The Left 4 Dead Duology

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Slash, shoot and demolish your way through hordes of infected.

PC Release: November 18, 2008 (Left 4 Dead)

                        November 17, 2009 (Left 4 Dead 2)

By Ian Coppock

Let us pray:

“Lord, provider of all that is good and holy. Deliver us from shoddy sequels, blatant ripoffs and horror that shoots itself in both feet. Deliver unto us a much-needed bounty of good gamedom. Amen.”

Oh holy crap, two kickass zombie games! YEAH! Prayer answered!

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Before I get started, I want to reassure you that this multiple-games-in-a-review thing isn’t going to be regular. Gears of War happened to be three clones of one concept. Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are basically two separate map and character packs for the same general game.

Both games take place concurrently and in a 28 Days Later-style zombie apocalypse. As in that movie, the world is flooded with a strange virus that turns the infected into sprinting, screaming maniacs. Not technically zombies, but still unsettling and creepy as hell.

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Fun fact: this is an in-game screenshot. You poop your pants? Me too.

Each game features a team of four immune survivors. Left 4 Dead‘s lineup comprises a gruff Vietnam vet, a witty college student, a fitness-obsessed salesman, and an even gruffer biker.

The second game’s crew are a shifty con man, a dry TV producer, a food-obsessed football coach, and an eager, naive mechanic. You may have guessed that these four characters are meant for four players, and if so, you get a prize. If you’re like me and prefer to play games alone, don’t worry. Your AI buddies are competent and this game is just as much fun played solo.

(from left to right) Bill, Zoey, Lous and Francis (top) are the first game's crew of badasses. Nick, Rochelle, Coach and Ellis (bottom) are the protagonists of the second game.

(from left to right)
Bill, Zoey, Lous and Francis (top) are the first game’s crew of badasses. Nick, Rochelle, Coach and Ellis (bottom) are the protagonists of the second game.

Both teams decide to journey to the Florida Keys, an area rumored to be infection-free. Whether you team up with friends or go it alone with computer players, it’s up to you to make it to safety, all the while killing hundreds of sprinting freaks.

The first game’s journey begins in Pittsburgh, and the second in Savannah. Each game features 4-6 campaigns set in various locales along the road, including derelict hospitals, abandoned circuses, a spooky coal mine, and other areas. Your goal is to get to the safehouse at the end of each chapter.

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The games’ environments are unsettling but beautifully designed.

Right off the bat, the Left 4 Dead games don’t have a true narrative. The emphasis is shooting fun, though this isn’t to say there’s no story. Valve, the producer of these games, has always been more about showing, not telling. If you look around and listen to your characters’ offhand remarks, you can infer much about the Left 4 Dead universe.

Newspaper clippings rather than cutscenes, for example, reveal info about the infection. The state of the world is shown through manic wall drawings rather than neat text boxes. Your characters’ remarks to themselves and to each other tell their personality and backstory.

This is where the story bits are.

This is where the story bits are.

In this way, I became attached to Left 4 Dead‘s characters and world even though there wasn’t a binding narrative in the middle of it all. The first game’s Louis became my favorite character because of his obsession with fitness, even in the midst of apocalypse, while Ellis’ eager determination to find a tattoo artist in Left 4 Dead 2 was similarly endearing.

These remarks build atop each other as the games progress. They construct the characters’ views of one another in a very minimalist fashion, which works well when your chief concern is surviving hordes of mutants.

Left 4 Dead's characters interact only in offhand remarks. It's your job to infer their story and personality from these remarks, and it works well.

Left 4 Dead’s characters interact only in offhand remarks. It’s your job to infer their story and personality from these statements, and it works well.

 So, what is this? Do these quirky, endearing characters exist in a storyless void? Not quite, there’s still the gameplay. The Left 4 Dead games are both first-person shooters. The first game features a basic arsenal of pistols, rifles and shotguns that receives a modest upgrade in the second game. Left 4 Dead 2 also adds melee weapons, including katanas and chainsaws. There is no game that a katana cannot make better.

The gameplay in Left 4 Dead is quite intense. You can expect to kill anywhere from 100-300 infected in a single 15-minute chapter. Most infected die with only a shot or two, so the games are not as challenging as they may sound. Mowing down hordes of zombies actually does wonders for the self-esteem. Both games also feature Special Infected, which are a lot harder to kill than normal zombies and have formidable abilities.

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The Special Infected have unique powers and are a lot harder to take down. Perhaps the most infamous is the Tank, pictured center, who redefines “Bullet Sponge”. The Special Infected have unique powers and are a lot harder to take down. Perhaps the most infamous is the Tank, who redefines “bullet sponge”.

Left 4 Dead‘s pacing is dictated by a special AI system called the Director, which unleashes or holds back zombies depending on how you’re doing. The Director makes these games’ pacing deliciously unpredictable.

No two playthroughs of one chapter will be the same. Most areas will have at least a few infected, but these games will make you a horde target if you have topped off health and ammo. I’ll never forget one time when I was strolling confidently through an apartment, only to have literally 100 or so zombies spill like a flood through the ceiling. So yeah. Get ready to shoot.

THIS IS WHAT I GET FOR 100% HEALTH???

THIS IS WHAT I GET FOR 100% HEALTH???

Since these are Valve games, the level design in both Left 4 Dead games is superb. The game subtly points out the way forward with flickering lights or a row of broken cars, making the pathing feel very organic.

The first game did feature a slight overabundance of tight corridors, but the second game fixed this problem by including more open areas. Most of the games’ chapters are not linear. One is basically a giant circle. The environments are designed well enough to make you feel like you‘re choosing the path ahead. It’s quite immersive.

The level design in these games is awesome, and oftentimes elaborate.

The level design in these games is awesome, and oftentimes elaborate.

The game’s atmosphere is oppressive, and not just because of the chomping freaks. The sound design alternatives between complete silence and morose, brooding bass. Special music will kick in for horde attacks, although this carries the unintended effect of tipping you off and reducing the tension. The voice acting is fantastic and convincing all around, and the visuals, while a bit murky in the first game, are much bolder in the second.

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are both solid, endearing zombie shooters with fun gameplay, quirky characters and high-end level design. To miss out on either of these games, especially if you’re a zombie apocalypse fan, is a no-no. The first game presents a suite of great gaming that is tweaked and modestly improved upon in the second. With rumors abounding that Left 4 Dead 3 is in production, I know I’m excited for the future of this great series. Special thanks to my friends Sam Hall and Bret Foster for introducing me to Left 4 Dead.

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You can buy Left 4 Dead here and Left 4 Dead 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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