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Review: Left 4 Dead

Fourth-person shooter
By MITCH KRPATA  |  December 16, 2008
4.0 4.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead | For Xbox 360 and PC | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Turtle Rock Studios | Published by Valve Software
Playing Left 4 Dead is like taking a personality test: you can't hide your true nature. Are you a team player, willing to put the success of the mission above your own well-being? Or are you concerned only with your personal advancement, even if that comes at the expense of others? These aren't the kinds of questions you expect to be asking of yourself when you play a shooter set in the zombie apocalypse. But Left 4 Dead takes the concept of cooperative gameplay, one that dates back almost to the beginning of video games themselves, and pushes it to places it's never been.

Left 4 Dead wrings endless possibilities out of a small and simple set of rules. As many as four players can team up to fight their way through one of four different campaigns. Each campaign has five different chapters, the last of which is always an extended stand-off against endless waves of the living dead while you wait for a rescue vehicle to arrive. The levels are linear, requiring minimal exploration and problem solving. One playthrough is enough to familiarize yourself with each one.

But this simplicity belies the sophisticated teamwork that's required for success. Although you can opt for single-player with three AI-controlled teammates, that's not ideal, and for reasons that are immediately apparent. Every enemy type — they're collectively referred to as the Infected — requires teamwork to defeat. There's the agile Hunter, which pins players to the ground, and the Smoker, which grabs players with its long tongue and pulls them away from teammates. The powerful Tank, built like an undead version of the Incredible Hulk, will attack anyone in its line of sight. Even the generic zombie horde can incapacitate a single player. Communicating with live teammates is the only way to deal with every threat.

Each playthrough is also different thanks to what the developers refer to as the "AI Director," which arbitrarily changes enemy spawn points and the location of resources every time you play. The whims of the Director are supposed to be informed by your team's performance, but all I could tell for sure was that nothing ever happened the same way twice. Perhaps that's the highest praise I can give to the Director: his hand is invisible and requires vigilance at all times.

Even Left 4 Dead's "Versus" mode requires teamwork, though that may not be as obvious. Here, two teams of players trade off rounds, with one team playing as the human survivors and the other as the Infected. It's tempting when you spawn into the game world as the devious Smoker to run off on your own and try to kidnap a survivor. But hold on: maybe it's smarter for a Hunter to pin one survivor and then have the Smoker go after whatever unsuspecting sap tries to help.

Although Left 4 Dead doesn't follow the traditional rules of survival horror — it's as slick and responsive a first-person shooter as you'll find — it does make its resources scarce, in the classic genre tradition. Each player can carry only one health pack at a time, with the rare opportunity to find more scattered throughout the levels. At least once a game, you'll have to decide whether to give a spare health pack to a dying teammate or hang onto it because you know you'll need it later. One of the true pleasures of Left 4 Dead is discovering how other players answer these questions — and how you do.

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