Zombies are very popular these days. Which is surprising: you’d think their general hostile demeanour and lack of table manners would be off-putting. Vampires are big, too, but it’s the shambling decaying corpses that Valve has chosen to focus on with its latest online shooter.
Except the zombies in this game aren’t the old style foot-shufflers, but the new breed of super-fast undead as seen in modern films. Yes, the scary ones that pelt towards you like Linford Christie and rip your intestines out in the blink of an eye (though it’s your bowel that’ll probably be doing more blinking).
Left 4 Dead is an online co-operative survival horror FPS which can be played in two ways. In the straight co-op, four players take the part of a quartet of gung-ho survivors, blasting their way through a mass of computer-controlled zombies. Then there’s the versus mode, which is essentially the same but for the addition of a handful of player-controlled ‘boss’ zombies with various extra powers. Yes, real and intelligent undead opponents (or not as the case may be).
The key theme here is that the game is truly a desperate matter of survival. The levels are jam-packed with flesh-ripping beasts and at times they swarm upon you in terrifying rushes. You inevitably end up with zombies in your face, although fortunately the developer has mapped a rifle butt attack to the right mouse button, so you can bludgeon yourself some breathing room.
Nevertheless, make no mistake that the clawing masses spike your adrenaline levels substantially, particularly when you spot a player-controlled exploding zombie in the midst of them, lumbering towards you with a big grin on its face.
For the four human players, sticking together is of paramount importance as only then can you cover each over effectively. When a player gets jumped on by a hunter – a zombie that pins them to the floor and slowly eviscerates them – or grabbed by a smoker zombie’s long sticky tongue, if others aren’t around to come to the rescue their health will ebb away.
It’s a slow process, as zombie attacks don’t do that much damage. Given the floods of the creatures that assault the players, this is a necessary measure to give them any realistic chance of survival. But still, the zombie players can at times feel rather ineffectual when a tight squad will blast them to pieces very quickly, yet they can do little damage in return.
So being clever is the crux of playing a zombie. Sneaking around and picking exactly the right moment to attack, such as when masses of computer controlled zombies are on the rampage, can give you the opportunity to pick someone off at the back and do some damage. And every now and then one lucky zombie player gets to control the ‘tank’, a seriously powerful muscle-bound monster that can literally knock the human characters flying. Which is vastly entertaining.
The philosophy is very much to keep things simple, so the human players are restricted to carrying one weapon, backed up with a pistol and the odd grenade or molotov cocktail. The HUD is neatly designed to keep the game running as smoothly as possible, too, with arrows that pop up to point out important items and fellow players who are being attacked by zombies.
But while Left 4 Dead is deliberately kept basic to concentrate on the pure carnage involved, there are subtleties here that you’ll only discover through playing. Soon enough you’ll learn what sort of noises certain zombies make (identifying these can be tactically important), what clever things a tank can do apart from punching people in the head, and why you should leave a witch zombie well alone.
So the game has some depth, but what it really captures over its four concise campaigns is the ‘true’ feel of a zombie infestation. We didn’t hit much in the way of lag problems (just the occasional dodgy server), and the only real annoyance was the odd idiot player who kept running ahead or, worse still, kept shooting us accidentally or running in our line of fire.