Remember the last time someone tried to make an online co-op zombie shooter? I wouldn't blame you if you'd forgotten, because it was absolute arse, to be blunt. Capcom, of all people, managed to botch it up so spectacularly back in 2004 that the survival element of the horror was sheer toleration.
But despite the harrowing memories of Resident Evil Outbreak, it had some cracking ideas too good to leave in the dustbin of history: who wouldn't be excited by the idea of an online four-player co-op game where you're working together to escape from a procession of marauding zombies? Evidently Turtle Rock and Valve loved the concept enough to try and do it properly - albeit with an execution which completely rejects the notion that survival horror should be slow, ponderous and lacking in ammo. Left 4 Dead is more of a noughties reinvention of zombie horror, infused with the terrifying athleticism of 28 Days Later's brand of undead.
Capcom seems to believe that slowing down the pace of combat, and granting the player a strictly limited ammo supply, helps build tension. To a large extent it does, but it's also a very quick way to alienate and frustrate the sort of players who just want to get in there and blast some zombie brains. The first impression of Left 4 Dead is of a game unafraid to reject that notion and make it fast and furious, and generally meddle with the well worn conventions of how zombie shooters should work.
Shoehorned into a dark (gothic) basement bar in the middle of (gothic) Munich on a bitter (possibly gothic) winter evening, we're treated to a fresh build of the game showing off the farmhouse map. Beset with technical hitches, power cuts, and general culinary hocus pocus, we're plied with copious quantities of the finest German blonde beer before we even get a chance to start separating undead heads from rancid bodies. When the show finally does get underway, we do what any inebriated zombie hunters would do: run off in different directions, shoot wildly and dispense with any notion of co-operative play until the game kicks us to the kerb.
As both Tom and Oli have already summed up in our existing previews, everyone in the world is infected with a scary virus which has turned them into slavering zombie death machines of extreme prejudice - except, that is, you and your three buddies. With the basic premise of ah, ha, ha, ha, staying alive, staying alive, all that's between you and a life of sweet safety is a whole pile of undead flesh. How you plan escaping to victory depends on your ability to shoot straight, communicate with one another, stick together and heal one another when things go a bit wrong.
You pick which of the amusing character skins you want to occupy, choose your weapon (think standard, real-world firearms and Molotovs - sorry, no Shaun of the Dead-style vinyl justice allowed here) and get cracking. It's all disarmingly straightforward; you run around large, linear maps, clearing each area of enemies, and the game's mystical 'AI director' decides how much pain it wants to mete out. If you're doing exceptionally well, expect the undead to rain on your head, but if you're a bunch of hapless scaredy-cat losers, it'll back off a bit, so you can expect the whole thing to play out entirely differently every single time. There's nothing remotely scripted about the way it plays, which, of course, should keep us all coming back for more even when we've succeeded in escaping all four of the game's rural and urban scenarios.
Showing off the by-now-familiar urban map, we blast our way through hospital and train station environments, styled in that now-familiar Source Engine look. The visuals don't necessarily wow, but they don't need to. The ebb and flow of the action and tension is palpable, the relief tangible every time you reach the end of one of its terrifying crescendos. When Valve mentions "the AI director is very in touch", you'll know exactly what it means; this invisible guiding hand lends the game a subtle freshness and credibly adaptive challenge. By the time you and your pals get good at the game, goodness only knows what horrors the director will toss into your path.
Valve makes no apology for kicking us off on the easiest of the four difficulty settings, and takes an almost gleeful delight that we still suck at it. It knows only too well that we'll initially screw up, wander off, and get ambushed. Valve's ubiquitous VP of marketing Doug Lombardi and "Mr Awesome" Chet Faliszek wander past now and then, smiling ruefully to themselves as they spot our rubbish tactics a mile off. But everyone does it, so that's okay. As we progress, it's evident that the game revels in presenting a tough challenge - particularly for those foolish enough to reject the notion of team-play. If you decide to play the renegade zombie-killer, expect the AI director to rain zombie death. Even a couple of hours of in, there's a sense that this was a game where you'll enjoy the learning curve, rather than get frustrated with it.
In terms of the first look at the rural map, the atmosphere's notably darker, and creepier - and reminiscent of the way that Half-Life 2 continually changed the look and feel of the locations open to you. From crumbling outhouses to lonely fields, the darker feel, and sense of remote hopelessness feel even more intense. With each map 'Half-Life 2 sized' there's a solid hour and a half of team play expected per scenario - but how much repeat play remains to be seen. We expect plenty.
Eventually, we got a chance to switch sides with one of the team getting to play one of the Infected, with the goal of stalking your human prey and picking them off. It's not simple, and Valve freely admits that there's plenty of balancing work to be done before it's accessible enough to ship. In theory, as a Boomer or Smoker or Tank, you'll be placed somewhere out of sight from the four-man team with the goal of taking them down. Little colour-coded chevrons give you an idea of the survivors' expected path, so you can scale buildings and objects and lay in wait, pouncing on foolish players who stray from the herd, or waiting until everyone's trapped in a confined space and blowing them all up. It's a fantastic concept, but one which has to be a little more accessible than it is right now. Either that, or I'm simply making excuses about how absolutely rubbish I am at the game. I usually do.
Given we were only able to sample a small portion of Left 4 Dead, the possibilities of what lies in store when the game arrives in September position it as one of our most wanted games of the year, just as it was last year when we thought it would be out then. The quality isn't going to fade. It's one of the few online-only games that we can foresee spending stupid amounts of time playing with our friends, and if I get to blow Tom up in an elevator it'll be sweet vengeance for all the times he kicked me off rooftops in Crackdown. I hate him. Read on to see what Doug Lombardi had to say when we quizzed him further about what's in store.
