Serious games are big these days. Whether it’s training firefighters, soldiers, plant operators or surgeons, the benefits of a simulated environment in which people can hone their real-world skills is widely recognised. Now, with the impending release of Left 4 Dead, we have the necessary training environment to prepare ourselves for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You’ll be thanking those foresighted chaps at Valve in due time, mark my words.
I just picked up the demo today - on PC, because if there’s one thing that’s going to increase the likelihood of the recently dead opening your skull and spreading your grey matter on water biscuits, it’s being limited to a fixed turning speed. Somehow being able to flail wildly and spray bullets in a 360 degree arc while squealing like a girl makes me feel more in control of those high-pressure situations.
So, it was pretty much what I expected, only more so in some areas and less so in others. I expect I should probably get slightly more specific if I’m to maintain this tenuous ruse of being some kind of reviewer, so here we go.
If you’ve seen Dawn of the Dead, you pretty much know what to expect in terms of the rank-and-file zombie experience; ie zombies that do the traditional zombie shamble when they’re unaware of you, but when they are alerted to you they begin to sprint like Ben Johnson, also climbing over fences, up to higher floors, leaping over cars etc - it’s very difficult to feel safe anywhere (except for a particularly comforting broom cupboard I found on the first level). I’m actually really impressed at the number of zombies they managed to get running at you at once - you think it’s getting crowded and then another 10 sprint round the corner. Certain events also trigger what is best described as a ‘zombie rush’ - this can be setting off a car alarm (which infuriates and attracts more zombies), but also getting covered in the bile from an exploding ‘boomer’ (basically a fat inflatable zombie), which attracts the little blighters like moths to a flame. Also, your view is distorted while this happens, looking convincingly like you’re peering through thick liquid, which is horrific as you see the shapes of many zombies homing in on you.
Other ‘special’ zombies seem to be mainly designed to bring the co-op elements into sharper focus, since all of them have a special attack which renders the victim helpless and in need of rescuing by comrades - the ‘hunters’ are very fast and have a tendency to leap onto you, pinning you to the ground, the ‘smokers’ (recognisable by the hacking cough and the fact that they disintegrate into a cloud of noxious gas) fire out some kind of ‘toungue’ which reels you in if hit, much like a mobile version of the barnacles in Half Life. The ‘witch’ seems to be an extra-tough zombie that you’re supposed to sneak past but goes nuts for the first person to disturb her, again needing rescuing.
Overall, the feeling of being trapped in a zombie-infested city with 3 other companions is pulled off extremely well. The zombie hordes are highly convincing, the music is dynamic and always puts you on edge, and the co-op element works well, you really do feel that you need to stick together. I played single player with AI comrades - I tried briefly with other random people but succumbed to the usual annoyances of kids who won’t shut the hell up on voice chat, or who generally behave irritatingly (yes, you’re teabagging a zombie, how very droll and original). The ongoing problem with multiplayer of course is that it involves other people. But if you have a group of reasonable people (ie actual friends) I think it would be huge fun.
The action is allegedly controlled by AI which balances the experience dynamically, meaning that you don’t get the same experience twice. I can’t really comment on that yet, only having gone through the demo once, but it does seem to flow pretty well. In the full game, a person can take control of that, directing zombies and changing music, apparently. That sounds interesting.
There are some downsides though. Despite it being very creepy, and the variety of the different types of zombies throwing a few curve balls in there, and the exquisite moments of panic that can be created by a car alarm going off or a boomer covering you in goo, it does often feel a bit like a shooting gallery, just in slightly different surroundings each time. I wasn’t bored in the demo, but I wonder if after a few more levels I might start to be. You start to get a sense that after it’s been quiet for a while, there’s going to be another ‘zombie rush’ soon, so you start scoping out the potential entry points. Sometimes it surprises, with zombies bursting through walls, windows and doors, over railings and up through ruined floors, but I wonder whether it might get a bit predictable. I also wonder if that would matter so much; maybe the appeal of co-op zombie massacre in different surroundings doesn’t get old that fast. Difficult to say.
I’m also not sure about the decision of giving the pistols infinite ammo. Sure, the other weapons are far better and you really like to conserve ammo on those, but I quickly settled on a strategy of using the pistols for distant enemies and moments of reduced peril, and flip to the bigger firepower when things got hairy. I never felt in danger of running out of ammo - the main peril really came from just large zombie rushes, not from any individual ones. I think there’s less tension this way, knowing you’ll never really be out of ammo so it takes a big wave of undead to really put you in danger (or a special attack). One of the terrifying things in the Resident Evils and System Shocks was the thought of having to face horrific creatures armed with only your travel toothbrush, and that made you treasure each bullet and watch that depleting ammo gauge with beads of sweat forming at your temples.
So, it’s good fun, but I’m not sure if I’ll buy it as a full retail game. I’d be quite happy for this to be in something like the Orange Box, but on it’s own? I’m not sure. I think I’ll wait for the reviews of the full game.