What better company to make a coop game than the makers of the multiplayer masterpiece Team Fortress 2? A few years back, Valve released a game called Left 4 Dead, a cooperative game designed to be played by four players. The game was released for $40, way too expensive for me, so my friends and I just played the demo for a week or two, which was great fun. I've finally gotten the game for $20 (taking your time Valve?).
First thing's first, Left 4 Dead is a 4 player cooperative FPS that places special emphasis on cooperation to outgun hordes of zombies. If you've seen Zombieland, think of it as that but with a lot more guns. And just in case there's any confusion, the zombies are the fast 28 Days Later kind, not the slow lumbering ones, so there's no survival aspect to the game. The game consists of 5 official campaigns, with each campaign consisting of 4-5 levels, with the last campaign consisting of 2 levels. The mission of all the campaigns is to be rescued from the zombies.
Left 4 Dead is set in 5 campaigns, most of them with little continuity (except the first and last), and each of them with the primary objective of getting out of the zombie infested city. Gameplay is FPS, primarily focused on killing zombies with lead poisoning, with the added coop benefit. So what coop features are in Left 4 Dead? For one, friendly fire is always on, forcing players to keep line of fire clear. Experienced players in the front will crouch, allowing players from behind to facilitate concentrated fire without hurting an ally. In addition, enemies are numerous such that players are easily swarmed, and, special zombies can instantly incapacitate players, requiring other team members to assist. Thus, players have to work together or die separately. Thus, the game emphasizes the need for tight team cohesion and communication to insure that the party can survive, and forces players to rely on each other for protection and support. Throw a molotov at your comrades and you'll be booted out, and if you abandon your team to go wandering you'll be dead very, very soon. There is an AI director that spawns enemies or items depending on the group's condition; a group that's doing very well will be beset with more challenges and enemies, and a group doing not so great will find a medpack from the Medpack Gods. All in all, it usually does a good job at keeping the pacing of the level tight and just about right. All campaigns end with crescendo moments, which are ALWAYS intense and rewarding. Gameplay is best described as tight and well paced.
Left 4 Dead also deserves praise for its excellent polish. All campaigns are dark, with appropriate displays of post-zombie apocalypse, and walls are often filled with writings on walls and messages to loved ones, and also clues to the origins of the zombie apocalypse. The music in the game is usually low-key, but the game also uses music strategically to cue special events, such as when there's a witch or an approaching horde, which is a pretty good touch. Another thing that Valve did pretty well with L4D are the character personalities. The voice acting is solid, and the characters develop their personalities through on and off comments and conversations. Even better, the characters offer appropriate responses to their given situation. They'll call out special zombies, warn you if a witch is nearby, and will even let you know if zombies are coming up behind you. I should mention that if you enable captioning, you can also read these cues also. All in all, they're all pretty neat touches that I hope other games start to pick up.
Left 4 Dead isn't without its faults however. L4D seems to be stuck in a confusion; does it want to encourage players to rush through the levels or to explore it? The AI director randomly places items in rooms, cabinets, etc and leaves the players to find them. This is okay, except that the AI director punishes players who dawdle by spawning special zombies and zombie hordes every so often, defeating the purpose of picking up that extra pipe bomb. In addition, the game should have implemented some sort of objective indicator, because levels are actually fairly open, and new players might be confused as to where they should be headed. Also, the special zombies are pretty cheap, particularly the smoker and the hunter. There's only a very small window of opportunity for the player to dispatch these two before they pounce on the player, and unless they do it's game over unless someone rescues them. I understand it's to emphasize team cohesion, but it's a cheap way of doing so. The boomer does a better job, as boomer bile leaves a player vulnerable and forced to rely on his team members, but not completely helpless. In addition, zombie deaths take too long. I understand that the developers wanted the zombie deaths to be dramatic, but when you're busy killing zombies, you really just want to know if that zombie approaching you is already dead or is requiring lead. And finally, if the player does go down, they can't respawn until someone rescues them. In the meantime, they're just supposed to twiddle their thumbs. The developers should give the player something to do before they're respawned; maybe they can give dead players the ability to help their teammates somehow.
