There are 2,000 PCs sitting in a room next door. Their 2,000 owners have carted them from as far away as Russia, and probably further. Sitting outside QuakeCon's host hotel, the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, attendees tell stories of taking PCs onto planes as hand luggage, and driving five in a car for as long as it took me to get to QuakeCon from London. So it's quite impressive that a seemingly endless stream of them would rather queue up for two hours to play Left 4 Dead.
It's a good thing they are, too, because Left 4 Dead only really grabs you when you play it. Read about it, as you may have done in our previous first impressions, and you might not get the same buzz. "We need to get this in people's hands," says Chet Faliszek, the man whose job title at Valve is 'Mr Awesome'. They have some ideas on how to do that, too, but we'll come back to that. In the meantime, what's new?
More to the point, are you new? If so, here's a crash course: it's a PC and Xbox 360 co-op FPS where you and up to three friends control the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, fighting through different scenarios to get to an extraction point. Along the way, zombies ("Infected") attack in droves, and at pace. They're marshalled by boss-type Infected, who can do things like explode themselves, lynch you with prehensile tongues, and pounce onto you from 30 feet away. The kicker is that the AI designed by Turtle Rock, the game's main developer, varies the pace. Even if you know the levels, you're never sure when you'll be attacked. And, actually, that's not the kicker. The kicker is that another group of four can control the Infected bosses. What's a "kicker" anyway? What the hell am I talking about? I'll stop, and let you read what Chet had to say. Thanks also to Doug Lombardi and Eric Twelter for helping to fill in some of the blanks.
Eurogamer: We talked a lot about the philosophy behind the game last time, so mainly I wanted to catch up on where this build is compared to when we saw it in May.
Chet Faliszek: Turtle Rock works with the same code-base we're working to ship Orange Box, so they've picked up some cool stuff like the new particle system that's in there, they picked up the motion blur, the flashlight casts shadows now, a bunch of the facial technology.
Turtle Rock's pushed back into Orange Box things like the 'jiggle bones' - that's how the hair flows round people's heads, and the Boomer's got his [swaying] gut. So [with Orange Box and Turtle Rock] it's like a two-way street that works really well. Jiggle bones were in it when you saw it, the motion blur wasn't, the rim lighting wasn't, which helps the characters kind of pop out so you can see them a little bit clearer.
The really cool new tech that's in here that wasn't last time is the characters' faces change. There's intensity levels. So you'll see Zoe wide-eyed on the ground in pain, and then when she's back up and fighting, shooting, she gets gritty and tough, and you can just see that in all their faces. A lot of this game is close interaction, like when you're healing another person. It really adds a lot that you can see people are in pain. You're encouraged to help.
Eurogamer: You also have the thing you showed me where the screen goes black and white when you go down to a certain level of health.
Chet Faliszek: Yep. Some other little touches we put in - it goes to third-person now when you're healing yourself so you can keep a look-out. And your character also yells - "Hey, cover me, I'm healing." There's some other stuff like that.
Eurogamer: What's left for you guys to do to it?
Chet Faliszek: This runs fine on these machines, and it actually will run fine on lesser machines, but we want to make sure that as many people can play it at the highest level of detail as possible.
We're still doing some tweaking with the interface too, so even though the interface for survivors is new - that's new as well - it's not finished by any stretch.
And again, testing. Testing testing testing. The AI for the bots isn't finished, so even though they're performing great they're not the finished thing. Just a lot of everything's in place, and we just need to take it to that next level before it's released.
Eurogamer: The last time I saw it you were showing me the Infected stuff, but it was still quite early on.
Chet Faliszek: Oh the Infected interface and stuff? Yeah yeah, so that just keeps going. And also just tweaking how often they respawn, how the director interacts with you, where you get spawned, how much warning you get which Infected you're gonna be, all of that we're still constantly tweaking.
Eurogamer: How is development going on Xbox 360? Is that parallel?
Chet Faliszek: That's happening in parallel. I think we're going to do some formal announcements about that later, so I'm not sure what we've said about that or not. [We asked Valve's Doug Lombardi and he told us: "It's in production. We will be revealing more details on that soon."]
Eurogamer: What's the release date?
Chet Faliszek: We're saying early 08. There's a lot of stuff including our own big, big giant product coming out this fall. And really we just want to make sure that when it's released it's great. This is a game people are going to keep playing for years and we'll keep updating, but we just want to make sure of that when it's released.
Eurogamer: Is it going to be simultaneous on both platforms?
Chet Faliszek: Err. [Over to Doug again: "That is the current plan, yes."]
Eurogamer: In terms of updating post-release, do you have any firm plans for what you're going to do?
Chet Faliszek: Yes. Stuff we haven't announced but it's really cool. It's the coolest thing ever [grin]. There'll be more scenarios, and those scenarios will introduce new elements.
Eurogamer: New Infected maybe.
Chet Faliszek: All kinds of new stuff. Really cool new stuff. This is really - we're so pounding out what's there and making this the level we want, that that stuff [DLC] hasn't gotten enough love to say if it's made the cutting floor or not, so I hate to talk about stuff to get people excited.
