Left 4 Dead E3 Preview: New Characters, New Weapons, New Details

Pipe bombs are funny things—people tend to scatter when they come a-rollin'. It's hard to blame them, but would it be such an inconvenience to pile atop a dropped pipe bomb to make for the most spectacular, effective, and gory explosion possible?

For Valve's Left 4 Dead and its cooperative take on first-person zombie-slaying, the solution is simple: flashing lights and a droning alarm.

"The problem with the pipe bombs was always that people would throw them, they'd kill a bunch of zombies, but they wouldn't see them or what was going on," said Valve writer Chet Faliszek. "So we wanted to give them something to really connect to."

When I last played Left 4 Dead, the pipe bomb was a simple but effective explosive—its revised appearance in the latest build is ridiculously more lethal, drawing scores of zombies with a loud repeated beeping and flashing lights. Peering out from behind the corner of an alley, I tossed a bomb between three or four zombies, hoping to dispatch the lot of them and make for a quicker route through.

To my surprise, they were quickly joined by a few dozen ravenous friends, all of whom journeyed together to the hereafter as chunky kibble in the ensuing explosion.

As we last heard, the game's content is essentially done, with the project now in Valve's rigorous playtesting and tweaking period. Though the playable undead were sadly MIA for this year's E3 showing, I was surprised to see just how much the game had changed in a little over a month since I last got my hands on it.

The new designs for the four main characters--not reflected in the screenshots accompanying this article-- are perhaps the most notable revision. While sole female survivor Zoey looks largely similar to her previous designs, the three others—particularly Louis, who lost his dreadlocks and battle armor in favor of a neatly trimmed head and office attire—are a far cry from their previous incarnations.

With the game's swiftly approaching November release, I asked Faliszek why the character updates came so late in development.

"We're showing them now, but they've been worked on for a bit," he explained. "All the characters are being worked on almost non-stop. What it is is a lot of playtesting that made us realize that we need to be able to separate infected from the survivors and make it clearer. One of the ways we thought we could do that was through clearer designs."

Faliszek also clarified that, as with previous builds, characters will be assigned to players randomly upon joining a game. And as expected, the two-player split-screen multiplayer mode remains restricted to the Xbox 360 version of Left 4 Dead and will not appear on the PC.

Other changes to this latest build appear to be the usual steps towards a polished presentation come the game's eventual release. One substantial change is the visual effects enacted when "slimed" by the lumbering, bloated Boomer—where previous builds merely employed a semi-transparent texture over the player's field of view, the new visual effects obscure and warp your vision, making it much more difficult to tell the difference between friendlies and the teeming horde.

This might seem like a small tweak, but in our game—in which friendly fire was set on—it made a world of difference. Once slimed, player characters didn't simply just draw more zombies to the area; they couldn't see who they were shooting at, serving to further the panic and chaos. Formerly a mere annoyance, the latest build sees the Boomer elevated to one of the most terrifying foes in Left 4 Dead.

The HUD has been expanded to further enhance the general experience, including on-screen indicators detailing hazards like car alarms ready to go off at the slightest provocation. Moreover, mortally wounded allies will now be indicated by arrows pointing you in the right direction, making it much simpler to track down and assist companions.

Every time I see Left 4 Dead, it gets a little bit better. Though many of the additions and changes enacted in this latest build may not be as substantial as the pipe bomb, these iterative updates have come to form a wholly realized game experience worlds better than my first experience with the game last January.

Left 4 Dead hits PC and Xbox 360 on November 4. Stick with Shacknews for a rundown on the playable undead in the very near future.