Two weeks ago, I had the weekend to myself. I played some Half-Life 2 mods, like Minerva and Mistake of Pythagoras, but my appetite was whet and couldn't be sated. I wanted to kill things. Lots of things. Like zombies.
Enter Left 4 Dead. Well, enter Left 4 Dead about two years ago - I'm a late adopter. The concept always sounded intriguing to me but A) it had fast "28 Days Later" zombies, which I don't like and B) wasn't a game I probably had time for, since it was a collaborative online game. But despite those objections, I just bought it and downloaded it on Steam. (Aside: Steam is scary. The transaction took less than ten seconds (once I found my ID) and it felt like no money had change hands. At least with my credit card, I have to hand it over to someone, which is like handing over money. This was so efficient it was like I always owned the game).
And since I love to talk about story-telling in video games, guess what you get? And THE DOORS ARE LOCKED!
Left 4 Dead has some interesting ways of getting the story across. There's no need to talk about what happened before. We all know the story. It's a virus or a comet or nuclear radiation or demons or a radioactive comet with a demon virus. There are some messages in the safe rooms that claim to tell the story, but they're nothing more than pleasant touches. Why it happens isn't important, but what happened as a result is the interesting part - the world is over, because everyone's become a mindless, psychopathic zombie.
Except our four heroes - a black IT consultant, a biker, a grizzled Vietnam Vet, and a perky co-ed (who, according to comics, everyone wants to get with - they are the last people on earth you know). Nine times out of ten, these people would have no sound bites, but with Valve, their personalities bleed through in everything they do, from healing to riding the elevator. You can tell they're separate people, but the great part is YOU take control of them, and are allowed to inject as much of yourself into them as possible. Which is what I always say you should be doing. And the zombies have personalities too. The Boomer, the Tank, the Witch (who this author finds a little too sexy), the Smoker, and the Hunter. At first I thought this kind of defeats the point of zombies, having ones with individual quirks. But now that I've played, they're necessary to add variety of play.
But the best part of the game is the camraderie as you try and get to the escape point with your online friends. Before I've always played deathmatches where your mission is to kill everyone. I've made attempts at co-op games like Capture the Flag and Team Fortress 2, but it just seems everyone goes they're own way, and we end up dying. Because we don't want to strategize, we want to shoot things. Not this case. I've never chatted with people so much, or interacted with anyone in an online game. I like to remain anonymous and kill the zombies. But here, I feel it's all right, because we're all working towards the same goal in the same way. Not like deathmatches where you've got snipers, heavy gunners, exploders, cheaters, spawn-campers, and so forth. You have to move forward, you have to stick together, and you have to blow the shit out of everything.
My beef is that while they tried their best to vary the gameplay, it's the same four levels with the same four people, with the same zombies. This makes online play necessary, because it's the only way to make the experience dynamic. For example, one time I was playing and this one girl said she was trying to get an achievement for using only the pistol and no healing. Somewhere along the line it became my mission to help her and protect her. I was giving her my pain pills and looking for them for her, keeping close to protect her from zombies. It was like an escort mission, but it didn't suck. (End result: We failed the healing, but succeeded the pistols-only).
In another game, people kept yelling at me because I kept charging through the streets like I was Leeeeeeeeeroy Jenkins, getting vomited on and attracting the horde. In another game, there was a leader shouting orders ("We'll make a stand on the roof", "Someone needs to reset the generator, we'll take on the Tank") like it was an actual zombie attack.
What I've learned is I can kill a lot of zombies but have horrible accuracy. I'm good at killing special infected, but the Tank always seems to go right for me. Then it traps me, and I'm incapacitated. But the thrill level is tops. I've seen a tank fling someone off a roof. I've followed instructions and died trying to save people. I feel like I'm part of something in this game. And it's a good feeling.
In summary, Left 4 Dead's is a game, not a story. But that's fine, because you and your friends make up your own story.