Wednesday, January 7, 2009

They're Coming To Get You, Barbara

FPSes often get a lot of flack these days. Not so much the genre as a whole (because who doesn't like shooting things? We're Americans, remember?) but for the fact that many recent "killer apps" in the FPS category have not really blazed too much of a trail in terms of innovation or distinction; Halo comes to mind. The Gears of War series is pretty awesome, though technically not an FPS (being over-the-shoulder and whatnot). In my mind anyway, the genre is becoming stagnant and therefore stale, Master Chief and his legions of followers are responsible, it seems.

Doom of course remains the patriarch of the FPS family, if not the standard by which all that have come after are judged. However, for all of it merits Doom might be the best example of what keeps the FPS down- the almighty space marine. While certainly groundbreaking at the time, games which put the player in the boots of a badass interplanetary soldier tend to fallback and rely too much upon the tried and true "one man with a bunch of guns fights hordes upon hordes of aliens/demons/what have you" formula. As anyone who has ever played FPSes will tell you, this is very fun, but at some point one just has to say "enough" and wonder when something better will come along in the FPS genre.

I'm fairly certain that "something better" has come along and the kids are calling it "Left 4 Dead". For those of you cave dwellers, Left 4 Dead puts you in control of 1 of 4 survivors of an undead plague ravaging the planet. Together, you and your 3 amigos must work together to get to the chopper (or boat, or humvee, or whatever depending on the campaign you're playing) and escape the legions of zombies who hunger for your brains. Sounds fun, eh?

Among the things that make L4D such a wicked good time is the sheer helplessness of you and your party. There are no grenade launchers, no hammer of dawns, no chainsaw bayonets, no energy swords- the best weapon you're going to find in this game is a shotgun (though when fighting zombies, would you really want any other weapon?). Medkits are few and far between and resources often have to be pooled to get out alive. The game's zombies are of the 28 Days Later/Dawn of the Dead remake variety, meaning they run, which is just plain unfair. These fast-moving swarms of undead, when coupled with the scarcity of weapons and resources, mean that having as many party members alive as possible is essential to survival. Even so, players are often confronted with horrible decisions to make: for example, one of your party has been pinned down by a particularly nasty "hunter" super-zombie and is surrounded by the fast-encroaching multitudes of other ghouls. Do you a) mount a daring rescue and run in guns blazing to save your comrade or b) leave them for dead (get it?) an save your own skins? After all, it was their fault for falling behind in the first place!

L4D represents a near-perfect meshing of FPS, survival horror, and multiplayer gameplay. By taking the FPS away from the ├╝ber-competent space marine with an assault rifle and making the protagonist an average Joe Six-pack armed with only a shotgun and his or her wits, Valve has made the genre bold and different again. The "clever civilian" approach to the FPS actually reminds me of a Valve game of yore: Half-Life (remember that?). Online play means that you can get the most out of the game by having 3 other human minds to play with at any time, though I must say nothing beats sitting it a room with a bunch of your friends shouting things like "Throw the pipe bomb! Throw it now, you idiot! You'll kill us all!" at each other. Because at the end of the day, if there was one experience you'd love more than anything to simulate with your buddies, wouldn't it be 4 of you surviving a zombie apocalypse?

Zombies hold a special place in the American imagination. When we play games or see movies where the protagonist goes up against human foes, our modern, liberal minds all drift towards wondering about the bad guy's family before Our Hero blew a hole in his chest. Is his mom going to get a letter tomorrow telling her that her only son just got killed in the line of duty by some invincible he-man with a laser cannon? As far as aliens are concerned, even they are not immune to post-colonial reasoning ("Aren't we the real monster in this space war?" "Who's to say that a life is less valuable just because it's not a human one?"). Maybe it's just me, but I love killing zombies because they're pure evil. They're mindless killing machines and the only way to deal with them is a cold, dispassionate bullet to the head (if you haven't read Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Handbook, go buy it NOW). By taking a new approach to an old problem, Valve has made me love the FPS again.