Left 4 Dead Interview

Your sweaty palms quiver as they grip your pistol--a pistol with only one bullet remaining in the chamber. You whirl at the sound of feet that shamble at first, then pick up speed upon recognizing you, the Survivor. The rest of your team is dead. They're the lucky ones. The Smoker races toward you, its grotesque tongue dangling from its mouth. You saw that very same tongue yank a member of Bravo team into the air and over the edge of a rooftop, and while you didn't see what happened next, you heard the screams--and the other noises; the tearing, the rending.

It's getting closer, its eyes glazed but hungry. You hesitate for only a moment, then raise your gun and fire.

A smile decorates your face as your limp body crumples to the ground. You couldn't have killed a Smoker with one bullet, anyway.

Due out later this year for PC and Xbox 360 is Left 4 Dead, a survival action game from Turtle Rock Studios promising zombie-filled tension and tactics. Left 4 Dead has been Turtle Rock's baby, the special project they've been bringing to life even while they worked on various Counter-Strike titles. I recently spoke with Michael Booth, the founder of Turtle Rock Studios, to get an idea of the game's basics.

Shack: Tell us a bit about Turtle Rock's history in the games industry.

Michael Booth: Turtle Rock was founded a few years back in Orange County, USA. We started very small and grew slowly while working on Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Counter-Strike Xbox and Counter-Strike: Source--all while [working] on the prototype of our first original game, Left 4 Dead.

Shack: Is there a story line for Left 4 Dead, or just "kill lots of zombies?"

Michael Booth: It's modern day Earth. A new and highly virulent strain of the rabies virus is spreading throughout the world. Those infected are dangerously psychotic and attack the non-infected ravenously. As one of the "lucky" few that seem to be immune to the contagion, you have allied with a few other Survivors in a battle to stay alive.

Shack: Is the game exclusively multiplayer, or are there single-player modes?

Michael Booth: Both--you can play with other humans, with bots, or a combination thereof. Left 4 Dead [supports] 1-8 players.

Shack: What distinguishes each Survivor character from the others?

Michael Booth: Each of the Survivors has the same basic abilities available to them. Throughout the game, a variety of contemporary real-world items and weaponry are made available to the Survivors. The items you choose determine the characteristics of your player and contribute to the tactics of your team.

Shack: What sort of weaponry will players be able to get their hands on?

Michael Booth: There are roughly one dozen new weapons planned for the first release of Left 4 Dead, all of which are things you would expect to find in a modern city, and would leverage in such a desperate situation.

Shack: How many campaign settings are available?

Michael Booth: We have four campaigns planned for the first version of Left 4 Dead on the PC. Each is comprised of 5 maps strung together with a loose narrative--usually of the "we gotta get outta here" variety. What's unique about these campaigns is that each is populated procedurally with our "AI Director." This is a technology we've developed to tailor each game session to the players' experience--if things are quiet, the Director may schedule an attack. If things have been intense for too long, it will schedule a break in the action.

This allows every play session through each campaign to be completely unique each time it is played.

Shack: What rewards do players receive for successfully completing a Campaign?

Michael Booth: We are experimenting with a host of stats for Left 4 Dead, which is just one of the new pieces of technology we've developed with Valve for the Source engine and Steam platform. These will track things like sharp-shooting, altruistic acts such as reviving friends, and it will also track your negative actions as well such as team kills. The big idea is to provide a collection that will promote teamwork and give other players a chance to gauge who they want on their team.

Shack: Do the rewards carry over to other game sessions?

Michael Booth: Yes.

Shack: Do you foresee campaign releases in the future via Steam or some other means?

Michael Booth: Yes, absolutely. As with Counter-Strike, we plan to keep building and expanding [Left 4 Dead] long after the initial release.

Shack: In addition to in-game rewards, what kinds of Xbox 360 Achievements have been planned?

Michael Booth: We haven't released many details on the Xbox [360] version yet, but we do see the stats and gameplay of Left 4 Dead being a perfect fit for the Xbox in many ways, including the achievement system.

