Stinking, slouching, shambling, forward forever, faces frozen, fixed in a repulsive rictus of rage. Their pallid flesh droops grotesquely from their bones, damp with strange moistures, and their skin is mere meat, obscenely exposed through torn and malmatched garments. There is almost humanity in their faces, but it is far, and gone away, and in going it has left a vacant wasteland of slackened lips and eyes locked with idiot intensity on an unseen and terrible horizon.
The sun has gone out on their world; what is left is waste and scrap. Out through the streets and on the rooftops and in the ruined basements their demented cries span the darkening cities, and in the forums and down the wires and through the invisible frequencies all of civilisation has gone dead but for their steadily rising brainless tide. Their bodies move and it is not reason that drives them but an insatiable and irrational hunger, a need, an urge to destroy no longer limited by emotion and logic but bounded only by the vastness of eternity's compass.
These are the people who make up 90% of the XBox Live player base. You'll want to get to know them, because Left 4 Dead is a wholly multiplayer game.
This is the dilemma of Left 4 Dead - is it worth playing a truly excellent game if the only way you can play it is by associating with utter douchebags? The answer to that question depends on exactly how many fourteen-year-olds have shotgunned you in the back in the last 24 hours.
The premise of Left 4 Dead is simple. It's the zombie apocalypse, and four survivors stranded deep in zombie-town have to make their way to an evacuation point. In most games, that would be an abridged summary of the story, but in Left 4 Dead that's really all there is to it. The game doesn't futz around with backstory and narration and plot - it gets right down to the business of killing zombies.
Four scenarios come packed into the box, each one retelling the "get to the evac point" setup in the context of a different environment. "No Mercy" features city streets, a sewer, a hospital, and a rooftop last stand, whereas "Dead Air" involves some greenhouses, a hotel, and eventually an airport. Playing through a scenario start-to-finish takes roughly an hour - this is a deliberate design decision and they're pretty tightly timed to ensure you finish within the hour no matter what.
Each scenario is broken down into five maps. The first four are a simple journey from point A to point B, where point B is a "safe room". Getting everyone into a safe room and locking the door ends the level, and moves you on to the next map. The fifth map on each scenario is a "last stand" setup, where you have to summon your evacuation and then hold off the zombie tide for a set period until your lift shows up.
Left 4 Dead is designed to be experienced with four players, each player taking one of the four survivors. If you can hook this up with the right number of friends, it's a blast. Much like Halo, the 360 version of L4D lets you guest a friend in your living room onto Live and play in split-screen, so you can get four players happening with as little as two consoles, two discs and two Live Gold accounts. The PC version, I assume, will require four whole computers and four copies of the game.
In the very likely event that you can't swing the equipment or people to play with an all-friends team, you've got two choices. By default, characters who aren't controlled by players will be piloted by the game's artificial intelligence. The computer is pretty competent, and is particularly good at concepts like not shooting you by accident. However, it can also be pretty useless and will accidentally alert zombies, fail to keep up with you, and not restock health packs and upgrade weapons even when the relevant items are right there. During early play sessions you'll be quite happy with the AI but as your skills improve its deficiencies will become more and more obvious.
Your other option is to fill out your team's ranks with random people from the internet. This is where the aforementioned "douchebags" become involved. If you're lucky, you'll end up with a laid back but competent IT professional from Manchester who is playing a quick round to break up the monotony of being a human being, but by and large your internet player comes in two flavours. The first are players of godlike skill who can complete each level flawlessly and will scream and swear at you non-stop for each and every second of non-perfect play that you wring out of your controller. The second are barely pubescent retards who will constantly blather into the microphone about things they think are pretty cool while relentlessly emptying round after round of ammunition into your back and refusing to make any effort to reach the safe room.
Left 4 Dead emphasises teamwork. You will need a full team of four to make it through a level. The various sorts of zombie have special attacks which can instantly incapacitate a player; even basic zombies have a "dragging you down" effect which makes it practically impossible to move while in melee. This means that if you come under attack and don't have a buddy to help you out you can go from full health to dead without a chance to fight back. Covering your teammates is core gameplay. It makes for great co-op gameplay, and intense frustration when you're lumbered with one or more immense tools on your team.
Provided you can solve the player problem, Left 4 Dead is excellent. The game benefits from the iterative playtesting that developer Valve is famous for, with every aspect of the experience feeling extremely fine-tuned. The zombies are well-animated and genuinely shocking - they're modelled on the fast undead from 28 Days Later rather than their slower moving brethren and you'll see them sprint at you, leaning into their turns to create a really visceral sense of menace.
There's not a lot of music, but what there is makes for a highlight of the game. Some "special" zombie types have a theme tune that lets you know when they're nearby - the unsettling composition for the Witch is a standout - plus there's several tracks used to represent how well the team is doing, including a depressing "all hope is lost" motif that plays when one of your group is killed.
A major feature of Left 4 Dead is the so-called "Director AI". Enemy and item placements throughout the levels are not predetermined - instead they are created procedurally based on how the team is faring, with the AI generating unique lulls and crescendoes for each playthrough. This theoretically means that no two runs of a campaign are the same, and mostly this is true, but after your third play of a map the randomness becomes routine, so I'm not really sure if the AI creates as much replayability as Valve suggests.
If you tire of the basic campaigns (and I have) there's also the option of Versus mode. Versus mode is the same as Campaign, except that the "special infected" (boss zombies) are controlled by opposing players. One group plays the survivors and are scored on how far they get before being gutted by the zombie team, and then the sides switch and the former zombies have to beat the high score. Like most online multiplayer, this is no place for beginners - you'll need a savant-like familiarity with the maps to avoid accidentally crippling your team. As both survivor and zombie, the only path to success lies in planning and co-ordination, which can be a frustrating experience for new players but a rewarding one for veterans.
The biggest complaint to be made about Left 4 Dead (other than the lobotomy-heavy player base) is the lack of content. The four included campaigns take four hours to finish, total. You can replay them but you might start tiring of that after three or four plays, so that swells the play time out to 12 to 16 hours, much of it recycled. Versus mode is good but you can only play two of the four campaigns competitively, and in practice the Quick Match option seems to return the hospital scenario for every game. Considering there's really no single-player component, you can feel justified in thinking there's a disappointly small amount of stuff in your Left 4 Dead box.
Left 4 Dead is an excellent game. There's no arguing with that. But whether you get your money's worth out of it is directly proportionate to how many of your friends own it, and how tolerant you are of society's internet-using dregs. If you're the sort of individual who got more than 30 hours out of Gears of War or Halo online, and are looking for something with a little more thinking and a little less teabagging, then this is the game you were waiting for. Alternatively, if you're the sort who enjoys co-op gaming in your living room and has at least one online friend who also owns a copy you'll have a blast. If you're the rest of the world, though, this is maybe better as a rental.