Left 4 Dead Hands-on Previews

It's hard to believe that it's only been a year or so since Turtle Rock Studios and Valve announced Left 4 Dead. The premise is simple: four human players band together to survive a zombie outbreak, while four other players take control of the zombies themselves. Computer-controlled bots can take the place of real opponents if need be.

On the very same day that Valve announced it had acquired Turtle Rock, Shacknews staffers Chris Faylor and Aaron Linde made the journey to Valve to go hands-on with the PC and Xbox 360 title, which is now slated to arrive in the late summer.

These are their stories.

Chris Faylor:
Zombie movies are filled with lead characters making stupid decisions. Sometimes the survivors split up. Sometimes they barricade themselves in a room with no escape route. Sometimes those who aren't at all equipped to handle powerful weapons grab them anyway, and accidentally blow themselves up. The list goes on and on.

It's easy for viewers, far removed from the action, to criticize these decisions. After all, these folks should know better. You don't mess around with zombies. Everyone knows that. Yet despite having seen just about every zombie movie known to man, when push came to shove, when it was just me and three others survivors facing off a seemingly endless legion of the undead, I made every single one of those stupid mistakes.

In the heat of the moment, with the undead pouring into a hospital corridor, I took shelter in a room that had only one entrance. Without telling anyone else, I opted to peer around a corner and accidentally fell off a ledge, leaving me to face off against an entire warehouse of zombies all by myself. After standing in a doorway and spraying a room down with bullets, I forgot to check behind the door and got blindsided by a zombie when I walked in. Later on, I thought it'd be fun to play with a pipe bomb, so I threw one into an oncoming wave of zombies only to watch it bounce back my way thanks to their fast-moving legs.

Needless to say, these were not logical decisions. They were made when I was panicked, frightened, fighting for my very survival. At that point, all rational thought had long gone out the window; I was operating on pure instinct. I made mistakes that, despite all of my self-important ramblings about expertise, would have gotten me killed in the event of a genuine zombie outbreak. Oh, and this was on the normal difficulty level.

It's enough to make you wonder if Left 4 Dead started out as Turtle Rock and Valve's defense of every single movie protagonist that ever caught flak for some shoddy split-second decision.

Though the game is still a ways off--Valve's Chet Faliszek told us to expect the title in August or September--it is still scary as all hell. Even with fellow editor Aaron Linde sitting right next to me and playing in the same session, when it came time for us to walk through a sprawling cornfield, it was honestly one of the scariest moments I've ever experienced in a video game.

While safety, an old farmhouse, was in sight, who knew what waited for us in the the endless rows of tall corn stalks through which we needed to traverse? The tension was high. Even though I was confident that the zombies would rush us, I still yelped when they showed up.

But I couldn't be completely sure that we would get ambushed, and that's mostly due to the game's internal director. In essence, the director randomizes zombie placement and ensures that no two playthroughs are alike. While we spent the first few minutes of the game exploring what turned out to be a zombie-free house, Faliszek pointed out spots where previous players had been ambushed.

Within a few minutes, Linde and I had the names of the various zombie types down. The Boomer is a giant waddling mass that vomits on a character to mark them as a target, with a rush of zombies following the smelly projectile. Oh, and he explodes. Smokers fill the room with a thick black smoke. Hunters pounce on characters and mandate that a teammate throw them off. Tanks are giant, hulking beasts that can throw cars and can take a hell of a lot of bullets. There are others as well, but the one that has me really frightened is the one we didn't actually see: the Witch.

According to Faliszek, the strategy for a Witch is very simple. You don't mess with it and it won't mess with you. But if you shoot it, if you wake it from its slumber, it will kill you. And until you experience the chaos that is a room filled with the undead, that sounds like a really, really easy plan. Fortunately, the Witch only appears on the harder difficulty settings.

Faliszek then coached us on the nuances of the game, teaching us to close doors as we clear rooms. Not that the closed doors will actually stop the rush of the undead, he pointed out, but at least we'd hear them coming as they broke the doors down.

Even with more than six months until release, Left 4 Dead already sports an impressive attention to detail. Blood splatters on the faces of your fellow zombie fighters, and when they get hurt, it's visible as they start to limp more and more. The character's faces are eerily expressive, which adds another element to the game, as it's not particularly comforting when your comrades appear scared shitless. When healing, which requires a player to temporarily stand still while they literally tape themselves up, the characters automatically spout something like "watch my back," so headset-less players don't have to bother typing it out. Zombies reflect their environment, with the hospital-dwelling variety clad in open-backed gowns.

