Platform(s):PC, Xbox 360
Valve is known for their focus on multiplayer with a cooperative bend. Counter-Strike and Team Fortress both emphasized team coordination over individual skill but it was still possible, with the right skills or the right gun, to become a one-man wrecking crew. With Left 4 Dead, however, teamwork is not only encouraged - it's required.
You and three teammates play survivors of a zombie apocalypse and must fight through an hour-long campaign of multiple zombie-filled levels in order to be rescued. "Four random players cooperating for an hour or more? That's never going to happen," I thought upon first reading about the game's premise. Still, the game doesn't ask for very complicated coordination - sticking together and shooting the zombies attacking you and your teammates is the bulk of the teamwork. While you'll be teamed up with the occasional jackass who runs off on his own, they'll soon learn that staying close to the three other gun-toting survivors will result in a longer life expectancy. Finding other players is quite easy, as the game shows blue silhouettes of your comrades through walls if you break line of sight with them.
What struck me about the game was how effectively it employed cues to encourage correct gameplay behavior. Characters' silhouettes will turn yellow if they're knocked down by zombies or incapacitated by the "boss" zombies. Shooting zombies attacking your teammate appears on the ticker as "(Your name) protects (teammate's name)" and helping them to their feet is similarly announced. It's a subtle way of making players feel good about helping teammates and getting them to appreciate their teammates' cooperation as well. Like Team Fortress 2, the characters have little automatic speech bits so they'll thank one another for a revive or yell for help when pinned.
The cooperative acts are easy to perform, too. "Reviving" downed teammates is as easy as shooting the zombies off them and then pressing the "use" button. Using your medpack on a wounded teammate or giving them pain pills for a temporary boost are a matter of selecting that item and then pressing a button (a right-click on the mouse, in the case of the PC version). Players' inventories are displayed next to their health bars on the bottom of the screen so you know whether a fellow player is in need of aid and whether they have their own medpacks to use. This open record also makes you think twice about hoarding a medpack while some teammate is on the brink of death.
Teamwork isn't simply limited to shooting zombies off your partner when he's down. The teammate who's been knocked down can also fire a pistol, leading to situations where one team is reviving you and you're firing a pistol over his shoulder at the zombie charging him. Another aspect of the game I enjoy is the fact that it has friendly fire, which is at odds with your desire to just spray and pray in the face of an incoming horde of zombies. This, along with zombies' tendency to storm you from several different directions, leads you and your teammates to carefully consider your positions during combat. The circle-strafing crap you'll normally do in another shooter just won't work out well for you here.
While the game uses an A.I. "Director" which randomizes large ambushes by the infected a bit, there's also situations where you know you're about to get swarmed. Each campaign has a couple segments where you have to catch an elevator or something, with the understanding that a gaggle of zombies is going to rush you right after you hit the call button. The end of each campaign has you defending a position for 10 minutes or so against zombies until a rescue vehicle approaches and these sequences are started only when you activate a radio (or whatever). It may feel artificial to have these portions of the game driven by triggers but it gives you time to plan in advance how you'll face the oncoming horde, with players staking out good defensive positions to complement each other. There's usually a few gas cans or some such lying around for you to place at spots where the horde will likely make their offensive. The inventory display works well here again because it allows you to see who else on your team has molotov cocktails (which create a wall of fire wherever they're thrown) and pipe bombs (which beep and attract a crowd of zombies before exploding) in order to more effectively make use of your stockpile of explosives.
Note that you can do all of this in single-player, with three A.I. bots taking the place of real-life players. However, this is really a multiplayer game. The bots take over in multiplayer matches if a player goes idle or disconnects (until someone else connects) but it's a lot more fun playing with actual humans. It's just a very social game. The give-and-take between your teammates and the close calls you share over the course of the campaign really does breed a certain "If we live through this, I'd like to buy you a beer" camaraderie.
Even the Versus mode, in which another four players jump in to control the special Infected "bosses" and stop the survivors' escape, is prone to a lot of friendly chatter despite the competitive atmosphere. There's four playable bosses in total - an obese Boomer that spits bile on survivors that clouds their vision and attracts the zombie hordes, a high-jumping Hunter who pins survivors to the ground and claws them apart until someone punches/shoots them off, a Smoker with tentacles to ensnare his prey, and a Tank, a muscle-bound infected who can knock hapless foes across the room with a swipe of his hand. The first three require you to take the survivors by surprise to be effective and can be killed with only a few bullets, while the Tank can charge in and will take a coordinated effort by teammates to bring down. The inherent imbalances either way make the battles very amusing on both sides. Teams take turns playing the humans and zombies in individual levels of the campaign and you compete to see who gets further. The most common result is that the humans get slaughtered. I'm sure there are some folks who will take Versus matches seriously and will manage to get through the whole campaign successfully but it's fun even if you want to just screw around.
The main criticism that will be leveled at Left 4 Dead is that it doesn't have a lot of content. It's four campaigns in total, each of which only takes about an hour (give or take). That's not far off from the campaigns of some other first-person shooters but then again, the multiplayer maps in those games are different from their single-player campaign whereas in Left 4 Dead they're one and the same. The selection of weapons is pretty limited, too - at the start of the campaign you have a choice of a shotgun or uzi to supplement your pistol and later on you'll have a choice of an assault rifle, semi-automatic sniper rifle, or automatic shotgun. I'd say about 75% of players will take the assault rifle, most others the shotgun. The sniper rifle is a decent weapon but given how much close-quarters combat there is, a weapon with a scope really isn't that valuable. Still, there's not many other weapons they could've added without making the selection redundant. Would adding a magnum substitute for the normal pistol with a smaller clip and more stopping power really make the game more entertaining?
The low amount of maps is really the more pressing problem here. Still, I know for a fact that Valve will end up releasing more maps in the future because this is what they've done with every other game they've made. It was certainly the case with Team Fortress 2 but that game came bundled with Orange Box so it was tolerated. Hopefully they've got some new campaign already half-made but seeing as they've only released a third of the class Achievements/weapons for TF2, I'm skeptical. If you're the type who looks at games merely in terms of hours per dollar, it's possible you may find Left 4 Dead wanting. This is particularly true for the 360 version, which costs $10 more than the PC version and will most certainly require you to plunk down money for any additional content Valve releases. I can't venture a guess as to how long you personally will continue to play the game. Prompt DLC or not, I'll probably be playing this long after I've abandoned most of the other multiplayer shooters I've accumulated this holiday season, though, because no other shooter offers this depth of cooperative gameplay. Within the crowded shooter market, Left 4 Dead created a unique niche for itself.