So the Left 4 Dead demo is now available over the Steam network for normal humans like me who didn’t pre-order the game. With Valve’s highly anticipated online cooperative zombie shooter shambling into retail in a week, the demo servers are already packed with smack-talking, team-fragging, headset-wearing eleven year olds eager to describe in appalling detail what they did with your mother last night.
The demo is short – I played through three times in 20 minutes – but does highlight Left 4 Dead’s many admirable qualities. Foremost among them is the need to work as a team. Your little band of four depend on each other for everything, and when the swarms get bad you’ll both witness and participate in some heroic and breathtaking saves, enthusiastically altruistic self sacrifices, and totally honking sweet back-watching gun battles. This is not a scary game, being more Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead than George Romero’s, but it is a good cardiopulmonary workout, thanks entirely to Valve’s exquisite design that essentially forces cooperation.
Two things could bring Left 4 Dead down. The first is replayability. The game ships with a handful – four or five I think – of “campaigns,” each maybe an hour or two long and supportive of drop-in play. Unlike Counterstrike or Team Fortress 2, though, the strength of Left 4 Dead lies in the fear of the unknown lurking around every corner. Once people have these maps memorized, which will happen in about six hours, a lot of the novelty and thrill will wear off. I tend to think that unless Valve is relentless in pushing out free additional campaigns on a regular basis, or unless the mod community gets together and produces some real classics, Left 4 Dead might turn into a Defcon situation, which is to say that everyone plays frantically for a week and then never plays again.
The other thing that could torpedo the game is the fact that you play it with people, and people are assholes. While it’s true that there’s little room for griefing or jackasstic behavior in this game, this won’t stop humans from being the fundamentally worthless and better off extinct species that they unfortunately are. People armed with headset microphones can ruin many a good play experience, and Left 4 Dead is no exception.
An interesting sociological note: of the four characters in the game, one is an attractive female. Obviously this character, whose name is Zoey, can be played by anyone (there’s no difference between them and they’re randomly assigned at game start), but I witnessed – and, I shamefacedly admit, participated in – a surprising display of male idiocy during my time with the demo. Based on my observations, when Zoey was in danger, her male teammates spent more time and effort, and put themselves at far greater risk, to rescue her than they ever did to aid their Y-chromosomed partners. The fact that Zoey could and probably was being played by a dude at the time had no bearing in this. Given Valve’s love of tracking all things relevant and ir-, I betcha we’ll see a release of stats that shows number of saves by character in a few months, and I betcha that Zoey will top the list. This has no bearing on the game, but it does underline the common female assessment of males as duncish Cro Mags with one track minds. Ladies, let Left 4 Dead be your proof: speaking for my people, we really are like that.