There’s an adage in screenwriting about how to create captivating tension for your characters: chase them up into a tree, and then throw stones at them. Left 4 Dead understands this maxim intimately.
Conflict for the main characters is the essence of drama, and it’s drama that’s entertaining – whether we’re talking about movies, books or video games. Unfortunately, the latter of these mediums often neglects to place its characters in conflict, other than throwing reams of drones and enemies at them, of course, but this isn’t something we can accuse Left 4 Dead of doing. Oh there are reams of enemies, to be sure – screaming, sprinting, thronging, slavering hordes of infected antagonists swarming from the shadows of a dying world – but these alone are not what makes the game great.
There are so many reasons to lift Left 4 Dead onto a pedestal it’s impossible and impractical to list them, and all I can really do is attempt to convey – as a horror junkie, more than a first person shooter fan – where I see its brilliance emanating from. This is a game that knows itself; that has a clear purpose and a defining goal. It understands its genre, its audience and its intentions, all of which might sound obvious or ambiguous depending on how important you feel characters and narrative are in your games.
But the relentless conflict you find yourself enduring throughout Left 4 Dead is exactly as the screenwriting adage demands. You, as the main character, feel as though you’re being chased up a thousand trees, with vast armies of antagonists throwing stones at you as you attempt to get down, and run for the next forest. It’s an inexorable thrill ride that leaves you panting for breath, your nerves torn to shreds and your trigger finger cramping, but all the time you’re fully enthused to push on like the survivors in all good zombie films.
For many gamers, it’ll be the extensive, nay vital, online multiplayer features of Left 4 Dead that really cement its status as a pioneer of modern gaming, and that’s perfectly understandable – there aren’t many games where it benefits a review to begin with an explanation of the multiplayer aspects. Joining a new game is a simple matter – a key press within the game and Steam is looking to drop you into the carnage along with a few other unfortunates who’ve survived the viral holocaust inside your computers. Normally, we all prefer to join up with friends for an online game, but that’s not generally possible in a review, as the games are new, if not unreleased. But being thrown together with strangers (no one in our small band of survivors knew each other) was utterly sublime; once again demonstrating the game’s interminable awareness of its genre.
Romero delighted in throwing together a desperate cross section of society, removing all man-made concepts of morality, good and evil, and seeing how his rag-tag band of survivors reacted. Featuring a black man as a main character in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was a bold move, but it highlighted the desperation of survival that such an apocalypse prompted. So I encourage everyone who plays Left 4 Dead to forgo your friendships when going online, and allow chance and circumstance to throw you together with other random survivors, and see how you all react to the desperate situation.
As an FPS, Left 4 Dead is quite pristine – gorgeous looking, pumping with blood and full of twisted life. But that’s pretty much expected these days. What the game needs to really reveal itself is this small collection of fraught survivors, pushed to the limits of their humanity not only by the rampaging horde of undead, but by an often exasperating proximity to other anxious fighters. Resist your natural urge to game with friends, and take the plunge into a real zombie nightmare. Perhaps a game with friends is better served when playing as the undead (one of Left 4 Dead’s many remarkable twists in its development), as the tone is surprisingly lighter (for you) and the action distinctly more buoyant.
The beauty of this mode of play is that once you, as the Machiavellian monsters, decimate the floundering survivors through brute force and ignorance, then get to change places with them. A multiplayer game, with enough players, switches roles once an achievement, such as death or safety, is reached, and both teams feel a sudden and invigorating sense of impending revenge. A brilliant, yet simple role reversal that makes this an online game like no other.
Left 4 Dead, just as with great zombie movies (the wonderful, original Day of the Dead being a closely related example), punishes the stupidity of the players – regardless as to whether that folly comes from inexperience, greed or an erroneous button press. This isn’t a criticism, though, as it’s at those moments when tactics fail and desperate survivalism kicks in that the story really comes to life (so to speak).
A huge, lumbering, powerful Boomer gets close enough to vomit zombie-attracting bile all over you, or a Smoker grabs you with its chameleon-like tongue, and you scramble frantically in the dirt for your aim before it drags you within biting distance. Your unwitting comrades find themselves overpowered, and you’re recognised for having saving them, or they come to your aid in moments of flustered keyboard and mouse dyslexia. There’s no reasoning with the undead, and Left 4 Dead makes sure you understand this by consistently drowning your experienced FPS tactics in a sheer weight of rabid zombies.
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The single player campaign follows more of a story, perhaps, through similar environments and with a trio of CPU controlled companions. The screams for help, when not coming through the computer’s speakers from real people, obviously aren’t quite so invigorating, but the essential tension and conflict still remain. Once you’ve fallen head first into a couple of online games, however – knowing that, for once, playing with strangers is a far superior experience (and let’s face it, entering a matchmaker organised game is infinitely easier than getting all your mates online at the same time) – the single player mode is bound to suffer in terms of drama.
Nonetheless, Left 4 Dead is a pioneer in the FPS realm; doing more to promote online gaming than most any shooter that’s come before it, not because of technical wizardry or huge numbers of players, but because of the amazing impact it has on the vital drama of battling through a zombie apocalypse.