you’ve got red on you

I bought Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 in the Steam sale a week or so ago. I paid £5 for both. They are a few years old now but they were a big deal when they came out.

I have been playing through L4D. It’s zombies! Kind of (actually it’s some form of hideous virus, rather than necromancy). The first thing you notice is that you have been cheated. The zombies can run. This is not right. Zombies should not run. The second thing you notice is that the Source engine is starting to look really old. The character models still look pretty good (especially facially) and the animation is very smooth and the ragdoll system is still very nice, but the cars on the streets look like they’re made of cardboard. The third thing you notice is that the game throws you into it right away. I had been vomited on by a boomer within about 30 seconds and I had no idea what was going on when the screen went yellow, the music suddenly intensified and zombies swarmed me.

I’m kind of a big but unwilling fan of these terrifying first person shooters. I mean, I hate them, but if a game can actually make me panic then that’s pretty good, right? Most games are so laughably bad at creating any kind of consistent believable world or atmosphere that they are incapable of immersing you to the point that you actually jump when something surprising happens. Half Life (1 and 2) are severely underrated in terms of how scary they can be, even though (apart from the headcrabs and related monsters), they don’t focus on horror elements, it’s more just that they suck you in and know how to build an atmosphere. L4D is pretty good at it too, althoguh obviously it is supposed to be a horror game. I admit I am a bit of a slut for any game made by Valve, even if I do get to them several years late.

I guess the most interesting thing about it, and what pretty much defines game play, is the fact that the enemies are placed procedurally. The AI in control of it is called ‘The Director’ and it rewards you and punishes you for your play style, and tries to keep it challenging. It spawns the average zombies all over the place. Most of the time they are benign until you shoot them or walk too close to them, and they are pretty weak; only dangerous if there are a lot of them. The director can also spawn special events and enemies: boss types of varying difficulty and crazed hordes of normal zombies.

The point of procedural content generation like this is to avoid linear and rigid worlds and to make everything a bit different each time (and also to reduce development time). It’s mostly to make something interesting happen without the developer explicitly having to define/script it. A few years ago, Soldier of Fortune 2 had a mission generator which tried to generate unique missions to increase replay value. It did everything, including terrain, buildings, and enemy placement. The resulting missions were all different, and yet, they were all the same. A similar problem plagues L4D. The enemies are placed haphazardly and they have an annoying habit of spawning in areas behind you that you’ve just cleared, or coming from other nonsensical locations. Most of the areas end up playing out much the same because the director isn’t very imaginative and just places a smattering of zombies at random. He is an algorithm and it can show.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. The fact that they can spawn behind you does encourage you to keep moving pretty fast (sometimes too fast), and to keep checking behind you, you can feel stalked at times. But there are parts where the enemy placement is genuinely clever. One of the most fearsome enemies is the witch, who is passive unless you disturb her in which case she is VERY AGGRESSIVE and very fast and very powerful. Disturbing her involves getting too close to her, making too much noise, shining a light in her face, or more likely, accidentally shooting her with your auto-shotgun when you were aiming at a zombie who was inconveniently standing about 30 feet from her but directly between you and her.

As such, the best way is to be very careful and sneak FAR around her. But sometimes the game has placed her directly in a corridor you need to pass. If you can hit her from a long range and your squad has a hunting rifle and at least two assault rifles then you’ll probably do okay, if you can only get about 10 feet away before you break line of sight then you better hope you’ve still got a few first aid kits. Other times the game will use her at a pathway fork to cow you down a particular route. I encountered her today at a fork and I was pretty pleased with myself for sneaking around her, except I soon found out the game had used her to force me into a pitch black tunnel seething with zombies (and special zombies) and by the end of it we probably took more damage and used more ammo than had we just popped a pipe bomb under her and opened fire.

L4D is from the Half Life school of story telling which means it’s all done in-game and there are no lame cutscenes (good!), but unfortunately there’s not much *actual* story telling either, not nearly enough in my opinion. But the voice acting is nice and each character seems to have a personality, so it could be worse. I especially like Francis (the biker) who upon meeting a new situation remarks that he hates it. I hate hospitals. I hate tunnels. I hate airplanes. He is hilarious.

I guess…. 7 out of 10?

In related news, I’ve started unlocking quite a lot of cool stuff in TF2 and it’s getting even more fun. I have a sword for my demoman and a flare gun for my pyro. The latter is brilliant, I just run around setting everyone on fire from miles away. I rarely get any kills from it but it seems genuinely useful way to hamper an attack, most people retreat as soon as you set them on fire. I also have a new flamer that gives me criticals when I ignite people from behind. SUPER FUN TIMES.

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