Letters Never Sent
I recently joined the modern age of gaming and bought an Xbox 360. Sure, I’d had a Wii and a houseful of Macintosh computers. But those consoles (and platform) are usually kind of second tier units in the gaming mainstream. The Wii excels in titles for younger kids as well as introducing innovative gameplay with the remote/nunchuck controller. The Apple, while a fine computer, doesn’t have the selection of games that Windows machines do (yes, I know I can run Windows on a Mac, but DEAR GOD WHY?).
So now that I do have an Xbox, I can catch up a little bit on what I’ve been missing in terms of FPS games. That and all but quitting World of Warcraft meaning my gaming time is free now for me to try other titles. Sure, there’s my Rock Band commitment with my wife, but that’s not all my game time. So I picked up a copy of LEFT4DEAD to satisfy more…destructive gaming impulses. And it doesn’t get much more visceral and destructive than mowing down packs of hungry undead.
LEFT4DEAD, at least in the single-player mode, places the player into one of four survivors who have the simple task of getting from one side of town (or a ruined turnpike or wilderness or an airport) to the other. Only there’s countless hordes of zombies between you and “safety.” The setting is some two weeks after a previously unknown virus (why is it a virus and never a bacillium?) has wiped out most of humanity and turned those it didn’t kill into ravening killing machines (and worse).
Okay, it didn’t get everyone. There’s you and your pals. You can play one of four characters: Louis (the IT guy in shirtsleeves, oddly optimistic and the sole African-American in sight), Zoey (college student by day, zombie killin’ machine by night), Francis (the uncle that nobody ever mentions because he’s a biker who looks at a bottle of Vicodin and says “Ah, a little pick-me-up”) and Bill (the grizzled veteran of what must be the Gulf War and would be the homeless guy you avoided on the bus). The differences between them is strictly cosmetic, which is kinda too bad, as you could have each of them be slightly better than the other in some particular task or facet of the game. But then I also spent a good chunk of my gaming life in WoW where it was all about the differences between character classes and the various combinations that made things interesting.
Then there’s the zombies, which are usually called “infected.” And really, that’s fine, because they’re far more like 28 DAYS LATER infected than they are like Romero zombies. The fast zombie rears its head, ascendant for the slow zombie is only scary in overwhelming numbers and in situations where making the headshot is just not going to happen. L4D infected come in two speeds: idle and FAST. They’re not real quick on the uptake, but if you wing one or miss it but come close enough to wake it up (out of a distressed state of near-fetal rocking or face to the wall reminiscent of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), then it will not walk but run towards you at full speed, gibbering. That’s usually enough to wake up any other infected around, so once you start firing, you better get ready for action.
There’s other forms of infected, too. They’re (with some exceptions) no physically tougher than normal infected, but they have special attacks that make them much more interesting opponents. Smokers lash out at survivors with twenty-foot-long tongues that will pull a defender out of a dug-in position, making them very vulnerable. Boomers are grossly corpulent creatures that spew bile on survivors, calling all infected in the area to them (and blinding the survivor in the process). Hunters are very sneaky and fast, jumping from hidden positions and incapacitating their targets until aided. Tanks are hideously powerful and tough, kind of like fighting a mini-Hulk. Witches are interesting, because they’re not an enemy so much as they’re an obstacle. Wailing to themselves in a corner, they’re not a threat and don’t bother anyone. Until you shine your flashlight on them for too long or make sudden noise around them. Then they leap at the offender, slashing and clawing, immediately dropping the player to the ground before going to work on their friends. In theory, you can simply tiptoe around them. In theory.
Unlike some FPS games out there, the arsenal at the player’s disposal is human-portable (“Where am I going to put this LAW rocket AND bazooka AND M-16 AND chainsaw?”), with handguns, automatic weapons (two kinds: submachine gun and assault rifle), a hunting rifle for the patient among you, and shotguns (two kinds: sporting and assault). Given the “real world” setting for L4D, this fits, and isn’t as much a limitation as you’d think. Besides, you only end up using one of two guns 95% of the time and then the other 8 weapons in your inventory the other 5% (at least from my memory, that’s how it goes.) The combat interface favors control over blindly hosing down oncoming crowds. Even though your heavy hitting weapons are automatic, it’s far wiser to fire off clusters of rounds–beyond that and your accuracy goes out the window. Granted, there’s situations where there’s so many attackers that you want to throw down a curtain of lead just to keep them back. Just mind the reload times. And yeah, even with the numbers against you, you feel better with the heft of a shotgun in your hands or hanging low in front of you onscreen.
