Saturday, November 29, 2008

Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360) Demo Impressions

A while back I downloaded the Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360) Demo, and didn't get around to trying it out until this morning.

The concept for the game certainly sounds great, and as the first TV Spot shows:

- Zombies. Check.
- 4 Player Co-op. Check.
- Apocalypse. Check.

Sounds like a perfect recipe for a shooter, doesn't it? So... what went wrong?

At present, I tried the demo's Single Player mode, which is the same as 4 Player Co-op save that your three allies are AI controlled. You start at the beginning of the game on a rooftop (watch the game's intro cinematic to see how you get there) where you can stock up on some ammo, items, and an extra weapon, and then you have to navigate through the building and streets to get to the next Safe House, the level's end.

The first thing that hit me was how old the Source Engine is really looking. While the character's facial animations are still top-notch, and the lighting and environments are well done and detailed, character models and texture quality look really drab and last generation. The Source Engine is really showing it's age, and it just can't hold a candle to newer graphics engines anymore, such as Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3.

Story wise, there isn't much of a back story presented, but it's a zombie apocalypse and we all know that deal by now. So for the first time every in my discussion of a Valve Software product, I won't ream them on a poor job done story wise (yes, I'm scared to). You're stranded in a zombie infested city 2 weeks after the initial infection and you're trying to escape with three other survivors. Nice, simple, and works for me. The rest of the game's experience should all be made up for with gameplay and atmosphere, but this is where Left 4 Dead really falls short.

I played on Normal difficulty, and while the gameplay wasn't bad, it lacked both challenge and variety. As you navigate the infested areas, you encounter Infected who will attach you. The zombies in the game are slow until they notice you, then they rush you, and at certain times, you're rushed by a horde (literally dozens of Infected) who come running and screaming down alleys, breaking through walls, or jumping over obstacles. You'll also encounter various "boss" infected, such as Smokers who lasso you with long tongues and drag you in, or Witches who spazz out and go berserk if you shine a Flashlight on them.

But not matter what type or how many enemies you have to fight, there's no real master strategy to it save to keep firing until they're all dead; the gameplay's as bland and cookie cutter as the same enemies you're facing again, and again, and again. Sure, you can Melee or use some Inventory items, such as Molotov Cocktails or Pipe Bombs, but it's really just a glorified shooting gallery and feels like a huge step backward for the shooting genre.

This is exaggerated by the fact that you don't really need to even switch weapons! I made sparse use of a Shotgun ('cause everyone knows you need a Shotgun when battling hordes of undead), but I mainly used dual Pistols and everything fell before me. Your AI allies do a good job of killing enemies and serve as damage sponges, and while you can't save mid-level, you can patch yourself or teammates up with a disposable Medkit in your inventory or give them a temporary boast with Pain Pills, and they'll do the same for you. The game's friendly AI is probably one of it's best aspects.

The level design is extremely linear, and it really bothered me that this screamed at me right on my first playthrough. No matter what building, room, underground subway tunnel, etc. you were in, it's always the same style horde that rushes you, the same solution of just firing until nothing dead is moving, and then you patch yourself up if needed. And this really killed the atmosphere, and the predictable Infected removed any sense of tension or fear.

Lastly, I was also disappointing that you couldn't remap the controller. While this is a common plague on console games, I'm surprised to see this from Valve as they've always allowed controller remapping.

In the end, I did not find the Left 4 Dead demo scary, which killed the atmosphere really fast, and most importantly, it was not a challenge what-so-ever, and I can seriously see the game having an atrocious replay value. For this reason, there's no way I can justify full retail price, and with all the other great titles released this holiday season, at best I'd say give it a rent.

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