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Joystiq E3 hands-on: Left 4 Dead


The zombie apocalypse is not funny. Modern civilization crumbles, your friends are eaten alive and those with a pulse are forced to adopt a rather rigorous and unrelenting exercise program, one largely motivated by the desire to stay alive. Shakily counting out your precious remaining bullets and praying that the snarling, undead legion won't find you huddling beneath a desk is hardly a situation worthy of a chuckle. It certainly isn't the basis for a fun party game.

"It is a fun party game, in a way," remarks Valve's Chet Faliszek. The fun party game in question, of course, is Left 4 Dead, a team-based shooter that actually makes Armageddon amusing. Don't get us wrong -- horrible, horrible things are happening to you and three friends. You're all fighting for your lives, living from room-to-room as you aggressively expend ammo, rummage for medical supplies and desperately try not to shoot each other in the back. Good times!

Gallery: Left 4 Dead: EA3 2008 | 8 Photos

This strange combination of fun and misery, of horror and laughter is ultimately what makes Left 4 Dead such an enjoyable shooter. The urban setting is familiar and the shoot-everything-that-moves gameplay isn't particularly deep, but there's a real sense of camaraderie and playfulness -- even between complete E3 strangers -- that emerges, even if it is largely motivated by your own selfish desire to not die.

"...Left 4 Dead manages to turn the thrill of survival-horror gameplay into a cool, shared experience."

The infected enemies that run, leap and crawl through the environments are tenacious and overwhelming when faced alone, so it's in your best interests to pay attention to the rest of the survivors. Where are they? Check for the green silhouettes that appear as soon as the characters are obstructed from view. Do they need help? Knock hunter zombies off them with the melee attack, or protect them when their vision is obscured by a stream of nauseating vomit. Oh, yes, expect to see this hilarious message more than once: "Friend vomited on -- defend them!"

It doesn't take long before the shotgun blasts are drowned out by fits of "did you see that?" giggling, shouts of crucial advice -- "It's behind you!" -- and castigation for people running too far ahead of the party. "You should heal yourself," you might advise a visibly limping team mate. You're not doing it because you're nice, mind you, but because slow characters are a terrible liability. Remember, a dead team mate means less firepower!

"It doesn't take long before the shotgun blasts are drowned out by shouts of crucial advice..."

Another thing Left 4 Dead gets absolutely right is pacing. Fighting off a constant stream of creatures can quickly become exhausting (just like real life!), so it's just as well that the action is frequently punctuated by safe rooms. Filled with ammo, medical supplies and glorious silence, these areas signal the end of each map and give players a chance to catch a break. "People love to prepare," says Faliszek, pointing out the room's wealth of weaponry and its clearly marked exit. There's little doubt as to what will happen as soon as you barge out of your temporary haven -- but you'll be ready.

It's a great roller coaster ride, one that is best experienced with friends. That way, you can hear them taking a deep breath as you climb up the track, and let out an ear-piercing scream as you plunge down again. Though its central mechanics and presentation may not stand out in a single-player game, Left 4 Dead manages to turn the thrill of survival-horror gameplay into a cool, shared experience. Even the apocalypse is fun with friends.

Left 4 Dead is out on November 4th for Xbox 360 and PC. Check out precious previous previews here and here.

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