Thursday, February 12, 2009

Not An Unreasonable Request, Really.

I don’t get it.

Generally, I fall into near-catatonic bliss while playing anything produced by Valve. It’s as if someone flipped a switch: I sit motionless in front of a computer for hours on end, entirely absorbed with the masterpiece in front of me. When it’s over I teeter away from the computer, dazed, seemingly drunk.

As any gamer with an internet connection knows, Valve’s latest title, a multiplayer zombie shooter called Left 4 Dead, made quite a splash. Of course it was bound to – the internet and zombies go together like Yuengling and my hand, and the Valve team is too thorough to make a bad game.

I recently had some quality hands-on time with Left 4 Dead in what one would imagine were ideal circumstances – over Xbox Live, with friends, hungover. The gameplay was frantic, the action constant, the edges smoothed and shining with typical Valve polish.

And I was bored.

Hold the haterade, fanboy – Left 4 Dead is a perfectly good zombie shooter. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and with gleefully simple-minded brio. I’m just not sure it deserves the fanatic hype that’s risen up around it, or the $60 pricetag.

Despite what anyone tells you, Left 4 Dead is an arcade game. You play as one of four stereoty-I MEAN characters – the Vietnam vet, the hip Sociology major, the working stiff, the whiskey-tango ex-con – and tear ass across a zombie-ridden map towards an extraction zone, holing up in saferooms along the way. You run, jump, shoot, heal. You encounter a spread of tasty boss-zombies.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The four-player smash-and-shoot has been popular (and awesome) since the coin-op days of The Simpsons and Gauntlet. Variations on this formula in L4D are less pronounced than you might expect. Players have to stick together to survive – well, duh. One fuckwit stuck in a corner means one less gun pointing at zombies. To Valve’s credit, they force the player to make difficult choices. Your friend is being whittled down to bone under a pile of zombies – do you risk yourself to save them? A teammate is hanging on to life by a few threads – do you use your last remaining health pack to heal them? And so on.

The flow of good and bad karma is essential in any zombie story, be it film or video game, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Xbox Live is not the best venue for a game of crime and punishment. My miscreant friends and I devoted an afternoon to breaking the game. There was the “Fuck My Shit” acid test – any new player was asked to “fuck my shit” (or rather, our shit). If they remained, we devoted the remainder of the level to upsetting their concept of cause/effect. Donated medical supplies were answered with buckshot to the face. Cries for help went unanswered. One of my favorite tricks was to trigger a zombie magnet – i.e., a car alarm – and hide in the nearest closet while the resultant horde devoured my party.

More often than not, the stoic players soldiered on and considered me a built-in handicap, rather than dissolving into puddles of existential confusion. I caught a few punitive bullets, but so what? I respawned in a closet a few minutes later, and my teammates forgave me out of sheer necessity. So much for consequence.

Reviewers have touted the AI Director, an all-seeing, all-knowing entity that manages the flow of zombies, power-ups and music. Each time you play one of four ($60, Valve? Really?) maps, ideally, the Director gives you a different tempo of gameplay. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few:




I mean, really, how many different ways can you make Cheerios?

Don’t get me wrong: L4D is a blast, especially when friends are involved. But I had more fun fucking over my party than I did getting my mind blown by the AI Director. At the end of the day, any multiplayer game is going to be hampered by misanthropic assholes like me, people who are all too glad to shoot the car, startle the witch, and bring hellfire and damnation upon unassuming five-year-olds – who, more often than not, are unwilling to fuck my shit.