Thursday, November 13, 2008

Left 4 Dead? I'm going to find myself a witch!

This is the last post from my old blog just new posts after this.

Been enjoying the Left 4 Dead demo quite a bit. So much so that I really feel like waiting for the full game before I devote more free time to it.

I won't bother going into details of the gameplay, but what strikes me about the latest valve offering is the amount of love spent on the aesthetics, from control to visuals. Their blog goes into some of the visual touches I had only experienced, let alone analysed. The contrast black and white visuals of being almost dead followed by the flash of crisp colour after popping some pain pills really enhances that sense of a pick-me-up. I think my fave dramatic effect has to be the lament of the choir invisible when you're waiting to be rescued. All the sound effects cut out and you're left with a silent movie of you and your companions being mobbed as they run for their little lives. Just epic.

Controls are worth mentioning too, particularly after my disappointment with Bioshock. While they are no different to playing Team Fortress 2, your choices seem more obvious and immediate. Primary for most things, pistols to compensate for primary weaknesses (accuracy, or rate of fire), grenade for barrier or lure, etc. For some reason though I keep pressing H to bring up my health pack, only to see the server window. Weird and frustrating (trying to fix my bad habit rather than change my bindings, but I really have no idea where I picked this up from).

My two concerns for L4D before playing were that the levels would be too linear and the bot AI would make single player a waste of time. I was right on both accounts but my reaction was not as negative as I expected. Firstly the levels are pretty much as straight as an arrow, with no real alternative routes (in the first two levels in the demo that is). I was expecting the city to feel more freeform with a choice of safe houses and things, but instead it's really a gauntlet (more on this later :P ) to the finishing line. Yes it winds a bit and there are natural barriers that you can use in alternate ways, from alternate sides etc. but narrow none-the-less. Now I thought this would be a problem, and initially I was disappointed to be proved right, but actually the linear level design just highlights how effective the Director is at adding replayability. You learn the levels fast but reacting to all circumstances is pretty challenging. That said there are a finite number of tricks up the director's sleeves and once ready for them it does threaten to get repetitive. Good thing your sense of satisfaction just rises a notch when you can deal with the hordes more effectively.

Second the AI bots for single player (and multi without a full compliment) are actually better than most human players at the moment. This was a surprise till I realised they know just what to do in each situation (EDIT: they just don't, really the bots have let me down so much, I'm starting to wish they responded to voice commands), reacting with computer efficiency which is understandably fast. Of course they don't always do everything right but then who would (EDIT: heh). The trouble with this surprise for me was that as long as I played reasonably well I could best single player in Expert mode, simply because the bots were so good. Bit of a shame, but then that's one of the reasons that multiplayer is just fantastic.

I do want to mention difficulty level, since I brought it up twice now. All the previews I read went on and on about how hard normal mode was. Now again I'm experiencing just the first two levels but it was surprisingly easy on normal, even with 3 other players. We got to the end without sweating much, the time we did see a tank meant no deaths etc. I was sad by this. Ramping the difficulty up to advanced posed more of a challenge and deaths started to occur with alarming frequency. Then the joy of dying started to appear. All the ways you can be taken out, the mad situations the boss zombies create as hordes swamp you, the atmosphere is just so right. And putting the difficulty up also made it feel like a real achievement to get to the end. Nothing felt quite so good as getting to the end of expert mode alive, hobbling through the door with just one remaining team mate. It took significantly more practice to finish expert with all of us alive, and every attempt was just as fun as the one where we survived. Really dying hasn't been so fun in a long time.

This brings me to my most amusing evening with the demo so far. Not the experimenting with the split screen that caused my vista to go to a blue screen of death and do a crash dump, no that was just horrible and simply unbelievable. No the most amusing thing was joining an expert game with some TF2 buddies. I arrived to have a shotgun to the face and watched dumbstruck as the remaining team took each other out. The last man standing then leaped into the zombie horde shouting 'I'm going to find myself a witch!'. He got to the second subway train before being devoured by an truly epic hoard of zombies. At the respawn things went all John Woo in the safe room, the winner finishing off those on the floor before facing off the zombies, only to be taking from their grasp by a waiting smoker. This must have happened a few times, with each of us managing to have a go at a witch hunt. Then an odd thing started to happen. We formed temporary alliances, preferring to take the horde as a duo, helping up one team mate we thought least like likely to shoot us back. Bizarre and hilarious and so out of the spirit of the game it was truly liberating. It got a bit messing at the vote kick wars though :P As I sit recalling the fun I can only imagine how satisfying verses mode will be, when the griefing becomes part of the game and not just some adhoc experience that evolved from late night shenanigans.

Following this I feel I've had my fill of the demo, my fill only because I've had a taste of the full game and I want the whole menu, not just this cheeky starter. I can afford to be hungry a little longer before the real banquet begins.

Safe journey


PS: I mentioned gauntlet earlier and it reminded me of what I was thinking about this co-op experience. It's just like Gauntlet! Four players, working against a horde of monsters, sometimes bosses, trying to get from point A to point B, covering each others backs, searching for treasure (i.e. achievements or weapons/grenades etc). Of course this is gauntlet in the age of the FPS and internet multiplayer options. Fast, slick, adrenalin fuelled gauntlet but gauntlet non-the-less. I know that Left 4 Dead is so much more than this aging classic, a magnificent evolution. Thank you Valve for this truly great gaming experience, I can wait to see what the delights you have lined up for the full version.

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