There aren't a lot of fictional creations whose very lore becomes an open playing field for interpretation and reinterpretation. There are plenty of mainstay fictional ideas that get run into the ground, Star Wars and Star Trek being two obvious ones, but the respective licensors of those products holds their ownership with an iron fist.
I'm talking more about your concepts such as Lord of the Rings, which spawned the entire realm of fantasy and its many inhabitants. We wouldn't have the WarCraft franchise if not for Tolkien's creation of elves, orcs and dwarves. And fantasy would not be so concisely governed in the way that it is if not for the ultimate creation of Tolkien's fantasy realm rules. By intricately crafting a universe with rules, the lore can more easily be expanded upon and re-imagined again and again.
Nor would we have the Resident Evil series if not for George A. Romero's imagining and (no pun intended) fleshing
out of the undead universe he arguably created. Stories of "zombies" have been circulating throughout history for a long time, but it wasn't until old George came along and set up specific rules for the zombie-infested horror landscape, we had a functional, scary
world to fall in love with.
There have been many, many interpretations of the fantasy genre in as much as there has been plenty of spins on the life of a zombie. And while the Resident Evil series has nailed itself firmly down as the benchmark videogame zombie outing, Valve and Turtle Rock Studios have thrown their undead hat in the ring with a game that shakes the very foundation of the zombie crusted survival horror experience.
On paper, Left 4 Dead is an incredibly simple idea: four people are surrounded by hordes of undead and have to jump from safe-house to safe-house in order to escape the zombie apocalypse, protecting one another as they advance. That's it.
What's incredible about this non-complicated concept is that, at its core the simple nature of protecting your friends as well as yourself is super challenging. This complexity stems from having life-threatening, timely tasks thrown
at you alongside your ability to deal with them, based solely on the strength of your reflexes and how unselfish you can be in the thick of it.
This all comes in the form of item-management and protection, as ultimately you and your team only have a few things to rely on for getting from point A to point B, besides each other. Each of you can carry one medpack, one canister of painkillers, a pipe-bomb or Molotov cocktail, handguns and a main weapon (as well as ammo).
With all that you can freely utilise your health items on yourself or any of your partners, and riddled throughout the levels are extras for you to find and replenish yourself with.
In saying all that though, two team-members who've been attacked by a Hunter or Witch zombie (more on these shortly), while the others have been fighting off an unprecedented storm of normal undead, may end up crippling the team for using their medpacks too early or selfishly. It's important to ration health in terms of player strength, distance from the last safe-house to the next one or by working together to protect the weaker person.
So really, the challenge here is in facing situations you couldn't possibly predict. This is because of the "AI Director", a system that ensures you're never facing the enemy the same way and ultimately because of human error and judgement.
Left 4 Dead can be played alone with your buddies coming in as AI controlled players, but there really is no joy or fun in doing it that way. The strength of this game is in cooperative play with humans.
This is mostly because the AI characters are utterly unselfish and will liberally help you out, but with the human element, you're never assured an ultimately 'fair' game. Even with friends it can be tough deciding who gets help and who toughs it out. Moreover, the enemy zombies are a lot tougher with humans, and playing through the game on Hard mode with anything less than a full human troupe is almost impossible.
Then there's the human element as the bad element, too. In Versus Mode two teams vie to win; one by surviving and the other by tearing to shreds.
It's being on the shreds tearing team that is most fun here, because you're ultimately in charge of creating tension, horror and deep frustration within a group of survivors. It's that old zombie movie trick. You know the one; where one person in the survivor group turns out to be a total dick and makes a bad decision leading to everyone's brain-dishing demise.
Being the qualification for said demise is gruesomely rewarding, because for among the first time in the zombie horror experience, you're rooting for the sheer horror. It's genius.
There are four main campaigns, each taking something obligatory from the long history of zombie and horror media we've accepted as terror lore. Survivors working together to make it to a hospital, or survive undead encounters in a small town replete with farms, hay stacks and uninviting dark barns.
Amidst the zombies as cannon fodder are five different types of "boss" to face. The Boomer is a disgusting undead blob of a zombie who won't so much attempt to eat your brain as he'll baste you in zombie-inviting gravy. Get his goo on you and not only is it difficult to see anything, but you're about to face an onslaught of hungry undead. The smoker, on the other hand prefers to do his food shopping from afar, casting out a deadly red tongue like some returned-from-the-grave Rex Hunt. He won't kiss you and throw you back though, instead he leaves you dangling like a pinata for the rest of the horde to have at for your delicious goodies hidden inside.
The Hunter is like some hoodie-wearing punk kid turned flesh rotting undead human frog. He'll jump about in aggravation, avoiding your frantic shots until he pounces on you, knocking you to the floor. After this you're just slashed at repeatedly until more zombies come and help, or your buddies can knock him off and pull you to your feet. After these guys come the two really scary bad-guys – the Witch and the Tank.
If you're lucky enough to embody one of these monstrous cats in Versus Mode, live it up and cause as much mayhem as you can possibly muster. Otherwise, be ready to face two incredibly intense impediments.
The Tank is essentially the Hulk as a zombie. He's quick, powerful and won't stop at anything except your own death, and even with four of you he takes a lot to kill. The Witch, on the other hand is broodingly scary. She cries off in the distance, never really revealing her location until you, and your stupid need for a torch to make your way around, startle her and send her into a flurry. She'll knock you to the ground, wailing in your face with the sound of pure agony, slashing at you to and fro.
These two horrors are among the most intense you've ever faced in this type of game, and if you're not prepared, they're going to eat your face.
The simplified, streamlined toolset here is what makes the game so compelling. Because it's your wits, tenacity and looking out for your comrades that's going to get you through. Not some hidden bazooka, an airstrike or anything like that. And what you're facing is equally far more intense in number and pace than most games. When you hear about 100s of zombies coming at you, it's not like Dead Rising – these zombies are ravaging, crazy animals. Like wolves starving and desperate, they'll attack without abandon, and they do it with a single purpose: to eat you
It's equally scary because the Source Engine has been used to great effect here. It's not the absolute prettiest game in the world, and there are a few areas throughout I thought could have done with a bit more detail, but your surroundings are really just there to round you up, like some insane sheep dog herding you for a harvest.
Shooting zombies looks awesome though, especially with the shotgun. Their heads explode in a splendid bloody mess, and their blood splatters realistically behind them. Ragdoll physics ensure the undead fall with realism, which completely helps in breathing a single sigh of relief when each one drops (as that's one less to face).
The system is fast and never hiccuped for me once (I'm running a GeForce 8800, but this game would easily run on lesser cards), and it also looks pretty damn impressive on the Xbox 360 (you're just not left with as much precise aim, which is something pretty important in a game like this).
In the end there's really not a lot to complain about with Left 4 Dead. In keeping things simple, the guys at Turtle Rock have left room for creative gameplay with other humans, and with the omnipresent AI Director keeping you on your toes, you're never going to have the same experience.
There's also something to be said about utilising this game to not
only play with friends. Jump online and look for some random people to slog it out with. There's nothing more fitting in a zombie experience than to have people inexperienced with each other at the helm; it feeds the Murphy's law element of the oft mentioned lore
of the zombie horror experience, and will likely throw an appropriate spanner in the works for veteran players and newcomers alike to 'get along'.
If you're a fan of zombies, shooting things, cooperative play and edge-of-your-seat, unpredictable gameplay, you really can't go wrong with Left 4 Dead. Here's hoping we see some new scenarios and DLC support for the game's longevity down the track.