Left 4 Dead opens up with the beautifully done intro cinematic (posted last week in the preview), which sets the tone for the pace of the entire game. You start off with a sense of security, you and your teammates, and then the zombie horde comes rushing in. You crap your pants, shoot your team a couple times in the back, but manage to survive the onslaught. Everybody patches themselves up if necessary and then you push on.
As far as a story, however, don't play L4D looking for one. I was really hoping for a good zombie story to go along with the cooperative play, but instead what you get are four seperate scenarios to play through. These seperate scenarios are broken up into several chapters. If you're going to play solo with an AI team, you have the option of selecting one of the four characters or letting the computer assign you a character before jumping in to the game. You can choose a story and a chapter within it, and join the fight for humanity. Though this obviously doesn't fulfill my desire for a true single player story (I guess I'll have to get Dead Space after all), it is a fresh way of looking at a single player component.
In spite of no actual story, replayability is high for the single player component of the game because the computer will randomly generate spawn locations for just about everything in the map. Did a Tank kill you while you waited for the door to open? Well, if you thought you'd just grab the Molotovs that were laying on the ground in the room before, you might be out of luck. However, the Tank might also not spawn in the same spot (or it may not spawn at all). This makes it a new gameplay experience every time, and still keeps the tension high as you creep through the map, wary of what might be coming your way.
In addition to the waves of zombies that come rushing in, there are several boss zombies in the game. First off is the Boomer, a bloated zombie with little health that vomits blinding bile over its targets to attract the zombie horde, and also explodes when killed sending bile everywhere. The Smoker, a zombie that must not have kicked the habit while living, can latch on to survivors with its tongue to drag them closer, causing them to become incapacitated. The Hunter, a creeping, stalking zombie, lunges at survivors, pinning them to the ground and then thrashing them to pieces. The Tank, a strong, fast, disruptive zombie that tears things apart and throws survivors all over the place. There is one other boss zombie, the Witch. If you hear the cry of the Witch, turn off your flashlights and sneak around her - unless you like losing.
Jumping online has been a bit of a challenge for me so far, but I can blame my ISP for the most part. Some of the connection problems seem to have carried over from the demo; I've asked a lot of people that I've played online with. However, after finding a good server, I was able to get a solid experience.
There are two modes of online play: cooperative and versus. Cooperative is pretty obvious; you and three friends or strangers fight through one of the storylines against the zombie horde. What is nice is, if someone drops out of the game, the computer takes over that character seamlessly, so you don't lose a survivor - the more guns the better!
Versus mode is an almost completely new element of gameplay and is an awesome take. Rather than having four survivors pitted against four regular zombies that drop like a sack of bricks from a bullet between the eyes (as they should), those that aren't one of the survivors get to play as a boss zombie. The two teams switch between sides for each of the chapters within a scenario and receive points at the end of each round based on the number of survivors, time completed, health remaining, zombies killed, etc.
The game is still a little buggy. Playing as the Hunter in versus mode will be quite frustrating at times. His lunge attack isn't very reliable, especially if you have even the slightest tick of lag. Also, if you get pulled off a platform, your character will grab on to a ledge. You have to have a teammate help you up, but that only works if they are still above you. If they've already dropped down, you are pretty much helpless and you have to hang there until you die - even if there is a playform three inches below your feet. That's right, there isn't a way to just let go and drop on to the next lower platform.
Another bug in versus mode was when my team was dominating round after round, the other team would get a Tank when they were infected, but we never got that option when it was our turn as the undead. This might be just to balance the game out a little bit, but I think a little more continuity would be better than balance.
Though not exactly what I expected, Left 4 Dead has exceeded my expectations in a few ways. As far as just sheer entertainment, this is definitely a great game. The game reinforces teamplay and cooperation by allowing you to heal teammates, help them up when they get knocked down and making it necessary to stick together. The sound design is well done and the graphics, though built on the aging Source engine, are still good. With the high replayability, this is a game that I certainly recommend. Get a few friends together and put the hurt on some zombies!