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Left 4 Dead Preview: My Date with the Witch

by Aaron Linde, Jun 04, 2008 10:40am PDT

In our last batch of first hands-on impressions with Valve and Turtle Rock's cooperative zombie shooter Left 4 Dead, fellow Shacknews editor Chris Faylor and I were introduced to thousands of bloodthirsty new friends. Returning to Valve's offices last week to play the latest build of the game, I finally met the belle of the ball: the witch.

When you first encounter her, Left 4 Dead's fifth and unplayable boss infected is a peculiar sight. The notion of a plainly-dressed and raven-haired young woman sitting in the middle of an urban sidewalk might even be plausible, had the city not been teeming with the hungry dead. But perhaps most unsettling is the quiet weeping; the witch is most often heard before she's seen.

I turned to Valve writer Chet Faliszek, my guide through the latest build of the game. "Even if we're going to die," I asked, "Can I request we take her on anyway?"

Faliszek agreed, perhaps with a bit of trepidation. Even with the witch's inclusion in the game's normal difficulty—previously seen only in hard mode and above—she's no pushover, and the game goes to great lengths to make you aware of the danger she presents. Your companions' spoken dialogue, procedurally prompted by the events unfolding around you, warns you to move quietly and turn off the flashlights. There's a friggin' witch around here somewhere.

"The witch will definitely kill somebody," explained Faliszek. "She's entirely lethal. Whoever sets her off, she'll go after that one person and she will kill them. Other creatures, yeah, you can push them away, you can run, you can do all these different things, but she is single-track. She's going to kill you."

We readied our shotguns and our wits as Chet tossed a Molotov cocktail, setting the witch and her surroundings both ablaze. Immediately we all opened fire, desperate to put her down before she could retaliate, and we were met with success. The tension passed.

Since Faylor and I played the game last January, Left 4 Dead has been more or less completed and is now moving into the test and polish phase of production. The most current build shows marked improvements in lighting and environmental audio, as well as the sort of tweaks that make for a more visceral experience.

But most notable among the changes are the inclusion of so-called "crescendo" events, scenes in most stages that require you to bunker down and defend against large-scale waves of zombies while waiting for some time-sensitive mechanic to complete before you can move on.

"They're essentially mini-finales," Faliszek explained. "But we hate to use the word 'mini'."

During our play of a single scenario, the previously-seen urban stage, we encountered one of these new crescendo events outside of a warehouse, where we had to wait for the slow descent of a elevator down a scaffold before we could continue. Chet hit the switch, and the horde soon followed. The anchored miniguns and sandbag defensive locations made for an obvious last stand locale, but we wouldn't have survived without a bit of strategy.

The addition of the crescendo events—which will appear in most of each scenario's five stages—came about as a result of Valve's trademark extensive testing, in which playtesters told the company that they enjoyed planning and staging assaults with their comrades. Another crescendo event, described but not yet implemented, was an instance in which players must fend off the infected inside of a slowly ascending and fully destructible freight elevator, accompanied by a slow-ticking floor indicator to amp up the tension.

"The feedback from players was always that they liked the testy moments. The ability to set up and look at the situation. So much of the game is on the run, your strategies have to really flow," Faliszek noted.

Turn the page for more on Left 4 Dead's Director AI, and Chet Faliszek's noble sacrifice of a fellow Valve staffer in the name of games journalism._PAGE_BREAK_

It's a careful balance between scripted events and on-the-fly procedural moments generated by the game's Director AI system, but it functions smoothly and prevents the action from slipping too far in either direction. Faliszek went on to explain that while the Director system is still subject to a great deal of refinement, it's proven immensely successful in Valve's testing phases.

"We're always tweaking [the director], but it always had the good effect of seeing people playing through twice -- they're so trained to think that what happened last time will happen to them this time, and that always comes back and bites them. It's always around the third or fourth time that they realize that you can't really count on the action happening that way. We've actually gone so far, in the newer version, where the director determines what the placement of items are, so they're spread out a little more randomly. It's meant for replayability, so that you can never rely on these sorts of events."

My second playthrough of the urban scenario was most certainly different from our first, and not just because of the engine updates and other additions. Boomers and other boss zombies were appearing in different locations than I had remembered, certain rooms more populated than others had previously been.

But the witch is perhaps the most destructive agent of unpredictability in Left 4 Dead--run too quickly, don't check your corners, and you're bound to stumble upon her in a most unfortunate location. We saw her again, later in the scenario's decrepit, aging hospital level, saddled smack in the middle of a hallway intersection. Chet described it as a "bad spot," as it ensured that we'd have to take her on rather than simply sneaking by.

"On the street we took her out there, pretty good location," he said. "We had a lot of space, we could throw the fire at her. But there are times when you hear her and you're kinda creeping along, and some other action happens and you're running around a corner and all of a sudden there's the witch, and you set her off."

I asked him what exactly "sets off" the witch--knowing full well what she could do, I was in desperate need of information. It would've been a total drag to get us all killed by blinking or speaking aloud or breathing too hard, after all.

"Aggravating her. Getting too close, shooting near her, looking at her with the flash light—you want to make sure your flashlight's off," Faliszek explained. "You pretty much want to leave her the hell alone."

Chet asked Valve level designer Scott Dalton, one of our in-game comrades, to set her off, suggesting that it was fun to watch him die. Dalton hit her point-blank with a shotgun round and was almost immediately mortally wounded in the flurry of attacks that followed. The witch is lightning quick and does a tremendous amount of damage in a short amount of time, perhaps even more than the hulking Tank boss infected.

Valve and Turtle Rock have made a good deal of progress shaping Left 4 Dead into a title worthy of its pedigree, and the prognosis is looking great. It's still some of the most fun time I've spent behind a mouse and keyboard, and even on a second playthrough of a level, the tension and anxious atmosphere were as potent as ever.

Those put off by the recently revealed November release date for the game can rest assured that the time will be well spent. As Faylor and I saw last January, the game's already in a great place. I stick by my first assessment: with some tweaking, testing and a bit of polish, Left 4 Dead could stand as one of the best multiplayer PC efforts seen in years.





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