October 29th saw the Eurogamer Expo set up in town as part of the London Games Festival. Valve were there with Left 4 Dead.
The co-op zombie shooter has toured seemingly the entire world without coming anywhere near me, so to have the chance to play the game a week before the demo is made available to the world was an opportunity I couldn’t let slip.
After queuing for a fair while, I had the privilege of sitting down on the world’s most uncomfortable chair to play Left 4 Dead from a very jaunty angle. Each Xbox 360 had been equipped with two controllers, both harnessed to a rigid structure, presumably in order to prevent people running off with them. This meant that you had no option but to sit off to the side – great for onlookers and cheeky journos with video cameras (see below), but not ideal ofr actually playing the game.
All that paled into insignificance compared to the irrituation of having to use a console pad. There’s a time and a place for gamepads and the first person shooter genre is not it. Having said that, I’ve successfully played the likes of Timesplitters of the PS2 without too much difficulty and handled Mirror’s Edge on the PS3 just fine, so perhaps it’s a problem specific to my hands and the 360 controller. Fiddly little sticks, awkward placement of buttons and a general feeling of float unresponsiveness meant that my first public performance of L4D was rather woeful. It didn’t help that the triggers became completely inoperative at times – whether this was the controller or a bug in the game I was unable to determine.
Oh, for a keyboad and mouse.
Regardless of control systems, however, which ultimately will always come down to personal preference and familiarity, the game proved every bit as awesome as I’ve been led to believe over many months of jealously reading Left 4 Dead 411. It’s extremely easy to pick up, with a clear HUD showing you what you need to know without becoming cluttered and lots of useful feedback telling you where to go and what to do. Hopefully some of these can be turned off for experienced players, but for newbies like myself it was definitely appreciated.
That’s not to say the game is easy, though. Having observed many players throughout the day, death was frequent and unpleasant and it took several different teams to finally complete just the first level of the ‘No Mercy’ campaign. I’m proud to say that the guys I played with were able to complete a later level in double-quick time, despite my fumbled Xbox control skills causing me to shoot them repeatedly in the arse.
Level design is extremely effective, with routes far more numerous than in Valve’s single player games. Although L4D is undoubtedly linear, you’re often given multiple routes through the same general space – for example, navigating through a maze of offices inside a hospital. The levels progress intelligently, segueing from one locale to the next in a realistic manner. There are no sudden location shifts, with transitions proving more subtle than in Half Life 2. While the setting is of course entirely incomparable, the subtlety and slick progression reminded me of the original Half Life‘s intricate Black Mesa layouts.
Weapons comprise the standard FPS load-out: pistols, shotguns and machine guns. the guns all feel weighty and punchy, so more than make up for the lack of imagination in this department. It’s not the weapons that make this game unique and memorable but the co-operative play, the machincs of which work amazingly well even when playing with total strangers at a computer game show. The game is so strongly designed for co-operative play that you find yourself adjusting your tactics automatically. There’s no room for selfish showboating – it’s about the team.
This is aided immeasurably by the voice acting and its clever implementation, with characters automatically calling out to each other without requiring any prompting from the player. When my character shouted “Reloading!” while doing exactly that in the midst of battle there was a genuine sense of being in the moment. It’s a feature that serves the co-op system, alerting everyone else that I was going to be out of action for a few seconds.
The zombies themselves are superbly realised. Pleasingly, you’re never entirely sure what they’re going to do next: sometimes they’ll be stumbling about, Romero-style, other times they’ll charge you down like 28 Days Later‘s zombies. Sometimes you’ll just find them lurking in the gloom, placid until provoked. It helps make them feel like a horde of real creatures, rather than a bunch of cannon fodder enemies sharing identical AI routines. These are some of the cleverest zombies seen in a game and shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘cheap’ enemies, as is often the case when they appear in othe games.
The first two levels are available to those that pre-order the game on the 6th and to everyone else on the 11th, in advance of the game’s release on the 18th. I can’t wait.