However, the main criticism I have with Left 4 Dead is the overall lack of content and repetition of the game. There are only five campaigns, with the last one only two missions long. Most campaigns can be completed in 45 minutes, though an experienced team and beat a campaign within 30 minutes, so you'll be seeing the same levels over and over again. In addition, although much hype was given to the AI Director's ability to randomize item, horde, and boss locations, it doesn't actually change the content of a level. You're still going to be seeing the same things, just placed in different locations, and it's no more less repetitive than playing a randomized level in Torchlight. Though there are custom levels out (which are quite good), they're not circulated well, and you can't just download a map off the server like in Counter-Strike. Secondly, weapons are surprisingly minimal. You get a pistol, dual wielded pistols, a pump shotgun, auto shotgun, SMG, hunting rifle, and an assault rifle. It's really about 4 weapons, each with an upgrade. Though it keeps the game simple and easy to get into, it also gets dull after a while. And lastly, all the characters play exactly the same; none of them run differently, have any bonuses, etc, and all differences are cosmetic. If you gave Zoey a big head, a beard, and a unicycle for legs she'd still play the same. This is of course to keep the game accessible, but it lacks depth. This is in contrast to Team Fortress 2 (that I still play), in which playing as one class, though simple, carries with it a lot of depth and strategy. Left 4 Dead's gameplay mechanic is pretty much the same, with the only difference between the best and worse teams is team cohesion. Also, because all characters play the same, there's less incentive for human players to naturally gravitate to each other to overcome character weaknesses and complement strengths.
Speaking of which, Left 4 Dead's multiplayer and singleplayer modes both deserve commenting. The single player works well playing with bots, as the bots are programmed to have perfect team cohesion and will never cause any friendly fire. This is offset by the fact that it's kind of soulless, and the bots will only follow the player. Also, the bots will never use any grenades, even the ones that won't do friendly fire. Playing with humans is hit or miss. Playing on easier difficulty settings is actually more nerve racking, as noobier players may ditch the team to go rambo things out in a game that requires team cohesion to survive. Reviving the same idiot who fell behind four times gets annoying after a while, and I was prepared to slam L4D down to an 8 because of it. However, playing in high difficulty settings made the game for satisfying and challenging. Moreover, players playing in higher difficulties understand the importance of team cohesion, and are thus more disciplined and more fun to play with. The multiplayer has a great feature that allows human players to allow the character AI to take over, which is great if you've got to take a poop and don't want to slow the team down. This should have been implemented in Alien Swarm.
Valve's Source engine has gone pretty far since Half Life 2. The game's system requirements are:
Supported OS: Microsoft Windows XP / Vista / Vista64
Processor: Pentium 4 3.0GHz
Memory: 1 GB
Graphics: 128 MB, Shader model 2.0, ATI 9600, NVidia 6600 or better
Hard Drive: At least 7.5 GB of free space
Sound Card: DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card
Supported OS: Microsoft Windows XP / Vista / Vista64
Processor: Intel core 2 duo 2.4GHz
Memory: 1 GB
Graphics: Shader model 3.0, NVidia 7600, ATI X1600 or better
As you can see, it's nothing too outlandish. With my dedicated ATI Mobility 5650, i5-430m and 2 GB memory, I get 60 fps on 1366x768 on max settings, and it would be higher if not for v-sync. When playing on my integrated videocard, the shaders are dropped to Medium, AA and AF is disabled, the rest on high and on 1366x768, I get a sluggish but playable 22 fps. Lowering any other settings didn't see to affect fps performance so I left them on high.
Medium High Settings
Is there a demo out? No. It should run about the same as with Half Life 2 Episodes 1/2 though.
There aren't any noticeable bugs in Left 4 Dead, and there are levels available here: http://www.l4dmaps.com/
I bought the game for $20, but I wish I had gotten it cheaper. Why it's so expensive when L4D 2 has been out for a while now is beyond me. However, Steam often has sales regarding L4D. I found L4D and its expansion out bundles for less than $10 once. If you're in no hurry, wait until a Steam sale. If your friends have got it, then go ahead and get it. It's a lot more fun when playing with buddies. At $20 at Amazon and Steam, it's a pretty hefty price.
I honestly thought I'd enjoy the game more, but the game's flaws are salient enough. The repetition is really the main perp, and the lack of gameplay depth doesn't really help either. Otherwise though, it's an excellent coop game that's great fun when you've got good people to play it with. If you've got a buddy with L4D, be sure to pick up your own copy to play.
By the way, here's a tip. Doing a melee attack doesn't cancel a reload. In fact, the player can attack and reload at the same time if the player reloads first and then pushes, which is surprisingly effective.