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Joystiq Review: Left 4 Dead 1 Week Later

Justin McElroy

We were going to pound out a review for Left 4 Dead to coincide with its release, but it seemed wrong somehow. It seemed that to really "get" L4D, you'd want it in optimal conditions: A group of friends, an hour to kill, and a serious vendetta against the undead. While we're still trying to work up that last one (they're victims too!) we can confirm that if you've got the friends and time you absolutely shouldn't miss this.

You know the basic premise, right? You and three other survivors are the last vestiges of humanity in the zombie apocalypse. You must battle the undead, escape to safety and try to figure out how repopulating Earth with three dudes and one lady won't be awkward.

Gallery: Left 4 Dead | 20 Photos

"Campaigns take 1 to 2 hours to complete, depending on whether you use the 'destroy all zombies' or 'run like hell' strategy."

There are four disaster scenarios in total, each of which plays out like a B-grade horror flick, complete with poster and closing credits. Each of the campaigns takes between an hour and two hours to complete, largely depending on whether you use a "destroy all zombies" or "run like hell" strategy. They each have their merits. (Note: Each campaign has about five checkpoint areas that you can start from if you're looking for a smaller session.)

That B-movie aesthetic is carried throughout with a faux-gritty world to fight through and music cues that alert you to the presence of the really bad zombies and fall just on the right side of cheesy.

Let me start big, then we'll talk specifics. If you have a few friends with the time to devote, you simply won't have a better multiplayer experience this year. There is nothing I've felt like the moment when my brother Griffin led a massive zombie away from the rest of us, sacrificing himself, so we could board a boat and get to safety. Nothing even comes close and that's one moment among many.

This is a game that has been built for teamwork, that rewards in a way few games have. For example, after Griffin's selflessness, the credits to our film began with a dedication to his memory. There are little touches like that throughout, teaching you to work as a team.

It's necessary too, as you'll regularly be incapacitated by zombies and forced to rely on your buddies for rescue. If there's a better way to build camaraderie than shotgunning a creature that's choking the life out of a friend, I don't know what it is. Alternatively, if you decide that a bowl of cereal or bathroom break is more important than your friends, you can let the computer play for a few minutes while you excuse yourself, a feature I'd like to see more games embrace.

Though it's less teamwork focused, an alternate mode that lets you play as a zombie and basically grief the opposing force is a fine palate cleanser between levels. It's got less polish than the main mode, but it's a cool addition to an already superb package.

"Moreover, I'm a little concerned about the long term future of the game."

But despite all the praise (and through no real fault of its own) it's tough for me to unequivocally recommend Left 4 Dead. For example, if you don't play games online, you should almost certainly avoid it. The single-player mode just doesn't feel right. And if you typically play games in small chunks (i.e. less than an hour) you're going to be leaving almost every full-campaign match midstream, which is pretty unsatisfying.

Moreover, I'm a little concerned about the long-term future of the game. It's great now, but when I pick it up in few months and friends have moved on, I'll still probably be able to get into a game, but I'm worried I won't find a good one, or one just getting started. This is one point though on which I really hope I'm wrong. My fingers are crossed that Valve will keep attention on L4D with the addition of some new weapons and more varied scenarios, one of the few areas in which it leaves a little something to be desired.

For now though, for today, if you've got time and a couple of buddies, you need to get this. I've played almost everything this holiday season, and a good Left 4 Dead match is one of the few experiences that will be added to the gamer vocabulary, a touchstone that no discussion of co-op gaming in the coming years will omit.

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