Once you’re in and playing it though, all of these issues are forgotten. The demo only covers the first level and a half of the first campaign, each of which is made of five levels and of which there are four in total, so it’s over fairly quickly but still
The in-game experience is polished to a fine, almost blinding finish – both in terms of the actual gameplay and the player connections.
There are all sorts of little things that have been added in to make the game streamlined. For example, if you’re playing a game and leave the PC alone for a minute or two then the AI will step in to stop you slowing everyone else down. You’ll be bumped from Survivor to Spectator and the computer will take over your character.
Normally, that might be annoying – but with just the press of a button you can step back in and resume control again. It’s a great feature. It stops your place from being stolen by a new player, but also stops you slowing down other players when you have to stop and mop up the cup of tea you spilled over your desk. True story.
The actual gameplay itself is as fluid as you could hope. All the players start on the roof where, just like at the start of every level, there’s a cache of weapons and supplies. There are basic weapons here and it’s clear that someone has come through here before – a copy of the US Army Survival Guide is left open on the table. Grab your weapons, first aid and get ready.
There are several routes to the subway though they are stay close to each other. It’s something we’ve spotted in other levels from previous a hands-on Left4Dead preview
. Here in the first level of the game you have to start by getting down to street level, but you can do it by crashing through windows, taking the stairs or just jumping from the roof if you want.
As you move around, you’ll fend off the zombies and collect new supplies at randomly placed caches. You can grab aspirin from medicine cabinets for a temporary health boost, or snag a pipe bomb from the arsenal of a now-deceased militant.
One thing you can’t do is expect to play the same game every time though, as Valve’s AI Director is constantly moving in the background to make the game slightly different. It monitors how you move, your ammo supplies and how fast you are going to create a new fight every time, the zombies disappearing and swarming in waves and crescendos.
To be totally fair, the game isn’t totally different every time you play as no matter what you are doing you are always reacting to a certain type of situation, but it’s thrilling to see how that situation can change. Even with hardened players there are moments of panic and terror when an ally accidentally sets off a car alarm with a stray bullet and the swarm start pushing in on you. It’s then a measure of how quick you lose a friend, as the rest the team start shouting at the unfortunate individual while simultaneously cussing and swearing at the hoard.
A lot of that panic comes from the fact that Valve has built a lot more variation into the difficulty system than ever before. In past Valve games even the Hard setting has been too easy for experienced players, but Left4Dead
is a lot more varied. The Expert mode requires a lot of communication and tactical thought from players – and speed too, as waiting just gives the AI Director more time to work.
Unlike other games, like Counterstrike
where experienced players tend not to communicate constantly as they already know all the levels and fire-lines, Left4Dead
requires a lot of co-operation. When one of your allies gets pinned down by a Hunter zombie then you need to know who is going to knock the beast off and who’ll cover your back. You need to know who has the shotgun, who has the molotov cocktail - and which one of you is going to be stupid enough to leave your torch on when you hear the gentle sobbing of a hiding Witch zombie. (Ed - Or have the wrath of Joe shout “WHO STILL HAS A F****** LIGHT ON!!!”)
Brrr, Witch zombies give us the willies. Totally passive but utterly spooky, they'll lie there on their own and cry for the most part - but if you startle one with an errant bullet or by getting too close then they'll go through your health faster than an ex-lax milkshake through a toddler. Again; brrr.