The idea of the undead masses mindlessly swarming the globe and forcing ordinary people to take extraordinary measures just to survive is one which has been at the heart of popular culture, film, TV, books, comics and games since at least the 1960s-1970s. There are many theories as to why zombies are our “favourite” monsters and why so many writers, directors and game producers continue to return to the macabre theme. People like to be scared, so of course horror movies and books are always popular. We like to be frightened in the relative security of the cinema, knowing full-well that all is well outside. Zombies play on our fear of what we could become. They are a comment on the mindlessness of the crowd and the surrender of identity. They are slow, lumbering and relentless, driven by instinct and not rational thought or reason. Becoming them is one of our greatest fears.
George A Romano’s zombie films rank above their peers as the blueprint for the genre. His work is not, however, simply a splatter fest of gore and violence, although gore and violence have their place within the films. His Dawn Of The Dead (1978) set in a shopping mall in the US saw a band of survivors struggling to make a life while ever-more walking dead congregate outside of the mall patiently waiting for a route in. It was a clear comment on the mindlessness of consumerism. The theme of the survivor is ever-present. Groups of unlikely friends from different walks of life and backgrounds are almost always forced to work together to overcome the unbelievably poor odds of survival. They need to rely on each other. Against these adversaries the individual would never survive.
I have never seen the execution of the survival, reliance and group synergy themes in zombie genre games so closely aligned with the fears and considerations described above than in Valve’s Xbox masterpiece, Left 4 Dead. Unlike it’s predecessors such as Dead Rising, where the aim of the game was to have as much fun killing zombies as you could, Left 4 Dead is a breathtaking experience which pits you against swarms of the undead in varying locations with one overall aim: for you and your friends to survive and escape.
The game is a triumph. It is primarily aimed at being played online over Xbox LIVE. This is so that you can play alongside other humans in your attempt to escape from the terror of the rotting corpses stumbling around and trying to eat you. This is a particularly clever device that makes you rely other gamers, despite their strengths and flaws, who you probably don’t know, to help you as you help them to survive your ordeal. Just like in the movies, you are dependant on a rag tag group of strangers for your very survival. There is a single player option for those without internet access and the other player characters are taken over by the computer AI to assist you, but it’s not quite the same.
The game starts after the four main characters, Francis (biker type), Louis (office worker), Bill (crazy old veteran) and zoey (until-recently-college-girl type), are attacked by a group of zombies and a “Tank”, a mutated zombie that looks like, well, a tank. The cut scene follows the survivors in their escape to a rooftop, where your adventure begins. Taking on the role of one of the survivors you must now try and make your way through the over-run city to an area of safety held by the army. The onus is on teamwork. Spit up and you’ll die. Work for yourself only and you’ll die. You really do have to watch each other’s backs.
The graphics are outstanding and immerse you in a dark and sinister world. The control systems are intuitive and the gimmick of teamwork really does add a whole new dimension to the game play. You are going to get into an un-winnable situation and you are going to have to hope one of your fellow survivors sees you and comes to help out. The action is fast-paced and frantic and there is a jump around every corner. It is intelligent too; set off a car alarm, you’ll attract the dead; use loud weapons, you’ll attract the dead; try moving more carefully and quietly, you might get away with it. But it won’t always work. You will have to hold off the hoard, you will have to deal with tanks, smokers, hunters and witches, the slightly more scary and difficult foes. The whole time you are on edge and you always have that unreachable goal of safety to chase. This game is awesome and is easily one of the best games on the Xbox. There is more good news; as Left 4 Dead has been around for a while now the good people at Valve have had time to develop a sequel. Left 4 Dead 2 will be hitting the shelves in the near future.