Joystiq hands-on: Left 4 Dead

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Having fortunately escaped a swift booting from last night's EA Spring Break event by PR folk for making an innocent (we swear) "If you make a sequel, will it be titled Right 4 Dead?" query, we sat down and got our kill-on in Turtle Rock Studios' PC and Xbox 360 shooter. Our first thought: Maybe this shouldn't be published under the EA Games label; EA Sims might suit it better. Because, frankly, we can't conjure a game that could better be described as a "zombie apocalypse simulator." Take that, GT5, with your "driving" simulation.

Highlighting the four-player Survivor co-op mode, the event's Left 4 Dead station featured four HP Blackbird PCs, so we were definitely experiencing the game as an owner of a high-spec gaming rig would. To that end, the game is looking even better than it did at previous showings, wowing us with a bevy of neat visual tricks (flashlights produce rainbow halos when you stare at them straight on, for instance) and fluid character animation that had us making mental comparisons to Call of Duty 4's lifelike character motion. Left 4 Dead's visual style -- which is largely realistic with just enough style and saturation to lend it a slight arcade hue -- worked its magic and we were soon firmly in the game world's clutches. Not that we were complaining.
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Left 4 Dead's main hook is four-player cooperative combat in a urban environ bursting at the seams with "The Infected" -- fast, seemingly coordinated, 28 Days Later-style zombies. Hopping into a match, we first had to gear up. Rather than opting for a static inventory screen, the developer decided to keep players immersed by scattering equipment tables throughout each level (Left 4 Dead is a linear game, but has no preset spawn points for the zombies, providing some freshness for subsequent playthroughs). We grabbed a sub machine gun, although we could have opted for a shotgun. After making sure we'd also snatched some additional ammo and a med pack, it was time to rock.

Along with three other human players (if you opt to play solo you'll be joined by AI bots) we made our way through the building we'd started in, noticing that we could see our squad mates' outlines through walls, Metal Gear Online style, and color-coded from green to red to indicate how they were doing health-wise. Likewise, we could see if they were being pounced on by The Infected. This proved very useful in ensuring we weren't quickly a man (or woman) down. In such situations, we learned that accuracy is key -- you can do more harm than good if you inadvertently cap a friend instead of an Infected when they're in distress.

There were plenty of heart-stopping moments triggered by dozens of zombies flooding in through doorways, or even just a few springing out of a dark corner. It soon became clear that sticking together as a group was vital to taking the hordes down as quickly as possible, but, as the game's devs have previously mentioned, The Infected are definitely directed to flock more furiously to lone Survivors.

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After clearing our way through a few buildings and zombie-filled alleyways, we came to a checkpoint – a room with reinforced doors and more guns, health and ammo. Just because we were inside, however, it didn't mean we were safe. Someone (certainly not us) had forgotten to close the door behind us. In an example of the game's use of contextual audio cues, the Survivors began yelling for someone to close the door (we did, being heroes and all) and we were safe ... at least until heading into the next area.

There we got a taste of some of the other environments as we trudged through the subway (complete with derelict trains), and eventually met our demise after straying too far from the friendly fold on a rooftop -- but not before clearing debris to save an NPC trapped in a closet. (It wasn't, much to our disappointment, R. Kelly.)

Left 4 Dead, well, left us with the feeling that it could be the "Next Big Thing" on Xbox Live and PC when it hits this fall. (Or, as its devs say, "When it's done.") It's fast, fearsome, and full of surprises. One of which is the Infected vs. Survivors mode, which sees four human players squaring off against The Infected and four human controlled "boss" zombies -- a mode that was, sadly, not on show at EA's event. We'll hopefully get our hands on it soon enough, though, and will be back with all the (very) gory details.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.