I'm not really into the whole "survival-horror" genre. The classic Stephen King movies, Friday the 13th, etc. aren't my kind of thing. I even passed up on the critically-acclaimed game Bioshock, because I played the demo and it kind of creeped me out. So I already had some trepidations about Left 4 Dead when the demo reached Xbox Live Marketplace. However, since the demo was out there, I was willing to give it a try.
This game is very definitely a member of the survival-horror genre. It takes place after some kind of disease has turned most of humanity into killer zombies, referred to as "infected". (Apparently. The game doesn't waste time with silly things like "backstory".) You play as a group of four people who are the only non-infected people in the area, and your goal is to get out.
It is set up to resemble your classic horror movie. You select one of four "episodes", which determines the setting in which you'll play. As you start the episode, you're greeted with a movie poster about the episode. (The game even has a setting for the amount of film grain effect, giving you control of how much movie experience you want.) Each episode is divided into a series of "chapters". The goal is simple: battle your way from one "safe house" to the next. (Each safe house marks the end of a chapter, there being five chapters per episode.) The end of the episode involves summoning a rescue and making a final stand against waves of infected until the rescue vehicle arrives to carry your party to safety.
Game play is ridiculously simple: shoot (just about) anything that moves. The game is controlled by what they call the "director", which decides what to throw at you when. In this way, the game, despite being in the same environment with the same basic play every time, rarely plays exactly the same way twice. One playthrough, you may encounter a horde of zombies in a certain parking deck. The next time, that same parking deck may be eerily quiet. Yet a third time, you may find a "tank" that rips your group apart.
The thing that makes this game very different is the emphasis on teamwork. Certainly, in most games, you can do much better if you work together, but in Left 4 Dead, it is a requirement. Not only does the system reward you for team play, but there are zombie attacks that will incapacitate one of your party that require a second player to save him.
I played through the demo with a couple other Geezer Gamers, and I very quickly saw the appeal. Communication and teamwork in a very fast-paced (unlike traditional zombies, the Left 4 Dead infected move very quickly) and simple setup. Even then, I wasn't sure I had room in my budget for a new game, but when I happened to be the lucky recipient of a Target gift card at a corporate trade show, I decided to use the funds to pick it up.
It has indeed been as much fun as the demo, and more. The campaign can be played solo or co-op — there are always four players, with computer AI managing any players a human does not currently control; and the AI actually does a decent job of sticking with you, watching your back, and rescuing you from incapacitating zombie attacks.
A very nice feature is that it supports complete drop-in, drop-out co-op. If you set it up as such, you can play a campaign and allow your friends to drop in and take control of one of the other survivors at any time. And, if the player leaves, the AI will take control immediately. What's very nice is that the AI will take temporary control — if a player pauses his session for any reason, the game will continue, but his player will be under AI control. It's not only nice in that it keeps the game flowing when life gets in the way for one person, but it's absolutely essential for the game play, because players must stick together and play together to survive, and one player being away from their controller at a crucial moment could literally mean the difference between life and death.
The versus mode is played by choosing from one of the two episodes available (identical to the four campaign episodes — oddly enough, only half of those are playable in the versus mode). One side starts as the survivors, and one side starts as the infected. The survivor players play through a chapter normally, and the infected players spawn as one of the "specialized" infected types (the type is selected randomly each spawn). Points are awarded for how far the survivors get, plus bonus points if they reach the safe house, how much health they had when they got there, and a couple other factors. Then, the sides switch and the chapter is replayed. Each of the other chapters in the episode are then played in turn, twice each. At the end of the match, the points are totaled and a winning side is declared.
Because each chapter is played twice, a versus match can end up being very long. With the switching back and forth, though, you don't notice the time. You just have to be aware that there's a bit of a commitment going into it.
One very compelling feature is the "commentary" mode. In this mode, text bubbles are scattered throughout the level. Walk up to one and activate it, and you'll hear an audio clip from game developers, producers, managers, artists, etc. about various elements in the game, sometimes with models appearing or the camera taken out of your control to illustrate the topic. It is something like a self-guided, walking audio tour of the game. It's truly fascinating. And to let you focus on the tour, in this mode, zombies will completely ignore your character. (Achievements are of course disabled.)
For being a genre I normally avoid, I'm certainly having a lot of fun playing Left 4 Dead with my fellow Geezers. My only concern is, because of its focus on team play, that it could potentially die quickly should the world move on to the next big game. (There are already some nights where the L4D ranks are a little slim compared to those playing Halo 3 or Gears 2.) In the meantime, though, I'm loving it.