That introduction was originally meant to be a lot shorter, but I have to admit that I got kind of carried away. Zombies do that to me. I love them to bits, right down the slow, shambling shuffle they do that always makes me think of a teenage suffering from diarrhoea on their first day of school.
Zombies in Left4Dead, Valve and Turtle Rock’s new co-op focused shooter for the PC, aren’t actually like that though. They don’t meander or moan, lurch or lumber.
No, they scramble and scream.
I chatted to Chet Faliszek after I’d finished playing through the game a few times and he laid the basic premise out for me in quite some detail – that these aren’t strictly zombies. They aren’t undead.
“They aren’t actually undead, but they have no humanity left. That part of them is gone and that’s why they hate you,” Chet told me. I did silently question why they hated me personally, but I didn’t actually ask that out loud.
“They’re infected and they’re super-hyper kinetic and filled with energy,” added Chet. I felt it was a good move too – there’s only one thing more exciting than being chased through abandoned buildings by ultra-fast zombies.
The actual gameplay and basic set-up for the game is remarkably simple then; four players join up together via Steam to try and complete a short stint in the roles of four survivors of a zombie infection. What seems simple though actually belies a hidden depth to the way the game is organised.
Left4Dead is made out of four acts, with each act being a small chapter in the on-going story of the survivors and each act comprising of five levels. Each act has one over-arching goal and each level tells a portion of the struggle to reach that goal. The acts then all come together to tell more or less a complete, emergent story.
So, for example, one act might tell the story of the four survivors trying to make it across a part of the city and get from their original hidey-hole to the local hospital. There they plan to get medical supplies and a helicopter.
The journey from A to B will be told across five levels with logical ending and starting points, so that you can play just a single level or an entire act depending on how you want play the game. Each level ends at a smaller safe house where the survivors can rest, reload and regroup before pushing on. It builds flexibility into the narrative; the players can wait here for a week or a minute between levels depending on their playing habits.
These safe points are also important in setting up a flexible playing style – at the start of each and every level you’re in a position where you can swap your guns, grab some health packs and discuss your tactics. When everyone is ready the timer ticks down, the invisible walls lift and the players launch themselves out of the hiding place and into the big, bad world.
Straight away you feel vulnerable, like you’re being watched.
In fact, you are being watched – the AI director is constantly monitoring your every move, tinkering the settings and making sure you never know what’s coming next.