Now that you know the basics, the level begins. You start in a semi-secure location: there’s no protection, but the infected are all out of eyeshot and won’t roll in on you until you move out. The scenario (five linked levels that play out to probably an hour and a half or so if you’re efficient–I’m not) “No Mercy” starts with the four survivors in a makeshift shelter on a roof of a downtown apartment building. And if you know anything about zombie lore, a heavily-populated urban area is about the last place you want to be. So you and your friends head down the stairs into the ruins of civilization, looking for a way out.
One major difference between L4D and other FPS games I’ve played (not in a long time) is that it’s explicitly co-operative. Even when you’re playing solo, you’ve got backup in the form of your three computerized buddies. Pathetic though this may be, it takes the edge off the feeling of isolation that FPS games usually engender. Sure, the AI does some silly things, like lag far behind when you really want to investigate that tunnel, but it also saves you when that Hunter starts chewing on your face and all you can do is shriek like a five year old. They’ve even got a bit of personality, usually delivered by way of one-liners (which can teach your kids new words). Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t scares to be had in L4D, but the sheer loneliness of being the last free-thinker on earth isn’t one of them.
The atmosphere maintains a steady balance between YOU’RE ALL FUCKT and “We might make it after all.” The structure of civilization is largely intact, though in total disarray. Thought there’s certainly nobody left at the wheel, by and large. Streets are clogged with abandoned cars and trucks, trash-strewn and bodies out in the open like Big Mac wrappers. Broken windows more often than not, but there’s lights on in buildings, helping prod you from one part of the map to the next. It’s perpetually moonlit night (though you’ve got an everlasting flashlight, but it’s only really needed indoors) and gloomy enough. But again, it’s not so gloomy that you feel overwhelmed and beaten into submission. At least not until you round a corner and hear the soundtrack cue (the music is dynamic and goes to ominous horns when there’s an attack incoming) and see a group of infected running towards you at top speed, and there’s no place to take cover.
While you’re moving, and clearing attackers on the run, it almost seems like, “Hey, with a National Guard platoon and enough time, we could make this place livable again.” Of course, that’s only when you’re moving. When you loiter in an area too long, more infected show up. Sooner or later, you’re going to be out of ammo, no matter how good a shot you are. Oh, and don’t just randomly shoot up cars because you think it’s cool–some of them are still wired up with alarms, which will sound just like a dinner bell to all nearby infected.
Somehow, it feels worse inside the larger buildings, like things are more rotten the closer to the core that you get. The streets are just a mess, but somehow seeing a hospital turned into a holding pen for the walking damned was unsettling. Partial lights become an uncomfortable reminder of how things used to be (and they let you see the splattered gore and recognize faces of the hospital gown-clad infected as they charge you.) But if you weren’t beging charged, you wouldn’t have the opportunity for head-exploding action. And there’s plenty of that.
Plotwise, like most zombie movies, there’s not a hell of a lot to L4D. There’s not even discord among the survivors, which might make for an interesting addition to solo play (but would become untenable in cooperative play.) Kill zombies and move on. Get over your yellow streak and march into the ruined highway tunnel or that darkened hallway. Clear those infected on the hospital roof and get to the radio there (but don’t man the chaingun, since it robs you of your biggest asset–mobiity.) Breaking the solo play into four separate campaigns of five scenes each (no one campaign related to the other in particular) takes some of the depth out of things. Clearly the single-player functionality is there to train you how to play cooperatively and not much more.
Some of the best moments in L4D are silent, not flashy at all. When the player makes it into a safe house (an impenetrable room stocked with supplies) at the end of a level, you can take a moment to look around. Scrawled on the walls are desperate messages, some informative “Infected can turn in a day–’I've seen them turn in five minutes’” or emotional pleas “Sorry, we waited as long as we could.” In addition, there are ubiquitous “What to do to avoid infection” public service messages, all clearly woefully ineffective in the face of the spreading virus. But it’s the letters never sent that are stirring, you reading those words that were intended for someone else, pointing towards stories that you’ll never know the outcome of.
Though that doesn’t exclude a little humor on the part of the programmers. Or is that perverse wilfulness to reject armageddon and instead embrace a little bit of love in a doomed world?
L4D plays the “believability” card all the way to the end, and in that it creates a more frightening world than RESIDENT EVIL, for instance (the combat system in that didn’t particularly help), whose plot convolutions are the stuff of legend. L4D jettisons that and transports you to a world that’s turning back to feral, where the best you can hope for is the strength to hold out for a retreat to an uncertain rescue based on rumor and hope. With no cure in sight.