'Left 4 Dead' makes gameplay as a zombie fun

Watch out for vomit-spewing zombies in "Left 4 Dead."
See how many puns you can find in this box art. Courtesy of Electronic Arts

Most games rely too heavily on scripted events. Any avid "Gears of War" fan knows exactly where that first Berserker will bust through the wall, or when that Lambent Wretch appears after the flash of lighting. These kinds of events might startle the first time through, but experience them again, and the moments lose their impact.

Enter "Left 4 Dead," a cooperative-centric shooter from Valve that never fails to catch even the most seasoned shooter fans off guard. On the surface, not much about "L4D" appears inspired. The game gives four survivors, any combination of human-controlled and AI, the task of traveling from Point A to Point B by blasting away all of the living dead in their path. Even the weapons (generic pistols, shotguns and rifles) leave little to the imagination.

The bottom-rung zombies that occupy the majority of the levels' breathing room pose no threat individually, but they enjoy sticking together in groups. They'll also barrel at their targets like rabid animals on adrenaline. A horde of 30 to 40 quick, agitated zombies is a sight to behold.

The game necessitates the cooperation of fellow survivors through the presence of upper-tier infected zombies who are capable of rendering isolated survivors helpless instantaneously. Hunters can pounce from long distances to pin survivors down, smokers can drag and constrict them with massive tongues, boomers can vomit on them to attract a horde of zombies and the Tank is a roaring bullet sponge of superhuman strength.

What makes "L4D" such a consistently nail-biting, white-knuckled experience, though, is that no matter how many times you play it, you'll never experience the exact same sequence of events twice.

Each turn of a corner yields a multitude of possible surprises. Sometimes there will be a useful Molotov cocktail or bottle of health restoring pain pills. Sometimes there will be 20 zombies looking to eat your face off. Sometimes there will be nothing at all.

The game constantly analyzes the performances of the players and then makes decisions about whether to help or punish the players accordingly. If you've been taking it easy, picking off grunt zombies from afar without taking much damage, you'll suddenly be greeted with a Tank to ruin your day. If you're barely hanging in there, you'll probably find some health and ammo in the next room.

Ninety percent of the time, the survivors will be limping into the safe house, exerting sighs of relief and proclaiming "Whew, glad that's over."

But perhaps you'd like to be the one making the survivors feel exhausted and overwhelmed. The game features a separate versus mode where two teams trade off roles as survivors and the infected, where the infected players will spawn as members of the dangerous, upper-tier group of zombies at regular intervals, while the survivors cannot respawn at all.

Versus mode's brilliance lies in its ability to let players unleash their sadistic desires to ruin the survivors' progress. Watching a counter rise as waves of zombies inflict pain upon survivors covered in your Boomer vomit always yields moments of evil snickering. Becoming a Tank is a rare opportunity, but one that makes players feel nothing short of invincible. If being a zombie is this much fun, than a zombie apocalypse might not be so bad after all.

Between the exciting and dynamic nature of the gameplay and the usual coat of Valve polish on the presentation, "L4D" is the zombie game to end all zombie games. Just grab some friends (and some enemies) to make the experience complete.

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