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Why Left 4 Dead Is My Favorite Zombie Game Ever…

After a recent lighthearted conversation with fellow GIO member Jolt the Cynic discussing zombie games (he wrote a comparison on Dead Island versus The Walking Dead and I wrote about my favorite element of The Walking Dead), I was inspired to revisit a zombie game, perhaps my favorite zombie game in the history of my gaming career, which lead to the creation of this blog.

The inclusion of zombies in video games is certainly not a new concept and one that I've talked about in quite a few other blogs. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of games that feature this variant of the undead. It would be a challenge to be a gamer in today's market and not have played a game with a zombie. Some franchises base the whole concept of their game on zombies, as seen with some of the more recent titles like Dead Island and Zombi U. Others offer zombie modes as a bonus feature or extra content, including games like Black Ops II and Red Dead Redemption. Suffice it to say, there are an inordinate number of games featuring zombies, so picking one as the best is no doubt a challenge that largely comes down to personal opinion.

At the end of the day, when I consider all of the zombie games I have ever played, the one that was the biggest Thriller and provided that sense of dread you would expect from reanimated dead corpses is by far the Left 4 Dead series. And for the record, when I say Left 4 Dead, I am referring to both episodes - the original and its sequel. They are two different games, but so closely related in design and game play that I group them together as one entity.

The Five Cs of a great zombie game...or what makes Left 4 Dead so great.

CHARACTERS

"All the epic spectacle in the world doesn't matter, if you don't care about the characters." -Amy Hennig

Characters are a vital element for nearly every video game out there, especially those games that have a story to tell. When you feel a connection to the characters, whether it is the one you play or the non-player characters you associate with throughout the course of the story, the experience is far more likely to be memorable when you feel a certain attachment to the characters; you also worry more about protecting your teammates and are saddened if and when something bad happens to them.

The development teams for Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 nailed the character development element in these games. They both are similar in that they include 4 primary characters, with you being able to jump in / jump out and control any of the four. Although they play the same (one character doesn't offer an advantage or disadvantage over another character), they are uniquely different and perfectly blend the sex, race and background of each to create such a diverse group ...the only way they would ever rally together in real life is for something as shocking as a zombie apocalypse.

In Left 4 Dead you have: Francis, a stereotypical biker; Bill, a Vietnam Veteran; Zoey, a university student; and Louis, a district account manager. And in Left 4 Dead 2 you have: Coach, a portly high-school football coach with a bad knee; Nick, a rude and cynical gambler and con artist; Rochelle, a low-level production assistant reporting on the evacuation for a local television station; and Ellis, a friendly (and rather talkative) mechanic who often talks about his friend Keith and their many misadventures. Each character has a unique personality and entertaining dialogue to foster that relationship.

Even though the games are a few years old, I won't spoil the fate of any of the characters, but I will say there are definitely a few gut-wrenching moments...and that is achieved by having exceptional characters you care about.

CO-OP

Both games offer a "versus" and survival mode; part 2 also includes a scavenge mode...but the real beauty of both games is the 4 player campaign mode. Four players (or AI controlled bots filling in for any vacant spot or players who are AFK for too long) can work together through the entire campaign completing various missions while periodically pausing at safe houses along the way to resupply and rearm your little band of survivors. While the safe houses also double as checkpoints, the way they are crafted into the game is wonderfully achieved, as you can spend minutes on end reading the graffiti and messages from "other" survivors scrawled on the walls. You learn to work together, fight together and suffer together as you progress through the game, and will be thankful for the companionship offered by your team when healing your wounds or fending off waves off zombies or after being rescued when one of the special characters incapacitates you. Teaming up with three other friends and tackling either Left 4 dead game is a guaranteed fun time.

COMBAT

All zombie games have this in common...there will be combat; and normally...lots of it. I can't think of a zombie video game in the history of gaming that didn't include combat. That being said, for a zombie game to be successful, the combat has to be tense. Even The Walking Dead, which has been criticized by its critics for being nothing more than a story driven game with a few Quick Time Events, wouldn't be as successful as it is if it wasn't for the combat element contributing to the panic and fear elicited by those playing it.

Thankfully, the Left 4 Dead games contain a robust combat mechanic resulting in intense (and often violent) engagements with the adversary. The games achieve this with two general elements - weapons and opponents.

Weapons - the Left 4 Dead games feature a wide compliment of weapons, both ranged and melee to use against the swarms of "nasties" that inevitably get in your way. It's shocking what you can use as a weapon, and how effective some are over others. I am not a fan of hand to hand combat, so I forgo using the cricket bat, skillet and chainsaws; I much prefer staying as far away as I can, so I prefer the scoped rifles or the notorious assault rifle. When it does come down to close engagements, I rely on dual wielding pistols, which is very effective at dispersing the hordes bearing down on you and your teammates. Truthfully, if I could sneak by and not attack any of them, I would...but that is not going to happen, I promise you. There are plenty of weapons and improvised explosive devices (Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs) to choose from that will get you as close or as far away from the action as you're willing to get.

Opponents - Well, obviously there are zombies, since they have already been mentioned a few times. And these are the fast moving type of zombies. If you read the back story associated with the game you learn they're actually not really zombies, even though that's what practically everybody calls them.