Eurogamer: In total, how many maps are there now in the game?
Doug Lombardi: Well, there are 20 maps that are laid out across four campaigns: two urban and two rural ones. You played one of the urban ones, the hospital, which we began with tonight, and the farmhouse one is the first rural one, and the other two we may or may not show off before release, but they'll be similar in scope. The environments create a little bit of a different mood and variations in gameplay.
Eurogamer: How long do you estimate each section of the game will take to play through at this point?
Doug Lombardi: If you're a solid team and you're successful all the way through the mission, it should take you about an hour and a half. So, if you're blazing through it, and everybody's well oiled and whatnot, it's probably about six or seven hours of play. But, you know, the AI director that runs things is intentionally built to create a dynamic experience to how successful you guys are doing.
Whenever you enter a room, it'll be different to the last time you entered it. The idea isn't playtime in the sense of a single-player game; it's more trying to be a Counter-Strike thing, where every time you play Dust it's a little bit different. We're using dynamic AI to populate it with more than just the other team.
Eurogamer: Obviously if you're doing extremely well, you might find yourself up against it - is that the general idea, to up the ante?
Doug Lombardi: We're going to pour it on you, yeah, for sure. The AI director is very in touch. It's reading many things, like your movement and your accuracy. If the team is functioning well as a unit and ploughing through the game, it's going to rain on your head and try and slow you down. If you guys are stumbling a bit and struggling, it'll back off a bit. It's also trying to do that throughout the experience regardless of whether the team's really good, or the team's really bad, because we found a lot in Half-Life 1 and more so in Half-Life 2 that there's a notion of pacing that needs to be applied to games. If you're constantly barraging gamers, they're going to get battle fatigue, and they're just going to be overloaded. The dynamic moments of the really low lows, mixed with the really high highs creates some of the tension which hopefully we're giving you with Left 4 Dead.
Eurogamer: If you suck on easy, you really must suck...
Doug Lombardi: There's presets to sort out where you start off, and then there's the equivalent of a volume control inside each one of those. Even at Valve, on the insane level only the best people finish one out of three times.
Eurogamer: Did we see all the weapons there are in the game?
Doug Lombardi: Most, I think. We're not really doing a lot of them. We just see the weapons as a vehicle for the gameplay, and all the weapons are very much real-world, modern day s*** that you would find lying around if panic broke out in London or Seattle. So there's not a lot of 'and then you get the big science fiction gun - the Portal gun or the gravity gun'. Everything's shotgun, pistol, Molotov. The scope of the game, and the things that we're trying to be more creative about are things like being able to help your team-mate off a ledge, share the med-packs, force people to stick torgether, and being unapologetic about how unforgiving we are if you don't stick together.
Those are some of the ingredients we think made Counter-Strike great. When I first went into a meeting with Sierra and said we should turn this mod into a retail product, they pointed out that there's no-single player, and if you get taken out you have to wait as much as four and a half minutes to get back in if it's goes to the full five minute clock. 'There's no way this game will sell. It's just too unforgiving.' And finally we convinced them to put it out, to try it and see what would happen, and it turned into a hit. We think that those natures of...there was no single-player, it was a multiplayer game, it was for people who wanted to play multiplayer games; that was it. We didn't waste time trying to develop the single-player game first, and folks responded to that. They said we want a game where there's consequences, like if I don't stick with my team, if I don't watch my ass, I'm going to watch the other guys finish the round. In a similar fashion we're being completely unapologetic about not working as a team. I think we're seeing folks care more about their team and care more about taking care of themselves.
Eurogamer: Which character do you like playing as most?
Doug Lombardi: You know, I see all of the characters as just skins. You define it as the weapons you pick and the way you play. It's not like Team Fortress where the character that you choose defines the role.
On the Infected side, it's completely different, and I like playing the Boomer, because all you have to do is find [survivors] in a tight space and rush them, and they can't help themselves but shoot you. And you're a grenade, and they don't want you to vomit on them and summon the zombies, so they're going to take a chance and hope that they're far enough away. The Boomer's the flamboyant one of the Boss Infected. The Tank is similar, but there's just something more hysterical as playing as the Boomer that I enjoy.
Eurogamer: You've seen L4D throughout its evolution, do you find that diving in as a newcomer is quite hard when you're the Infected?
Doug Lombardi: On the Infected side, yeah. Again, that's part of the unapologetic nature of it. We know there's a lot of work left to be done on the Infected side. The reason, a big reason why the game hasn't shipped yet is we haven't made it accessible enough, but even when we're done, when we do get it to where we want it to be, it's going to be the harder class to play as, there's no question about it. We want folks to play survivor, learn the game and then graduate on to play infected, just as in TF2, you start off as an Engineer, or a Heavy Weapons guy or a Medic, and then you graduate to Pyro, and then you graduate eventually to Spy. So, that makes the game have legs and be more interesting than 'I've played it this week and I'm done with it'.
Eurogamer: In terms of where you're going with other versions, you're coming out on PC and 360 at the same time. What's the deal with PS3?
Doug Lombardi: Up in the air. It's not going to happen at the same time as the other two clearly, because it's not in development yet.
Eurogamer: Is it the same deal as Orange Box, pretty much, with EA UK handling the port duties?
Doug Lombardi: Well, right now it's just not being done. But it were to be done, it'd be done by a third party. Valve's PC, and we just got our 360 team together, and we're really proud that we got Orange Box out at the same time [on 360], and I think we did a really good job of making the products comparable, so it was just a matter of which system you preferred to play it on. Do you like keyboard and mouse, or do you like the gamepad? Do you like the couch, or do you like the den? If folks want to do a PS3 version, we're open to talk with third parties about that.