We’ve relished the movies about it. We’ve daydreamed about it happening in our own lives. We’ve even drawn up detailed plans for how to survive the admittedly unlikely event of a zombie apocalypse (answer: barricade ourselves in the local Costco). There’s just something so tantalizingly thrilling about the prospect of fighting for survival in an undead-infested world.
Left 4 Dead, Valve Software’s new multiplayer first-person shooter, delivers that awesomely terrifying experience to us. Abandoned metropolises, a ragtag band of hapless strangers, and an endless horde of infected humans—all the staples of a nail-biting George A. Romero zombie epic—are present and accounted for in this ambitious cooperative adventure. But how does this game hold up to our obsessive zombie fantasies? We busted a few thousand undead skulls to find out.
In the global zombie apocalypse of Left 4 Dead, our goal was simple: just survive. But reaching a safe haven in hopes of getting rescued was easier said than done. We had to navigate through the crumbled ruins of modern civilization and defend ourselves against a mob of angry zombies that would stop at nothing to see us dead. Luckily, we were never alone in this frightening fight for survival. We were not only always accompanied by three teammates (controlled by either real players or AI) but also equipped with a zombie’s greatest weakness: bullets. Lots of bullets.
Our nerve-racking journey was broken into four story campaigns, each consisting of five sequential levels. These “movies” all followed the same structure: The four of us traversed zombie-infested territory to reach safe houses at the end of each chapter, building up to a lengthy final stand while awaiting rescue at each campaign’s finale.
We started off in the No Mercy act, which challenged us to find a way to the rooftop of a hospital from a distant apartment building. As we made our way through dimly lit hallways and claustrophobic stairwells to the street, we caught our first glimpse of the infected masses—soulless husks of our once neighbors and friends. It was a mistake to agitate them; once alerted to our presence, a wave of the ghoulish goons swarmed our position. These common zombies were easy to put down with our assault rifles and shotguns, but their overwhelming numbers and surprising speed made them formidable foes. Zombies would climb fences, claw through closed doors, and crawl over any obstacle for a taste of our flesh. Shooting off their limbs wasn’t even enough to keep them down—the undead were impressively determined (a well-aimed headshot, though, stopped them in their tracks).
Frenzied shootouts were dynamically timed by the game’s AI Director to give us moments to catch our breath after a slaughter (see the sidebar on the next page). These welcome lulls in the mayhem actually added tension because we weren’t sure how much time we had before the next onslaught.
Even more frightening was the presence of five Boss Infected. More freakish than the common zombie ilk, each boss had a special ability to cause disarray among our group. The grotesquely obese Boomer vomited bile on us to attract hordes to our position, the stealthy Hunter pounced from the darkness to keep us pinned on the ground, the lanky Smoker snagged and strangled stragglers with his tongue, and the hulking Tank swatted us around like we were flies. The only way to stay alive was to work together, communicating frequently and calling out threats to avoid being caught off guard. The necessity for teamwork here is unmatched by any other multiplayer game, and the payoff for surviving the full campaign is incredibly rewarding.
The other three campaigns were just as creepy, taking us through small towns, obligatory graveyards, construction sites, train stations, and even chilling forest regions. Our most memorable moment, however, was when we trekked through a large airport terminal and watched a full-size 747 airplane crash and burn on the runway. Wading through the wreckage of these realistically crafted environments was made all the more compelling by improvements to the game’s Source engine, which uses cinematic filters and so-called filmic effects like enhanced contrast to augment the terror.
We made it through the four acts in about six hours on normal difficulty (advanced and expert modes are also available, and make a dramatic difference) and then jumped into the Versus gameplay mode. Here, four players play as the Boss Infected, terrorizing four Survivor players in the No Mercy and Blood Harvest campaigns. The zombie perspective is a refreshingly unique experience, where you’re actually rewarded for griefing the opposing team. Cooperation is again essential for success, and we quickly learned how to string and combine our Boss Infected abilities to maximize the harassment. It’s an exceptionally satisfying gameplay mode that alone promises hours of joy.
Left 4 Dead didn’t just meet our high expectations for the zombie apocalypse, it exceeded them. And when the real undead uprising arrives, we’ll be ready for it.
