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Hands-on: Left 4 Dead - PC

by Nick Haywood on 28 April 2008, 15:40

Tags: Left 4 Dead, Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA), PC, FPS

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Bloody hell this is good...

At the EA Games showcase in London on Friday we we’re treated to a play session of Valve’s Left 4 Dead, which has resurrected my faith in Valve’s ability to produce brilliant team based shooters. And yes, I know that sounds like I’ve kinda lost faith in Valve but hear me out: Team Fortress 2 was great but for a new player getting into the game now, well they’re in for a very tough time. There’s so many players on there who’ve been playing for ages that you’ve very likely spend the first half hour just dying… a lot. Where’s the fun in that?

Valve’s other team based shooter, Counter Strike, suffers from the same problems but is much, much worse. Not only are you playing against some utter nutters, you’ll spend perhaps as much as two minutes in the game before dying as some kid headshots you from across the map. And then you sit out the rest of the round. Again, not much fun.

So what’s to be done? Well Valve have taken a look at this and come up with a solution in the form of Left 4 Dead, a co-op team based shooter that has just one team… and you play against the AI rather than another team. In a stroke Valve have removed all that CC and TF2 crap of uber-players with no girlfriends and even less of a social life killing you the second you spawn… No, in Left 4 Dead it’s four players versus the game… and it’s bloody brilliant fun.

The basic premise of Left 4 Dead is simple. You play one of a team of four survivors of a devastating zombie holocaust… think along the lines of films such as Day of Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil: Apocalypse etc. Basically, there’s four of you and you’re trying to get out of the city. The controls are simple, the usual W,A,S,D, space to jump and ‘E’ to use etc. You start of each level in a safe room where you can select your weapon of choice, grab either Molotov cocktails or pipe bombs and the odd med pack or two. And then it’s time to hit the streets.

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Now at this point you might be thinking that playing the same levels over and again would rapidly get boring, but Valve have thought of this. Where the AI zombies spawn and in what number is completely random each time you play the map, so although the surroundings will always be the same, what happens is different each time you play. So on my first go, we approached a room with a huge hole in the floor. To progress we had to drop down the hole into the room below… and like a complete nonce I dropped down to be greeted by a couple of dozen zombies… I survived the ensuing frantic firefight but only just. On the next time around, I hung back, let the other chumps go first and saw that the room was clear of anything even remotely dangerous… only to have a horde of zombies come screaming up the stairs two room later…

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But the emphasis in Left 4 Dead is very much based on teamwork and you can see that Valve must’ve spent a shedload of time balancing the gameplay. Four guys (or girls) fighting it out stand a much better chance than just two, so it’s well worth trying to keep your teammates alive. Often a zombie will leap out of nowhere, knocking a teammate to the ground… you can shoot them off but you risk injuring your teammate so it’s a good idea to bludgeon the zombie off with the butt of your weapon.

Take too much damage and you’ll find yourself on the floor with just your pistol to defend yourself with, a bit like Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs… at this point your teammates have just seconds to come over and help you up, temporarily giving you a health boost which fades over time… one more hit and you’ll be dead for good. But even death in Left 4 Dead doesn’t mean you have to sit out the whole level because just one team member has to make it to a safe room and, once there, anyone dead respawns ready for the next stage of the level.

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I played Left 4 Dead for a good hour or so and have to say that it’s possibly the most tense, gruesome and funniest session I’ve had over a LAN for a good while. Playing with three others next to you, you can yell out warnings, scream like a girl for help and basically have an absolute blast. Over the ‘net, Left 4 Dead should be just as much fun as Valve have built audio clues into the game so you don’t even need TS or Ventrillo to communicate. If your character goes down he’ll shout for help automatically… likewise, if he’s low on health he’ll ask for help, or if he spots particularly nasty zombies like the explosive ‘Boomers’ he’ll shout out a warning…

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And did I ever reach the end of the level? Well, nearly...