I was content playing primarily CounterStrike Source (2004) until November 2008. People in my gaming community started talking about Left 4 Dead (2008), a multiplayer team-based shooter where you fend off zombies. I was intrigued by the concept and participated in the demo (demonstration) of the game with my friends. I enjoyed the game very much and bought the full version a couple weeks after its debut for $39.99 from Amazon.com. Left 4 Dead has a very simple objective: a team of 4 people, known as Survivors, must travel from one safe place to another in a designated map; the problem is that there are numerous zombies blocking your progress. At your disposal are weapons, ranging from rifles to molotov cocktails, that assist you in your journey.
There are many things to like about Left 4 Dead. The game lauds itself as integrating a special tool known as the AI Director, which forms the gameplay experience around the skill of the human players. For example, if your team consists of experts and are doing too well in the game, the Director places more zombies in your path to impede your progress; if you are not performing adequately, the Director does not put as much pressure on your team. Initially, I was very impressed with the Director in that it could create different situations each time I played. It is capable of producing tense and exciting moments since you cannot predict when it will act.
There are also a number of modes to choose from. Single player mode pairs you with 3 AI teammates to play through the maps, but it is merely a way to prepare for the multplayer modes. Co-op mode requires 4 human players to progress through a campaign (4 campaigns with 5 maps each are available from the start) and reach the end with as many or as little surviving members left. Survival mode, which was added in early 2009, contains modified maps from these campaigns and is essentially a round where you must battle against unlimited zombies; the map ends when you die, and you are timed for your efforts to see how skilled you are.
By far the most interesting mode is Versus. Versus is similar to Co-op mode except there is a total of 8 players instead of 4. 4 of the players do not participate as the human Survivors and are instead Special Infected, or zombies that are stronger and have different skills than regular zombies. For example, a person playing as a Special Infected can be a Hunter, a zombie that can leap long distances and attack his enemies by pouncing on them. There are other Specials, such as the Boomer, Tank and Smoker, that all have their own set of skills. Playing in Versus can be a greater challenge than the other modes because you are playing against human opponents that have varying tactics.
Other details to the game are worth mentioning. To combat griefers, or people who intentionally sabotage their team, there is a voting system to kick players. The system only needs to have more yes votes than no votes to bar a person from the game, which is very useful. The graphics, powered by the Source engine, are not bad either, though the zombies all seem to wear the same uninspired and drab clothing. The voicework is exceptional and voluminous with each Survivor having their distinct personality show through their various quips and commands that you can activate through a menu. Even though there is not a deep storyline to Left 4 Dead, you get a sense of the characters from the audio, whether it is Francis' saracasm or Bill's gruffness. Along with the AI Director, the Havoks physics system has been implemented in the game, adding new ways to shoot and dismember zombies.
Many problems, however, exist in Left 4 Dead. Aside from the number of bugs and exploits that have not been fixed, there are several issues with gameplay. First of all, Versus mode can be extremely unbalanced. Because each team is limited to 4 players, a single player with average or below average skill can undermine their entire team's progress. As a result, being paired with 3 other random players can be frustrating if they lack experience.
The gameplay also suffers from learned tactics that players have acquired to exploit weaknesses in the game's design and mechanics. For example, in Co-op and Versus mode, human Survivors can combat incoming hordes of zombies by "camping, " or staying in one place, in a corner to limit the points of attack, making it easier to eliminate their adversaries. While not an illegal technique, camping overrules the ability of the game to consistently challenge players.
In addition, replayability has been sorely diminished. After many months of playing, the other modes, aside from Versus, have fallen into general disuse. Survival mode is not very interesting, nor does it take very long to complete since half of the maps have bugs that can be used to lengthen a person's survival time by cheating. Co-op mode can only be played on the same 4 campaigns for so long before one gets bored, which is another significant issue. Even though the AI Director still works, the maps themselves are too familiar after playing through them several times. Valve has not released any new official maps since the game's debut, though they have recently promised to release one new campaign that contains 2 maps total.
To be fair, the gaming community has been able to produce custom maps of their own, extending the value of the game a little bit. Some servers have been modified as well, governing new rules for the game. For example, I have played on a server where there were 16 players total, 8 playing as Survivors and the other 8 as Special Infected. I found it very enjoyable and refreshing after playing standard 4v4 Versus matches multiple times. If the lack of official content continues, however, more effort will be required on the part of the gaming community to keep Left 4 Dead active, and that possibility may not be guaranteed.
On a side note, Left 4 Dead has an ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) rating of M for Mature. The game depicts graphic deaths and contains copious amounts of blood and disturbing images of dead people. It is not a game tailored for children at all. Left 4 Dead also requires authentication with Steam, a digital platform used to distribute and register games over the Internet. Some people view Steam as an intrusive program that is installed on your computer, but I do not currently define Steam as a negative aspect from my experience; research the pros and cons of Steam and decide for yourself if you want it on your computer before buying Left 4 Dead.
Despite these drawbacks, I still enjoy Left 4 Dead from time to time and have recently started playing custom maps made by other gamers. I cannot, however, recommend this game to anyone at this time, despite my high overall score. The main reason to not buy Left 4 Dead is that Left 4 Dead 2 is set to debut on November 17, 2009, only a year after the first came out. Since most people generally view sequels as being better than the originals, it is possible that Left 4 Dead will be overlooked by both old and new consumers for its newer progeny. I would wait until after Left 4 Dead 2 is introduced to see if Left 4 Dead drops in popularity or not. There is a chance that both games can co-exist and thrive, but that theory remains unconfirmed at this point. If you do decide to purchase Left 4 Dead, wait until the price drops to $24.99 or lower.
Once Left 4 Dead 2 is released, I will observe its success and update as to whether or not it affects Left 4 Dead's value.
Update On Oct 14, 2009: I wrote in my review that Valve had not released any new official maps since Left 4 Dead's release. On Sept. 29, 2009, Valve released Crash Course, the 2 map campaign that was alluded to at the time I wrote the review. It is free as DLC (downloadable content) for the PC. It does not add or detract much from the game's value.
On a side note, Left 4 Dead 2 is about a month away. I will report on the effect, if any, on the Left 4 Dead 1 community after a couple of weeks pass from the sequel's debut.