I know in my youth whenever I watched zombie horror movies I thought to myself 'I think I could handle myself if this happened to me.' It might only be a game, but Left 4 Dead is what you could essentially call a Zombie Apocalypse Simulator and one fantastic one at that.
Left 4 Dead is the newest venture from Valve Software which puts players in the role of a survivor trying to escape from hordes of Zombies. The game allows you to play as one of four characters. You have Francis, the tough biker dude, Bill, the elderly army vet, Louis, the regular guy and Zoey, the twenty-something girl. There is no real back story other than the fact that you four are the only survivors trying to find help and stay alive.
The game contains four scenarios, which are played out as 'movies'. Each of the four scenarios takes places in different areas including an airport and an abandoned train yard. The objective is simple, move from point to point and not die. There are five chapters to each movie and they end when you reach either the safe house, or in the case of the final chapter, the rescue vehicle. Along the way, you'll encounter wave upon wave of various infected people and to spice up the action, other 'special' zombies each with their own special abilities. Their abilities include one called the Smoker who upon killing him turns the air into smoke causing your characters to cough for a few moments. Another character, a witch, is harmless unless you disturb her. If you do, she'll charge at you, knocking you down and will continue to pounce until you manage to kill her. These enemies occur at various burst, but when they strike, they manage to do the most damage to your characters.
Left 4 Dead features a cool feature called AI Director. Each of the four scenarios is approximately 45-105 minutes long in length depending on how well you play. What the AI Director does is ensure that each time you play through a scenario, your experience is different. The first time you play through a chapter, you might remember some pipe-bombs located in a room, but the next time you play, they won't be there. You think you're approaching a section with a Hunter zombie, but when you get there, the area is empty. If computer thinks you're having an easy time, it will throw more zombies at you, and reversely, if you're dying too much, it will ease the difficulty for you. The AI Director ensures that each time you play through the game the experience is different. You never know what to expect and because of this, you'll always be at the edge of your seat.
If you decide to play Left 4 Dead on your own, thankfully your partners are very good at what they do and it's very rare that you will have to save them. In fact, you're more inclined to run ahead of them and have them save you then the other way around. But Left 4 Dead is really enjoyed playing with others. While you can play this game with friends, to get the true experience, you need to play this with strangers.
The four characters in this game are not friends, but four random people who just happen to have the same goal, find safety. If you play with friends, chances are you will play smart and efficiently, but that really limits what you can do. If you're playing with strangers, you don't know what to expect. Like in real life, you might have the smart person who will grab gas tanks and place them before a horde attacks to burn them, or you might have a scared person who runs off ahead of everyone then pleads for help when they're getting consumed by the infected. While you should be working together, it's never perfect and this randomness makes every experience something special.
For a game located in isolated and deserted locations, Valve did a great job in make the environments looking true to form. All four of the 'movies' are significantly different but each one has plenty of detail in them. You'll walk or run through apartments, warehouses, train tracks, backwoods, airport terminals, hospitals and other locations and each one doesn't just look like the other with a different coat of paint. The generic infected look good even though there seems to be only about 5-8 different models (two or three female and three or four male skins) and there are also only 5 special zombie characters. It's not a bad thing, but sometimes you do wish there was a bit more variety in that department. You will encounter some graphical glitches here and there as well. These only seem to occur when you stand really close to a character, as textures will disappear, but it doesn't hurt the game.
The sounds from the ambiance to the voice-work are actually fairly well done. The game sounds from top to bottom like a horror movie with great sounds occurring at key moments. When you're nearing a witch, you'll hear her moan and groan and at the same time an eerie score will accompany it until you either kill her or move far enough away. There is some limit to the dialog between the playable characters, but when playing with friends or with strangers, you won't be listening to the 'reloading' 'come here and let me heal you' that Francis and the gang will state, so it is a non-issue.
If you only play this game alone, you're only experiencing a fraction of what this game is intended to do. This game needs to be enjoyed with others and with various people. When you play online, there is also the ability to play as the special infected characters against four real people as the survivors. This mode is fun albeit short at times since infected characters do die relatively quickly. If you manage to use your character effectively, you can do a lot of damage and thanks to the AI Director, even this experience will be different each time you play.
When I first started reading about Left 4 Dead, I thought this was just a generic shooter in a zombie environment. I guess you can blame the lack of fun I had trying out Resident Evil Outbreak and its attempt at this type of game. Valve proved that it can pull this off and I cannot stress this enough, you need to play Left 4 Dead. If you have a decent PC, I would recommend the PC version over the Xbox only because of the great support and eventually free content that will be available down the road. The Xbox does have the leg up thanks in part to the fact that each Xbox owner has a head-set which is an important tool needed to play, so even if you settle for that version, you're getting your money's worth. If you were looking for a fun game that will still give you the creeps when you're playing it over and over again, I have to say that Left 4 Dead is the only game you'll need.