I know I said I’d get a Portal 2 co-op review out, but since I haven’t managed to get a capture card for my Xbox yet, how about a game about zombies instead? And survivors. Though mainly lots and lots of zombies.
L4D is a co-op action horror game with 4 game modes: single-player, co-op campaign, survival and versus. My focus is on the 4-person campaign mode, which is essentially the same as the single-player mode, except that for single-player the other characters are AI-controlled. The game uses the Source engine and is available on the Xbox 360, PC and Mac. As you can see, I’ve titled this Part 1 of 3, because I’m planning to play L4D 2 and 3 if it comes out (it has been promised by Valve, but you know… it’s Valve) and do a comparison. L4D came out in 2008, so it’s not new, but I’ve only just got round to playing it at last and my verdict? I wasn’t disappointed.
I must confess, I’m a huge zombie fan. Zombie games, books, fanfic, movies, anything to do with zombies I’ll devour (pun intended). However, that also means I’m generally pretty picky about what I consider to be quality. After all, there’s a lot of rubbish out there. The question then is, what makes a good zombie game/book/movie anyway? It’s certainly not complexity. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Dawn of the Dead, despite generally loving Romero’s Living Dead series and that covered some pretty heavy themes including the effects of excess consumerism on American society. On the opposite side of the spectrum, one my favourite zombie games of all time is actually a simple little Flash game called Rebuild 2, which you can and should check out here. That game was incredible and even though it’s only a simple turn-based strategy game, it somehow managed to hit all the right buttons for me. There was less focus on gore and action and more on characters, plot and the deeper societal issues that we all know lie beneath the surface of everyday life and that an apocalyptic setting is often used to bring out in full colour. That’s what really draws me into the zombie genre I think; the dark, gritty atmosphere and way that all your human flaws are reflected back at you in an unforgiving light, forcing you to examine what it means to truly be human. To an extent, L4D has all of these elements and more.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of gore and as long as that’s not all there is, that can be an incredibly satisfying element of zombie games. Who doesn’t like a good splattering headshot? There’s a lot of grisly fun to be had in L4D, but it’s never too much to the point of tastelessness. This is not your typical mindless zombie shoot-em-up. Despite being fairly light on story and character development, the game mechanics almost force you to work with your team-mates and the humourous banter and the relationships between the characters draws you in. You can’t help but like them and that seems like a mark of good character creation to me. It’s true that the four Survivors are your stereotypes: the tough biker Francis, the naive yet surprisingly resilient university student Zoey, the weathered Vietnam vet Bill and the slightly uptight tie-wearing pencil-pushing Louis. Yet, their sometimes over-the-top personalities fit them like a glove. Rather than feeling cliched, they felt comfortable, like old friends or reading an old book that you know well. The charming characters and their camaraderie were in large part why I enjoyed this game so much. I came to look forward to the bits of dialogue, the little glimpses into their psyche.
As I touched on before, this is truly a co-op game. The other Survivors are your lifeline, just like they would be in real life. If you take too much damage and become incapacitated, you have to be revived by teammates. If you fall off a ledge, someone has to come rescue you. Friendly fire forces you to be mindful of teammates, fostering cooperation and also leading to some humourous moments – “do I look like a zombie to you?!” Sticking together as a group not only gives you a tactical advantage, but is pretty much crucial for success. Running off to rack up some kills will either get you killed or (as was demonstrated by a randomer who dropped into our game and proceeded to sprint off into the sunset) alert the horde, causing waves of zombies to overwhelm your position. You have to be cautious, work together, plan ahead. There are plenty of sniping posts and environmental weapons you can use to your advantage like exploding gas canisters and oxygen tanks. Enemies are varied, with special strengths and weaknesses that require different strategies and usually no small amount of teamwork to defeat. For instance, the Smoker can drag a player towards them with their tongue, essentially incapacitating them and can only be stopped if another player intervenes. As strategy and chemistry with the other players can vary depending on who you’re playing with, each time you play with new people, it should be completely different experience.
Another aspect of the game that really set it apart is the use of an “AI Director” to create more dynamic gameplay. As explained by the L4D wiki:
Instead of set spawn points for enemies, the Director places enemies in varying positions and numbers based upon each player’s current situation, status, skill, and location, creating a new experience for each play-through. The Director also creates mood and tension with emotional cues such as visual effects, dynamic music and character communication. Moreover, the Director is responsible for spawning additional health, ammo, weapons, and Special Infected, like the Witch or the Tank.
There is also a second Director that controls the soundtrack and generates a unique mix based on your experiences in the game and that only you can hear. This ensures that the soundtrack that you hear will always be relevant and atmospheric, perfectly elevating the tension at just the right moments. The result of these two systems is added variability and unpredictability and definite replay value.
I could go on, but suffice to say that the graphics were decent though nothing to write home about. The controls are fairly intuitive and uncomplicated for the most part. The weapon selection could have been better, but provided a fairly full range of your typical firearms like a pump-action shotgun that you can “upgrade” to semi-automatic shotgun and two types of homemade explosive – the Molotov cocktail and pipe bomb.
Now, to some of the issues I had. I was a bit disappointed to find that despite the vastly opposing stereotypes that the characters fulfilled, they play in exactly the same way. I think it would have been a lot more fun and in keeping with the plot if different characters have different skills or weapons. True, I usually play Francis the biker dude and tended to stick with the assault rifle and shotgun, which is probably in keeping with the character anyway, but it would have been a nice touch and added another level of immersion if those were the only firearms he could use. I mean, Francis with a sniper rifle? I think not. Another slight issue is that it is a bit of a hassle trying to communicate in-game without a headset. There are built-in commands to facilitate that, but my advice would be to keep the headset. It’s way more fun yelling, “it’s ****ing behind you!” anyway.
My main concern though, is that L4D is a bit sparse on plot. The literal writing on the walls in the safe rooms between levels give up little snippets of info about the apocalyptic event and are tantalising, often hilarious and sometimes sad. However, I could have done with just a bit more dialogue and character development. Valve created some wonderful characters and I want to know more about them. How did they get to where they are? What were their lives like before the outbreak? It’s details like those that I find particularly intriguing in most zombie stories. The little soundbites and brief interactions between them, though entertaining, just didn’t have that kind of depth that I would have liked. More generally as well, there was so much more that Valve could have done with the zombie setting. I obviously wouldn’t expect anything on the level of the Living Dead series, but still, they could have explored some of the deeper issues that would inevitably arise. Instead, it came across as a rather surface look at the effects of the apocalypse. Along a similar vein, I thought the game could have been longer. As it is, it’s short and punchy and maybe that’s how it’s intended to be played; an intense experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Still, I hope L4D2 is a bit longer as it wouldn’t take much to make it a whole different level of game, into a true classic that you keep coming back to, that keeps drawing you back to experience more of it.
Overall I thought the downsides were definitely overshadowed by the upsides. The focus is where it should be, on the survivors, on working together, on trying to get out alive. It’s what I love about the zombie genre and although it might lack some of the depth that I would have liked, it’s still a headrush of a game, an immersive experience that leaves you wanting more.
NOTE: This is the first in my co-op series. I’ll be aiming to put out a Portal 2 review when I get around to getting a capture card, but until then if you have any suggestions of PC games for my indie, co-op or RPG review series I’d love to hear them!