When I first heard the concept for Left 4 Dead, I was intrigued. A four-player cooperative Dawn of the Dead-inspired zombie apocalypse game, it sounded close to being the game I'd always wanted.
Alas, playing the demo left me pretty disappointed. The first-person shooting was overly simplistic, yet the experience offered little else. While the short, self-contained episodes seemed like the right approach, the lack of any real plot or objectives made it hard to engage with the thin, one-note narrative. Maybe it was because I was playing just a demo, but while the game's concept was clearly inspired by zombie films like Dawn of the Dead, the experience felt far more concerned with combat than escape. What was crucially missing was some sort of mission briefing to outline the survivors' plan, which, in better stories, can take weeks to precisely formulate. Not so in Left 4 Dead, starring the worst survivors ever, who decide to just brute force their way through open streets against mobs of mercifully weak zombies. As I stumbled around searching for the path to the next area, not only did I not know where I was supposed to be going, but I didn't even have any kind of map to tell me where I was. Because the zombie spawns were basically random, there wasn't even any sense of progress in the level to tell me whether I was getting deeper in or nearer to freedom, or anywhere at all.
Generous soul that I am, I was ready to attribute my poor experience to my having played it alone, which was clearly the wrong way to enjoy the game. Since I had no gaming PC and no Xbox Live Gold account, however, I shrugged and figured that was that--I still liked the idea, but the game wasn't really for me.
Just under a year later, the demo for Left 4 Dead 2 arrived on Xbox Live, so I thought I'd give the game another try. I had a chance to play it in local split-screen with one other player, which was still only half the full experience, but I figured it would give me at least a taste of the co-op. As it turned out, my original assessment was fairly on the mark.
Having another human being to play with naturally made for a more fun experience, but the game was fundamentally the same and still quite flawed. Moreover, playing it in co-op made me realize that the multiplayer had less in common with the single-player campaigns of other action games than with competitive shooters like Counter-Strike, which shouldn't have been surprising considering the pedigree of original developer Turtle Rock Studios. Whereas the co-op-focused Resident Evil 5 began with the strong single-player design of RE4 and then modified it substantially to suit two players, the Left 4 Dead formula feels more like a competitive death match mode that just placed all the humans on one team to fight against AI.
Characters ice skate around the map, stumbling into the enemy at irregular intervals in sudden and frenzied encounters. Confrontations are always direct and one-dimensional because the simple-minded zombie drones come straight at you, while all you can do is shoot or slap them down while maybe strafing frantically to avoid getting caught standing. The simplistic combat mechanics and randomness of enemy spawns preclude any more thoughtful approaches. There really is nothing more to the game besides gunning down zombies, and unfortunately the extremely dated shooting isn't even very good.
And it's not just the gunplay that feels archaic. The limited animations lack the variety and situational dynamism needed for a convincingly visceral experience, and there is a lack of polish that continually breaks the immersion. At one point my guy was pinned to the ground, his guts being torn out by an especially fierce variety of mini-boss zombie. According to the onscreen message, I was helpless in that situation and could only depend on my partners to save me by subduing my attacker. Thus, as I lay dying, I could only watch as this zombie queen ripped me to shreds while my buddy stood right next to us unloading clip after clip at point blank range into the undead bitch. She would not be distracted, she would not relent, she would not even react until, all of a sudden, she just dropped dead from having taken too much damage. Viewing the ludicrous "interaction" between these three stationary characters, I could not help feeling that there was some feedback missing there.
Of course, most (competitive) multiplayer shooters do not depend on immersive aesthetics. Ultimately it's about playing with other living people, and, however simple or complex the mechanics may be, the experience is only as good as what the players bring to it. I've no doubt that Left 4 Dead can be a lot of fun with three friends. But it isn't the zombocalypse game that I'm looking for.