Shack: What happens if an undead deals too much damage to my character? Do I just die, or do I have a chance to keep playing?

Michael Booth: When your health hits a critical level, you fall to ground and have a limited amount of time to survive before you "bleed out". During this window, other survivors can choose to revive you--a wise choice as keeping all your teammates alive and working together is almost mandatory for successfully completing a mission. It's also worth noting that there is a limit on the number of times you may be revived by a teammate in a row; if you find yourself repeatedly being helped to your feet, you should seek out a first aid kit.

Shack: What if my buddies can't get to me in time?

Michael Booth: If you die at the beginning of a map, the AI Director will look for a conveniently believable location to respawn your player--inside a closet or similar place just ahead of your team. It will, however, be up to your team to free you from this spawn point. If, on the other hand, you die toward the end of the map, you will respawn in the safe zone/check point that connects the maps in each campaign.

Shack: Is there anyway to receive healing other than depending on a teammate?

Michael Booth: Players can carry and share first aid kits and pain pills.

Shack: Can players be revived an infinite number of times?

Michael Booth: You can only be revived twice in a row unless you use a first aid kit to heal yourself. The third time in a row you go down, you die immediately. We refer to this as being on your "third strike".

Shack: Tell us about the undead we'll see shambling through the game.

Michael Booth: Infected are average folks who were unlucky enough to fall ill of the virus. Unfortunately, they are damaged beyond hope of a cure, completely without reason, and will kill you on sight. "Zombie" is a pretty accurate description. Boss Infected are super powered zombies whose mutations give them special abilities.

Shack: What different types of Boss Infected are available?

Michael Booth: The Boomer is a large bouncy fella who is filled with methane gas. So, Survivors need to keep their distance when engaging him, since he explodes when he is shot. He also has a belly full of vomit, which he can projectile onto you, which in turn attracts hordes of common Infected to attack you--another reason to keep your distance when battling a Boomer. For all the Survivors, using secondary fire allows you to whack your attacker with the handle end of your weapon--a "shove" attack. This will throw the attacker(s) back a few steps. Mastering this move in concert with quick shooting is the best way to approach the Boomer. The Boomer's grotesque groaning also gives the Survivors valuable warning when he is lurking nearby.

The Smoker has a 50-foot-long tongue that allows him to pull a Survivor away from his/her group. These "tongue" attacks during an already intense battle can be deadly, particularly if the Smoker is on a rooftop from which he can string his victims up like a hangman's noose. Keeping an eye on your teammates is the best defense against him, along with listening for his constant coughing and hacking.

The Hunter is the most agile of the Boss infected. He can lunge from many feet away and pounce upon his prey. Not only do Hunters move silently, but they also have the ability to cloak, so players must beware of a stealth attack in addition to minding the space overhead.

The Tank, as his name implies, is just a big badass. He has the ability to throw vehicles, rip up concrete sidewalks and hurl the pieces at you, bust through brick walls, and toss Survivors around like toys. The best approach against a Tank is to unload your weapon into him, reload, and repeat. Having the full team concentrate their attack upon him at once will deliver the best result.

The Witch basically wants to be left alone. If players encounter her with their flashlights switched off while moving quietly, she may do nothing at all. If, however, she is disturbed in the slightest she has the ability to scratch the entire team of Survivors to little bits on the floor.

Shack: Can players assume the role of any Boss Infected?

Michael Booth: Yes. Players can assume the role of The Tank, The Hunter, The Smoker, and The Boomer. Every so often the AI Director will decide it is time for a big boss battle, and will ask one of the Infected players if they would like to spawn as a Tank. If they decline, the Director asks the next Infected player, and so on. Each Infected player will get a chance at being a Tank at some point during a mission. The Witch and the common Infected are strictly AI controlled to ensure behavior consistent with their character.

Shack: Thanks so much for your time.

Michael Booth: Thank you. We hope you enjoy the game.