Your primary threat is the Infected, which are humans who have contracted a mutated strain of a virus, though neither the source nor nature of this "Green Flu" are made clear in the games. The most numerous Infected encountered by the survivors are the Common Infected. Though individually weak, they can swarm and overwhelm the Survivors, especially if they are separated. In Left 4 Dead 2 there are some uncommon Infected unique to each campaign. By virtue of location and equipment worn pre-infection, they possess abilities that separate them from the Common Infected. For example, the Dead Center campaign introduces infected CEDA agents in hazmat suits, making them fireproof; Dark Carnival includes clowns, whose squeaking attracts small hordes of Common Infected; and The Parish includes infected security personnel in riot gear, making them bulletproof from the front.

In addition to the infected, there are a handful of other more challenging opponents that aren't quite as common as the infected, which is a good thing. They can be tough.

The Boomer: a bloated Infected whose bile blinds any Survivors hit with it, as well as attracting a horde of Common Infected towards them.

The Hunter: an agile male Infected that can pounce on Survivors from great distances and tear at them until the Survivor dies or another Survivor shoves it off/kills it.

The Smoker: a male Infected that can ensnare Survivors with its long tongue from a distance and, upon death, releases a cloud of smoke that obscures Survivors' vision.

The Tank: a gigantic, muscular Infected male that can punch Survivors several feet, and toss cars and concrete slabs.[26] Unless the Survivors work as a team, they will be quickly incapacitated or even killed by the Tank's inhuman strength.

The Witch: a crying Infected woman who, when provoked by loud sounds, light, or proximity of survivors, will attack her provoker - she is able to incapacitate or even kill in one hit.

Left 4 Dead 2 also includes a few additional bad guys:

The Charger: a male Infected with an enormous right arm, and can charge into the Survivors and separate one Survivor from the others whilst pummeling them into the ground, rendering the Survivor helpless until one of their teammates helps them.

The Spitter: a female Infected that spits out balls of stomach acid that splatter across an area, quickly eroding the Survivors' health as long as they remain within it; the longer a player loiters, the faster their health drops.

The Jockey: a maniacal male Infected that jumps onto a Survivor's back and steer them into other Infected or environmental hazards (e.g. Spitter goo), whilst clawing at the player's head.

The bad guys are varied and plenty. You'll find yourself running for cover and reloading often, and you'll panic when you stray too far from your team and are confronted by one of the unique and more powerful special bad guys. You'll learn when and how to use your explosive devices at the opportune time in order to clear a path through the relentless horde of the Infected. You'll discover rather quickly how evil and deadly the witch can be and how long you can ignore a jockey before he incapacitates his victim...or you.

CONSTRUCTION

Everything about the game is polished. The audio / visual effects are stunning; the individual levels, rendered objects and set pieces are masterfully crafted; the atmosphere tense and believable; and the mechanics and flow of the game are fluid. From the load time, splash screens, user interface, controls, game play...everything is of the highest caliber. The game transitions you along from location to location with a degree of transparency that feels entirely unscripted and natural, almost as if it were a free-roaming open ended game. The game is just easy to play and allows you to focus on the only thing that really matters...staying alive.

CAMPAIGN

Okay, so you have you and your buddies playing co-op to control some great characters engaging in some tense combat sequences on a finely constructed application, and all of that is tied together with the campaign. The campaign is what integrates the other components into a tidy little package that you play. Without it, you would just run around the map shooting zombies. The campaign is what establishes goals and seamlessly transitions between the levels. What I like about Left for Dead, each of the campaigns has what appears to be a "movie poster" featuring the main characters, as if to market the campaign. That's a pretty neat little feature.

If you haven't played the game, just take a look at the different campaigns from the first game, courtesy of the L4D wiki found here.

No Mercy - In Fairfield, after a narrow escape with the Infected, the Survivors focus on moving towards a Hospital for evacuation from a passing News 5 helicopter. The Survivors move from an apartment building, subway station, sewer, Mercy Hospital, right up to a Rooftop Finale.

Death Toll - The Survivors have finally made it to where Riverside lies. Due to the pathway blocked on the abandoned highway, the Survivors follow the drainage system of Riverside, to a church, into the town of Riverside, and finally to a boathouse on the riverbank. There, the Survivors wait for rescue from a civilian fishing boat.

Dead Air - With the Survivors stranded in a large greenhouse full of Infected, they witness a plane fly by overhead. Deciding the best way to escape the city is via the airport, they make their way through a metropolitan area, over rooftops, a construction site, an air station terminal, and finally, a last stand at a Runway Finale. There, the Survivors see a C-130 Hercules plane that has run out of fuel, and needs help refuelling.

Blood Harvest - Lost in the middle of a thick forest, the Survivors follow the path to a trainyard, and through a repair warehouse. Following the railway lines, they move past a bridge, a train station, and finally to a Farmhouse Finale. With nobody in sight, the Survivors call via a radio to the military, and from there, wait for a armored personnel carrier to pick them up. But in the meantime, the Infected have discovered their location....

As gamers (including me) continue to press Valve over when (or if) the next Half Life 3 will be released, I also have to wonder how long it will take before we see the next episode in arguably one of the best representations of the zombie apocalypse we've ever had the opportunity to survive. I know I'm ready for the next zombie apocalypse, are you?

 

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