Bill, Louis, Francis and Zoey are four civilians who must help each other survive a trek through a simple, normally tame locale in order to reach an evacuation point in order to avoid turning into zombies. The first sign that Left 4 Dead is not a game made for its story or plot is the fact that these same four people are in trouble in various spots and are introduced through a movie poster. In one campaign, they must reach a hospital and be evacuated by helicopter–in another, they must reach a farmhouse and be rescued by the military.
Left 4 Dead will appeal to anyone who likes to have a good time with friends. Single player is fun for a while, but the computer-controlled companions start to feel strange–sometimes they are stupid, but their aim is often flawless, never missing zombies and never hitting teammates.
But in multiplayer co-op campaigns, which is the game’s raison d’etre, the friendly fire mechanism brings tension and meaning, because there can be literally 50 zombies, all who cannot be outrun, all of which will sometimes swarm only one or two players, and knowing when to stop shooting in such circumstances requires precision. To further complicate matters, there are special zombies that almost always need two players to be taken and down and boss zombies that almost always need four; this further forces teams to work well together.
Every single zombie is randomly placed before and during each campaign session, giving Left 4 Dead a sense of chaos and replayability–the well-designed levels are memorized quickly, but if a map starts with say, two or three hundred pre-placed zombies, thirty could be in the last room, first hallway, or neither. Anywhere that appears to lead somewhere, even if it doesn’t, can be a source of a wave, and it doesn’t matter whether it is the side, front, back, or any combination of these at once: your problems and tight spots will almost always vary in location, if not nature.
In versus, you get to be all but one of the special zombies; you have a creator’s vision of the map and can see all your enemies through walls (teammates can see each other that way as well) and can choose to spawn anywhere you want as long as it’s not too close or in plain sight. The other players play the campaign in the exact same way as they would in a co-op campaign against the computer, only with player-controlled special zombies.
Left 4 Dead is traditional zombie shooting with revolutionary gameplay design; one part MMO for its required social teamwork, one part Geometry Wars for its insane, unpredicable chaos, and three parts highly solid and safe FPS mechanics with grenades, molotovs, shotguns, pistols, and automatic weapons give Left 4 Dead the ability to show us how comfortable and standardized the FPS format has become. Left 4 Dead cannot be missed.