting to be an infected player to mercilessly pound the humans and as you spawn as a 'boss' infected far more often than they would be spawned by the AI, the humans basically have no choice but to run away as fast as possible and to pray they make it which isn't fun.
Thirdly, the game is incredibly anemic. There are 4 one and a half hour long missions which for a full price game is INCREDIBLY slim. You will want more quickly especially as there are no extra missions in other modes, multiplayer or otherwise. Even a normal 6 hour long shooter usually at least offers different multiplayer environments. There are just not enough levels to keep the game going for a long time. Combine this with the very, very basic weapon selection and you will soon be itching for DLC content which on the 360 is going to cost you. A brand new game should include enough content to keep occupied for more than a day. You don't even get a proper introduction to the story - you just load up a mission, get a small cutscene and are not having the experience being dignified with any sort of back story. Where did the Virus come from? Why are some Zombies mutating into bigger ones? Why did whole cities set up multiple ammo dumps only containing the same 3 weapons? Why can't anybody drive the cars or vehicles that litter the streets? Resident Evil may have a B movie plot but at least it has one. Valve really didn't bother with any sort of storyline and it shows. The seperate levels don't follow each other - why did the same four people just get rescued, yet end up in a totally different place and in need of rescue again? Why does a man who looks and sounds exactly like the guy who just died randomly spawn in a closet? Surely the replacement survivor should look DIFFERENT to the guy who just died?
The respawning system also suffers in other areas. As you will be 'rescued' from a closet minutes after you die, you will automatically get 50% health. If you are at 5% and know a hard section is coming up such as the finale (where you await rescue but have to withstand minutes of zombies swarming at you without dying) people often offer to kill you so you can respawn with more health, especially on harder difficulties where health packs are limited but technically respawns are not. This is highly unrealistic, kills the atmosphere and to be honest, I expected Valve to work around such issues. When you listen to the in-game commentaries it's obvious they spent a lot of time on it and considered things very thoroughly so when the odd slip pops in it really ruins the mood the game tries so hard to create.
The graphics are also rather timid and weak. This is the same Source engine that Valve use for most of their games and it shows. It does the job with a high framerate which rarely slows down even with a hundred infected on screen eating your face, but when you compare it to the beauty of Gears of War 2 or any other very pretty game it falls flat on it's face and looks ugly. Sure, the engine works but it is also incredibly bland - the setting of being in dark brown and grey levels most of the time doesn't help this game in this regard at all. The details and animations on the faces of the characters are excellent, as is the gore model (limbs and heads will often fly off zombies which is always fun) but sadly you rarely get to see the faces of the characters as you are too busy killing things. It's a shame that when the engine does succeed graphically nobody is around to see it.
The sound is rather good though. The music is controlled by another 'director' (similar to the infamous AI director who places Zombies and items about the level depending on how well you are doing. I haven't really noticed him helping me other than removing 'boss' infected from sections I replay but you can never be sure where items will be, which is unique and adds longevity) and is actually good. Different themes play for different enemies - you will know when a 'tank' ( a huge boss infected who is very hard to kill who chucks things such as fork lifts at you) is about to strike and you also will know when zombies are about to run about on screen in huge numbers due to the music. It alters itself to fit the pace and always seems to fit. The characters you play also make interesting quips and jokes that vary depending on the situation - a joke between two characters that happened the last time you played won't happen this time if one of them is dead, but another will pop up between the surviving characters. They are funny and cool but again, you usually can't hear them because you are too busy shouting at people over the microphone and telling them to stop mucking about. Again, Valve really shine here but only when nobody is looking. It's such a waste. I can't really fault the audio in general but sadly a game is about more than just the sounds it makes, as good as they may be here.
Another problem with Left 4 Dead is the fact that you NEED to play this game online. I understand it was designed to be played online, but at £50 you would expect them to provide something for those who cannot get online to play. If you don't have Xbox Live or a system link setup, you might as well be buying a £50 coaster. Whilst the game benefits from being so geared towards multiplayer in some ways, removing all and any trace of a good single player mode means you are paying full price for a multiplayer only game which is not always viable considering how many new games are out at the moment..
All in all, whilst this game is very good it feels more like an mod/expansion pack for Half Life 2 than a game in itself. It's an incredible idea but with so few levels and practically no weapons, it just feels like you are only playing part of a full game which still cost you £50. Whilst I do like this game, these flaws are serious especially when the market is saturated with massive mainstream titles that both do 4 player Co-Op (COD 5) and great single player campaigns (Gears of War 2) at the same price. I cannot give this game full marks despite the fact I love it because of this. If this game were say, £30 it would be a gold but as it stands it is asking a lot of your money for very little in return. We paid the same price for the Orange Box last year, and we got a good multiplayer and singleplayer experience out of it. Why is Left 4 Dead not as complete, despite being made by the same people?
To me, Left 4 Dead is a great blueprint for a game that Valve never finished. If they manage to provide some meaty DLC to bolster the meagre offerings here then that will make the game something truly special, but until then this game is more of a side order of great gaming than the full 3 course meal that is being offered with the other blockbuster titles out this season. If you have run out of games to play or really, REALLY enjoy Co-Op, this is a must have title but for the rest of us it is merely a very good game that sadly isn't good enough to warrant purchasing over the other major titles this Christmas.
Review by: Edwin Jones