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Yesterday, early access to the Left 4 Dead demo was opened up to people who pre-ordered either the Xbox 360 or PC versions of the game. Aside from a five-dollar discount off the retail price, the demo is the main incentive for pre-ordering. Is it worth reserving a copy for? Yes, it is - if you're patient enough.
Note: I played the PC version. Your mileage may vary on the 360.
Finding a game is a little different than you'd expect for a PC game. It's basically a console-style "quick match" system where the game matches you up with three other people in a lobby and then, when the leader (the first person to join the lobby) gives the go-ahead, the game searches for a dedicated server and starts the match. It seems like the amount of players trying to play the demo is greater than the amount of good dedicated servers available right now. This will probably change as the retail release approaches but as it stands, it might take you awhile to find a server that won't crap the bed mid-game. Oddly enough, the game will also try to connect you to password-protected servers sometimes, which obviously doesn't work out because you have no idea what server you're connecting to. There's also a decent amount of players who don't realize they need to click the "start game" button if they're the leader. Again, this is a problem that should resolve itself over time.
That's the only really big issue you'll have with new players, though. Most players are at least smart enough to grasp the concept of sticking together and shooting zombies. The maps are all fairly linear so you'd have to try pretty hard to get lost. Even if you aren't in line of sight of other players, you'll be able to see blue silhouettes of them through the walls. Other players will have yellow silhouettes if they've been incapacitated (ran out of health) or they're in the clutches of one of the Infected "boss" characters. The game will also give you on-screen hints of what to do. For example, when you walk up to an incapacitated player, "press E to revive him" will pop up on screen. The kill log offers some positive reinforcement, too; killing bosses will get a mention, as will reviving comrades or shooting zombies off them. Also, if players leave a match, they'll be replaced by adequate A.I. until another player jumps in.
It's important to note this isn't survival horror. The only equipment that's in rare supply are medpacks (everyone gets one at the start) and explosives (scattered throughout levels). You're never really hurting for ammunition. At the beginning of each level, you're given a choice of primary weapon (shotgun or uzi in the demo) and a full compliment of ammunition. Additionally, you can swing them as a melee weapon with your right mouse button if your clip's empty and zombies are still bearing down on you. Each player also has a pistol with unlimited ammo. All of the weapon feel and sound powerful, too - which is good, because there's an ass-ton of zombies out there.
The Left 4 Dead zombies seem like pushovers at the beginning of levels. You'll find a few just kind of loitering around and you'll be able to blow their heads off before they even turn around. Before you know it, though, you'll be confronting with sprinting mobs of these ghoulies. You can't just rely on glitches to save you, either. They'll jump over obstacles, climb through holes in the floor, and even tear through doors that you slam in their faces. The zombies are accompanied by "bosses" that have special abilities. For example, there's an obese zombie that spits bile which attracts more zombies to you.
The full version of the game allows a second team of four player to play as the "bosses" but the Versus mode doesn't make an appearance in the demo. Having human opponents scheming to stop your team of survivors should add a new level of difficulty to the game and put more pressure on your team to coordinate. I can't really comment on how well balanced the Survivors and Infected teams are until I see them both played by humans. Still, in terms of the players vs. A.I. portion of the game, Left 4 Dead is a hectic yet easy-to-learn shooter that should prove to be a solid holiday pick-up assuming the server issues are corrected.
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