2008 Reviews

Left 4 Dead (Game of the Year Edition)

  • Review Date: 2013-12
  • Release Date: 2008-10
  • Developer: Turtle Rock Studios and Valve Corp
  • Rating: 8.0

Left 4 Dead has received glowing reviews from just about every major critic. Everyone seems to love it. It's the second highest scoring PC game of 2008 on Metacritic, in fact equal with Mass Effect on 89% with Fallout 3 (understandably) on 90%.

But as always, I review from the single player perspective. Not multiplayer, I don't ever play multiplayer, and not co-op. So from a single player perspective, it's actually a disappointing game. It almost feels like a mod rather than a full AAA title. Low-and-behold, Left 4 Dead is, in fact, a mod for Source developed not by Valve Software, but by Turtle Rock Studios. That explains everything and why this doesn't live up to Half-Life. This was Turtle Rock's first full game with single player inclusion, having previously created a Counterstrike edition.

Starting L4D in 2006 (which explains why the engine is looking dated) Valve took over the studio in 2008 shortly before the release. Valve then created L4D2, which explains the vast improvements (at least from what I read since I'm yet to play it) while Turtle Rock eventually re-assembled and planned a new game, this time converting to CryEngine 3. That's a pretty telling sign that the Source engine just doesn't cut the mustard anymore.

For me, even in 2008, the engine is L4D's biggest downfall. The source engine is horribly dated. Especially now, playing it five years later. It's like they're are stuck in the past building levels the same way they did in 1997 with Hammer, brush-by-brush. But what's worse is the graphical polish and post-processing doesn't really exist. There's no detail on anything. The textures look low-res and blurry. Hell, even the screen resolution only goes up to 1280! If you walk to the edge of a cliff or similarly high point, you expect to see a great scenic view. But instead it's often just one big flat surface and fog. Too much of this game is drenched in dull grey fog to hide it's lack of view.

L4D is the second to last game I've got to play in 2008. All other action games I've played, even the total rubbish. But browsing over my screenshots of all the other games I've reviewed, I'm not finding many games that had worse graphics than L4D. There are worse (City Interactive and Cauldron HQ of course) butL4D is in the bottom half of graphics for 2008. Perhaps Spark's games Legendary and Turning Point are slightly inferior, though they do show more creativity. Perhaps Mercenaries 2 and Saints Row 2 are both inferior, games (on the same engine) that are designed more for huge sandbox cities viewed all at once.

The design of the levels and their layouts is just okay. We have plenty of different settings. However it really feels all a bit the same. Nothing much stands out, it's just lots of similar looking, dark, foggy and linear levels. There's not much exploration, or at least when there is you don't seem to be rewarded with much. It's quite comparible to F.E.A.R.'s level design, although at least L4D does venture outdoors a fair bit.

The version I played included both DLC's, which were very welcome because without them I could have finished the game in a single sitting. Each chapter (of four) takes about an 1-1.5 hours, then add another 1.5 total hours for the DLC's. Without the DLC's, it's almost too short if you're only getting it for it's single player. But the DLC's prop it up to make it satisfactory, although certainly not on the level of an RPG like Fallout 3. That puts L4D's single-player campaign to shame.

There's no story at all. In fact there's no real progression by normal game measures. You can just pick out any chapter and level in the game to play at once. They don't even seem to synch together. A few times I'd end one level in a safe house, then the next one exit the safe house and somehow I'm in a completely different place. Does the safe house magically teleport itself elsewhere? Pure design laziness.

Clearly L4D has to do something right, I've been full of negativity about it so far. And it does, the gameplay is a blast. So many games fail to get the feeling of guns right, but Valve have got it right here. The automatic shotgun feels fantastic, the machine gun (rifle) works wonders on crowds, even the double-yeilded handguns feel powerful enough. There are a few other weapons, the rifle with scope which I found useless, a slow pump-action shotgun and uzi's. Unfortunately you quite often have to play with one of the weaker weapons for a couple of levels for each chapter before you get to something more fun.

Valve fell into the Halo console-trap in allowing only one weapon (+ the handguns) at a time. In an old skool game like this it would have made much more sense to carry all weapons in single player. But I suppose they were thinking from the co-op perspective you need four players, thus a different weapon each. Shame it hurts single player though. There are no upgrades, no future suprises - once you've played the first few levels, you've seen it all. And that includes enemies as well.

So to the zombies. 50% of the time they just stand there while you pick them off one by one. Could this be considered the worst A.I. in the history of gaming? Nope, they can have the excuse that they're zombies. But if they weren't, this isn't great combat. It's quite boring slowly walking through an area while zombies just stand there and you fire away with the handgun (no point wasting the better guns' ammo since it can sometimes get low). Fortunately, to spice things up, the other 50% of the time they ran at you, full-speed. Much better! Especially mowing down headshots and when they get too close push them back with a melee hit. The zombie waves are all dynamic and will be different every time you play through the level. Fantastic.

You then get the special infected. Consisting of The Smoker with a really long tongue that latches on and pulls you in. Think The Barnacle from Half-Life, but he can move. The Hunter, just a really fast zombie that can jump around like a ninja. Yes, think Half-Life's Assassin. The Boomer, just a fat bastard that explodes when shot, but if he spits on your will attract more zombies. Then The Tank, just a big tough fucker. Think Half-Life's Gargantua but melee attacks only. That's it, a grand total of five different zombies. Not impressive, but I suppose many games couldn't claim to have more. It's more than Call of Duty has ever produced in an entire franchise.

L4D is a very fun game, but it does suffer from being a little repetitive. But, having finished it, I'm still going to enjoy a lot of custom made content before I move on. Which means I must be still enjoying it. I just hope some of the user-made levels are more impressive than what Valve's designers created.

One other niggle is dying and having to start a level from scratch. That can be extremely frustrating, especially when it's something small like a smoker has you trapped and your A.I. team mates are off down the rabbit hole have tea parties instead of saving your ass. Each time you could lose 10-20mins of gameplay, and this is never good in a single-player game. Perhaps just a single checkpoint would have been nice mid-way through a level, in single-player. I imagine co-op doesn't have this issue quite as bad.

To be honest, from a single-player perspective, this is a bit average. Average graphics and design for 2008, but it does have some very fun, although repetitive, gameplay. Like I said above, this is a game made popular for multiplayer, not single-player. I might like the sequel better...

Left 4 Dead (Game of the Year Edition)