Eurogamer: What with the premise and the fact co-op is very suited to LAN parties, are you worried it might end up being a cult classic rather than a best-seller or is that not something you think about?
Chet Faliszek: Nah, I think if you look around at the reaction here, it's pretty universal. I think, not to say anything bad about anyone else here, but I don't see a two-hour wait to play any other game right now.
Eurogamer: It's very true but obviously QuakeCon is still a very specific group of people. I guess I'm thinking in terms of the wider PC audience.
Chet Faliszek: Well, Counter-Strike's a very specific thing and it's played by a couple of people. I think the audience is out there and if anything the co-op aspect of it will bring in a whole new group because you'll get to play really tightly with your friends and it's not antagonistic so, you know, you'll play here with somebody new and sit down and be like, "I'm going to be your buddy covering you".
And there's this whole element of - like watching this guy and his girlfriend play, and his girlfriend actually outlasts him and she doesn't play first-person shooters, and it's because he was babysitting her and gave her his health, and can really do these team things and it's just cool to watch.
Eurogamer: The thing with CS obviously is that its success is largely over the Internet, and this is a game where people get on very well playing in close proximity. Do you think the Internet play with be as popular?
Chet Faliszek: Well, when we play at Valve or they play at Turtle Rock everyone's playing in their separate room, so they might as well be on the Internet - it's just as far away.
Between the voice commands you control, we also have the voice chat - there's new stuff coming out with that that we'll see in The Orange Box. We're working on that, we've upgraded that. The Steam Community brings the chat all the way across, and the whole match-making's going to be redone for this, so it's not just going to be server browser. You're going to be able to go up the Steam Community with your friends, hook up, go play Left 4 Dead, say, "hey, I want to be Survivors, and we'll take on the Infected in the rest of the world". Or we'll be Infected and take on any Survivors around the world, right. There's a lot of that stuff still being worked on. The idea's to make sure that we make it as easy as possible to play with your friends across the Internet.
Eurogamer: Something I've found is that it's really only when you sit down and play it that you realise just how tremendously awesome the experience is. Reading about it, it can be a case of thinking it sounds quite cool but the reaction you get changes immensely, so I'm wondering if you're going to do a demo, because Valve often doesn't do them until after release...
Chet Faliszek: Well that's why we have QuakeCon right?
Eurogamer: Well sure...
Chet Faliszek: And that's been my mantra to the press. We need to get this in people's hands. And people understand that at Valve. Gabe Newell was bugging me that we need to take this to more places. There's some stuff we've talked about for pre-release that we want to make sure...
But also Steam allows us to do a lot of cool things that other companies can't do - it allows us to do free weekends, it allows us to let people try out the full game. And so we're going to do some cool stuff with that. We're talking about it.
Eurogamer: It'd be a pretty impressive way to launch it - to start with a free weekend.
Chet Faliszek: Yeah. All that's been talked about and bandied about, and I can't say if we're going to do one thing or the other yet. But definitely Steam allows us to do things on the PC side that no other developer can do, and we definitely don't ignore that. We're going to capitalise on that.
Eurogamer: Going back to the 360 version, is there anything that distinguishes that?
Chet Faliszek: We're trying to bring the same co-op experience over, right. So that's why we've made the Achievement system, right. It should be the same experience on the 360.
Eurogamer: When I talked to the Team Fortress 2 guys, I raised the point of how 360 DLC often has a premium attached to it, and all the humour drained from the room and everyone said if you buy the game it's free, you get everything that comes out for free. That's still presumably the mantra?
Chet Faliszek: That is something we firmly believe in. We firmly believe that when you buy a Valve game, or a Turtle Rock game through Valve, you're buying not the game that comes in the box but you're buying that game and everything that's going to come for the year or few years. We don't let our games go away.
Eurogamer: But let's say that Left 4 Dead, when it comes out, doesn't build up quite the enormous audience. Is that a problem in terms of dedicating resources to continue with it?
Chet Faliszek: No, because we have the belief that if you keep at it, keep updating it, that will bring the audience to it, right? It's just a weird perception that people have, I think, of...so like the Source Engine we were talking about is a great example. We haven't called it Source Engine 2. But it is a Source Engine 2! We just keep updating it, not worried about saying this is Source Engine 2. Once TF2 comes out, when does it become Team Fortress 2.5, or Team Fortress 3? We just keep going and don't worry about that.
Eurogamer: I was wondering if the EA distribution agreement would extend to this?
Chet Faliszek: It'll have a retail release and I don't think that's been...It may have been decided but we haven't announced it. [Another one for Doug. We asked: Are you considering extending the EA distribution agreement to cover boxed copies of Left 4 Dead on PC/360? Doug said: "Yes." Isn't Doug great?]
Eurogamer: Is there anything else you'd like to tell Eurogamer readers about Left 4 Dead?
Chet Faliszek: It's just one of those games that I wish we could get everyone to play it, because the minute you play it you're hooked. And I think this proves it, when you have people who essentially spent the last seven hours of their lives here yesterday in line or playing. I just can't wait for it to come out so I can kill them as a zombie.
Left 4 Dead is due out on PC and Xbox 360 in early 08. There's no word on a PS3 version at this time.