Left 4 Dead’s zombie horde is controlled by a technology called AI Director, a complex intelligence algorithm that tracks and monitors your performance throughout the game to dynamically ramp up or tone down the difficulty. Attributes like the health of the team, available ammunition, and accuracy are taken into consideration when the director decides how many zombies to throw at you in each set piece.
This ensures that the game not only feels balanced when you’re playing with strangers of varying shooter aptitude but also that no two sessions will play out the same way. Variables that are changed include the number and location of the zombies you encounter, the timing of Boss Infected attacks, and the placement of weapon, health, and ammo drops. So even though you might learn the layout of a level after running through it a few times, you can still expect to be challenged and surprised by the AI Director’s unpredictability. Left 4 Dead will ship with a software development kit that’ll let modders build their own levels and populate them with the AI Director, as well. We can’t wait to see what the community will do with this powerful tool.
Punch a Hunter as he is pouncing. 10
Drag and Drop Rescue a Survivor from a Smoker's tongue before he takes damage. 20
Cr0wnd Kill a Witch with a single headshot. 30
Untouchables No Survivors take damage after contacting the rescue vehicle. 30
Blind Luck You or another Survivor take no damage after being vomited on by a Boomer. 20
My Bodyguard Protect any Survivor from an attacking Infected 50 times. 15
Akimbo Assassin Survive a campaign firing no guns other than pistols. 30
Field Medic Heal 25 Survivors with a first aid kit. 20
Pharm-assist Give pain pills to 10 Survivors. 20
Helping Hand Revive 50 incapacitated Survivors. 20
Hero Closet Rescue a Survivor trapped in a closet. 10
Hunter Punter Shove a Hunter off of a pinned and helpless Survivor. 10
Tongue Twister Kill a Smoker who has grabbed you with his tongue. 20
No Smoking Section Kill 10 Smokers as they are pulling helpless Survivors. 15
101 Cremations Set 101 Infected on fire. 20
Do Not Disturb Sneak past all Witches in a campaign without disturbing one. 20
Man vs Tank Single-handedly kill a Tank. 30
Tankbusters Kill a Tank without it dealing any damage to a Survivor. 20
Safety First Play through a campaign with no Survivors taking friendly fire damage. 30
No-One Left Behind Beat a campaign with all 4 Survivors. 20
Unbreakable Beat a campaign without ever using a first aid kit on yourself. 30
Witch Hunter Kill a Witch without any Survivor taking damage from her. 20
Red Mist Kill 1000 Infected with a mounted machine gun. 20
Pyrotechnician Blow up 20 Infected in a single explosion. 20
Zombie Genocidest Kill 53,595 Infected. 20
Dead Giveaway Heal a fellow Survivor when your own health is below 10. 10
Ground Cover Save another Survivor from a Special Infected while on the ground. 30
Clean Kill Shove a Boomer and then kill him without him splashing on anyone. 10
Stand Tall Survive a campaign without being incapacitated. 20
Back 2 Help Leave a safe room to save an incapped teammate and bring them back safely. 20
Zombicidal Maniac Survive any campaign on Impossible. 30
What Are You Trying To Prove? Survive all campaigns on Impossible. 35
Lamb 2 Slaughter Incapacitate a Survivor after he has entered and exited a safe room. 20
Nothing Special Survive a campaign with no Survivors taking damage from Specials. 30
Burn the Witch Light a Witch with a Molotov. 10
Towering Inferno Light a Tank with a Molotov. 10
Spinal Tap Kill an Infected with a single blow from behind. 10
Stomach Upset All Survivors complete a campaign without being vomited on. 20
Brain Salad Make 100 headshot kills. 15
Jump Shot Headshot a Hunter while he's leaping. 20
Mercy Killer Survive the No Mercy campaign. 15
Toll Collector Survive the Death Toll campaign. 15
Dead Baron Survive the Dead Air campaign. 15
Grim Reaper Survive the Blood Harvest campaign. 15
Barf Bagged Cover four Survivors with Boomer bile at once. 20
Big Drag Drag a Survivor x distance with your tongue. 20
Chain Smoker Constrict two Survivors on one life as a Smoker. 20
Double Jump Pounce two different Survivors on one life as a Hunter. 20
All 4 Dead Kill all four Survivors on one life as a Tank. 30
Dead Wreckening Dole out 5000 total Survivor damage as a Special Infected. 20