Of course, that's not to say the game is anywhere close to being done. As can be expected, there is a significant amount of work left for Turtle Rock and Valve to do between now and late summer. Aaron and I only experienced two of the game's four overall scenarios, and we were told that the zombie-controlling side of the game was not yet ready to be shown. Load times need to be optimized, as switching from map to map resulted in a lengthy wait. Though the game ran smoothly with a large amount of zombies on-screen, it would occasionally slow to a crawl for no discernible reason. Its user-interface is very much a work-in-progress.

Like Valve's recent multiplatform multiplayer game Team Fortress 2, the game will not allow Xbox 360 owners to play alongside PC gamers. "Maybe another game down the road," said Valve marketing VP Doug Lombardi, who attributed the decision to a variety of technical obstacles.

In all, the game will ship with four scenarios, with each consisting of five overall acts. Those first four acts will have players moving from safehouse to safehouse, and maybe discovering some more powerful weapons if they dare to explore the environment, while the fifth has them defending their position until a getaway vehicle arrives. Faliszek noted that more weapons and maps will follow the game's release, with Valve, as always, planning to distribute them on the PC for free.

As Valve's only announced title for 2008, and with Turtle Rock Studios now officially part of the Valve family, expectations for Left 4 Dead are rather high. Fortunately, our brief time with the game indicates that it will be well worth the wait. That said, expect to hear more on Left 4 Dead not just as its release approaches, but in the years to come.

Read on for Aaron Linde's thoughts.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Aaron Linde:
It's taken a good stretch of time, but gamers are finally getting to see cooperative play blossom in ways that, five years ago, we could only dream of; fully-fledged campaigns tailored for the cooperative experience, a brisk alternative to a decade-long reign of the deathmatch. If you're a fan of zombies and co-op and find yourself inescapably gleeful at the prospect of combining one with the other, you've probably watched the development of Valve's Left 4 Dead with great anticipation. I'm right there with you. And like me, your expectations might be extremely--even unfairly--high. But the experience itself is so thoroughly realized, so well composed, that once you get your hands on Left 4 Dead you'll wonder how we ever put up with anything less.

Having peeked at an impressions post or two, I had an idea of what to expect from Left 4 Dead's ground-up cooperative design, but it's an altogether different experience when sampled firsthand. An embodiment of the Valve design philosophy, almost every element of gameplay is geared towards emphasis of teamwork, though none is so tailored as the interplay between the human players and the walking dead that hunt them. While a single human player can handle a sizable group of zombies well enough alone, the real risk of breaking away from the pack is coming face to face with a "boss" zombie, the consequences of which was our first hard lesson in Left 4 Dead. Just a single level in, the rules of the game were clear: Stay together to stay alive.

Once the threat of my imminent doom had been firmly established by an encounter with a Smoker--a boss zombie who ensnares the unwary with its tongue, dragging them away from the party and hanging them to death--the tension was dramatically amped. Suddenly I was checking corners, keeping a constant watch on the locations of my teammates, and frantically reloading my weapon after every skirmish with the hungry dead. The mood is insistent and permeates every level that we played throughout our demonstration, coming to a head with every assault by the hordes of zombies in our path.

While a great deal can be said about the game that surrounds the instances of combat, from a personal perspective it was our first major flood of zombies that really made me get it. Nearing our first safe house where we could finally take shelter, regroup and patch ourselves up, I was suddenly assaulted by a Boomer's projectile vomit, drawing scores of zombies to my crunchy, delicious flesh. The door was near; we blasted our way through wave after wave, getting three of our four asses through the door to safety. One survivor hadn't yet made it, and while waiting for him we had to deal with many more zombies rushing at us through the open door. Would we leave him behind to save ourselves? How long could we hold out?

Emptying an untold number of clips at the shambling dead, our lone straggler eventually made it through, and we managed to shut the door behind him. Faylor and I breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief. We had survived, and the feeling was authentic, palpable. In the back of my head I remarked that I had just experienced the most intense zombie horror flick I'd ever seen, and actually played a part in its unfolding. Left 4 Dead makes an unforgettable "first play," and one that will stick with me for awhile.

Cooperative play has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few years, but no game has refined and developed the experience so completely as we've seen in this early build of Left 4 Dead. The foundation for an unforgettable experience is definitely there. Though the game is still very unfinished--animation and sound bugs, and the occasional curious gameplay quirk, pop up from time to time--the hardest work, building that memorable experience, is already done.

For more on Left 4 Dead, check out the Shack's past coverage, which includes more hands-on impressions, a preview, and an interview with Turtle Rock CEO Michael Booth.