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Left 4 Dead’: a zombie movie made real simple

Your partners will need help early and often in Left 4 Dead.

Valve

Your partners will need help early and often in Left 4 Dead.

It used to be that playing a video game with a friend meant a human being, with whom you shared some sort of emotional connection, physically came to your home, took up a controller and played alternating rounds of Super Mario Bros.

Then games like Contra and Ikari Warriors came out, and playing a game together went beyond competing against one another, such as in a boxing or baseball sim. You would mash in the ol' up-up-down-down code and blast aliens for an hour or so.

I remember what was particularly compelling about those kinds of things was the chatter that went on outside the game, the extraneous back-and-forth on the couch that made gaming feel like a communal experience.

But I'm dating myself, for online gaming has taken hold of our culture so much that the days of having to be at another person's physical location are so obsolete, many new titles are dependent on you needing several friends in several locations simply to play them.

Two of the most recent — SOCOM: Confrontation for the PS3 and Left 4 Dead for the 360 — focus so much on multiplayer that there's not much of a solo campaign to even experience.

SOCOM has faltered a bit, thanks to the widely reported server problems at launch on Oct. 14, but patches and DLC in the future should soothe any flared tempers in that regard. The very fact the game lets you play as one of several allied special forces units like the SAS or French paratroopers is enough to keep military buffs happy until they fix those issues (and SOCOM is too storied a franchise to not fix).

But Left 4 Dead, Valve's latest creation arriving in stores today, shows quite a bit of promise, for two reasons:

1) It takes the stale premises of 4-player co-op FPSing and zombie flicks and jams them together for a harrowing experience, and

2) It marks a return to simplicity in gaming that I — and many other gamers, I suspect — have been waiting for.

The premise is simple and relatively unexplained: an infection of some sort has ravaged your surroundings and you and three other characters must escape.

I've seen it a hundred times before, played it a hundred times before, but yet, with the whimpers and coughs and eventual shouts and screams, it's a zombie movie made real. Better than Resident Evil because of the speed and chaos, better than House of the Dead because of the freedom and freneticism, this is what it would be like if Valve had made a 28 Days Later video game. (We'll have to see if it ends up having SOCOM's server problems.)

And the best part, besides putting the prototypical 21st century "fast zombies" to good use, is that the action really only requires two button presses at any one time. Med kits, flashlights and the like are there, but all you need is trigger and reload. Oh, where was this development team when BioShock was coming out?

But the interesting turn in all this is making the game so you can't play through it without your friends. There are the same missions with three bots, but this just isn't the same when you're depending on the AI.

There's something about the cacophony of gunfire and listening to your friends shout over your headset that can make the game even tenser than if your cohorts were in the room with you. There's a detachment there provided by the technology that magically combines the frightful, solitary experience of sitting on your couch in the dark blasting zombies with the intense, hair-trigger insanity of being overwhelmed by monsters as people you might actually know shout to run or duck or come back and help as you run away from the fight. And don't forget the friendly fire.

I've played enough Gears of War and Halo multiplayer that ironing out strategy and tactics for death matches is no big deal. But Left 4 Dead manages to make you feel like your team has actually accomplished something strictly by playing through the campaign scenarios together. Huddling into a safehouse as the horde crashes into the door makes you want to actually reach out to try to swing the door closed.

But since you also can play as the zombies in a different matchup, preventing the team from reaching the safehouse can be just as important. And in that lies the games potential longevity.

Well, that, and the sheer, gory fun of blowing off zombie heads with a shotgun.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Left 4 Dead’: a zombie movie made real simple 11/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 4:32pm]

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