The Essentials – Left 4 Dead

by Jeff Marchiafava on Apr 12, 2015 at 08:00 AM

The Essentials is Game Informer's weekly recurring feature that takes a look at the most important games the industry has to offer. These games aren't just a ton of fun: Their quality, innovation, and industry influence make them must-play experiences for anyone who wants a greater appreciation of our interactive medium.

This weekend we're taking a look at Left 4 Dead. Turtle Rock's four-player FPS didn't just make the zombie apocalypse cool again – it redefined the co-op shooter, thanks to its challenging, teamwork-focused gameplay.

Release Year: 2008
Publisher: Valve, Electronic Arts
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios, Valve
Released For: Xbox 360, PC, Mac

Zombie fatigue is a common and understandable affliction that many gamers (though not all) suffer from nowadays, but that wasn't the case in 2008. Back then, the video game industry – and my personal game library – was in sore need of an awesome zombie game. Sure, there was always Resident Evil, but Capcom's perennial series was more focused on survival-horror and puzzles than all-out zombie mayhem. Capcom's other new zombie series, Dead Rising, had plenty of bloodshed, but was more comical than scary, and focused primarily on melee fighting. Despite the popularity of contemporary zombie films like 28 Days Later, and the Dawn of the Dead remake, no one had made a fast, action-focused zombie shooter, and the George A. Romero-approved stinker Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler's Green had me convinced no one would ever do it right.

That's why when I first read about Left 4 Dead, it seemed too good to be true. The slow, brainless shamblers of other zombie games seemed no match for Left 4 Dead's enemies; even the garden-variety "infected" looked fast, violent, and genuinely scary. As an added bonus, the game featured co-op play, allowing four players to team up against the unending hordes of brain-hungry enemies. I was cautiously optimistic.

Once I finally got my hands on Left 4 Dead, however, the nonstop action quickly exceeded my expectations. Left 4 Dead doesn't just feature co-op play; the game is built for it. Splitting up and exploring on your own – a common occurrence in most co-op games – is a surefire way to get you and your friends killed. Every threat in Turtle Rock's zombie apocalypse forces you to stick together and work as a team: Stealthy Hunters pounce on straggling players, pinning them helplessly to the ground; Smokers ensnare and drag unsuspecting survivors away from the pack with their long, mutated tongues; and Tanks require the full attention and coordination of all four teammates to take them down. While the game's A.I. companions perform admirably, the demanding formula shines when you're playing with friends – the more you communicate and work together, the more fun Left 4 Dead becomes.

Half of that fun comes from the fact that your life is always on the line, thanks to Left 4 Dead's much-touted "A.I. director." The engine keeps a constant watch on how players are faring, and adapts the difficulty to keep players in the sweet spot, offering up more ammo and items to beleaguered crews, and throwing extra zombie hordes and special infected foes at those who dare to make surviving the apocalypse look easy. Not only does the A.I. director keep the action at a perfect pitch, the added randomization makes the game more replayable – you never know what to expect no matter how many times you make the run through the gauntlet of undead enemies.

Adding to the engaging formula are Left 4 Dead's "crescendo events." These mini set-piece moments force players to stay put and defend a given spot against incoming hordes. While most of the crescendo events followed the same formula – typically waiting for an elevator to arrive or a noisy generator to warm up while simultaneously drawing in hordes of zombies – they change up the pace and add a welcomed layer of strategy to the mix, as players set up traps at potential ambush points and plan out their defense before triggering the event. This is especially true of the intense and climactic finales, which contain all the explosive action, surprises, and heroic sacrifices (or cowardly desertions) of your favorite zombie films. Unlike most games, the drama isn't scripted – sure, the time limit is always the same and you know a Tank or two is eventually going to show up, but the rest plays out differently every time, and revolves around the skill and strategy of your team.

Unlike many of the titles we've featured in the Essentials, Left 4 Dead doesn't have a plot-heavy story – the game is broken down into four distinct campaigns, each of which is introduced with a mock movie poster, and the script is composed almost entirely of in-game chatter between the characters. Despite the absence of a scripted narrative, Left 4 Dead is a prime example of visual storytelling; the game presents players with a believable and intriguing world, full of memorable locales befitting a zombie apocalypse, including an abandoned hospital, overrun church, and eerie farmhouse. Little details in the environment flesh out the timeline in an unobtrusive way, cluing observant players into broken quarantines and tragic mishaps. Left 4 Dead's four survivors also proved surprisingly endearing; the sparse-but-humorous dialogue endowed each character with a unique and likable personality.

And that's all it took to get players hooked; Left 4 Dead's fast-paced gameplay, exceptional pacing, and focus on teamwork entices players to keep coming back for more, and its 2009 sequel still regularly draws in thousands of players on Steam. Left 4 Dead's often-overlooked versus multiplayer served as a prelude to Turtle Rock's Evolve, but the game's true legacy will be its teamwork-oriented co-op, which has inspired countless other developers to follow suit. When we ranked the best co-op games of all time, Left 4 Dead easily topped the list, making it an essential game for anyone who enjoys playing with friends.

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