We need some sort of fanfare, really. It's not often you get to introduce a game with quite such well-deserved excitement. So, please curl your fists to your mouth mock-trumpet style, and parp-parpity-parp the arrival of... Left 4 Dead! Er, not excited yet? Okay. Well, try this: it's only a four-player co-op/multiplayer from Half-Life creators Valve, and (brilliant PC HL multiplayer mod) Counter-Strike: Condition Zero coders Turtle Rock. Oh, want more, eh? Well, you'll be fighting zombies. A whole city full of zombies. We've got you? Excellent.
Yep, until now, survival horror has been a genre resolutely stuck in the single-player. But, when you give it some thought, that's a really rather ridiculous state of affairs, isn't it? 'Cos scan your DVD collection for favourite zombie movies, and what's the common denominator? A cast of heroes, not a lone survivor... well, at the start at least. God gave us Xbox Live for a reason, and that reason was to team up with mates and shoot armies of the undead right through the head with a shotgun.
Left 4 Dead certainly lives true to the term survival horror. This isn't about defeating the zombie hordes and heroically saving the world. This is simply about not dying for as long as you can, and maybe, if you're lucky, escaping. Being described as a procedural experience, rather than a series of scripted routines, this is the brainchild of one Michael Booth, the creator of online multiplayer Counter-Strike's official AI bot. This is a man who knows how to programme convincing and effective artificial intelligence, and just the sort of person equipped to give brains (braaaaiiins) to those who would take brains (brrraaaaaiiiiiins): an army of the deadliest undead. It's a game designed to respond to the reactions of human players, and improvise accordingly. It's a game that should already be starting to scare you.
So, four players, the Survivors, will team up to take on a map filled with zombie baddies known as the Infected. But it gets much more interesting than that. Not only will the beastly armies of undead be driven by Booth's code, but they can also be played by up to four people who wish to take control too. That really rather spices things up nice, then. Suddenly it becomes a multiplayer game as well, with the odds massively, massively stacked against one side.
At release, the game is due to have four campaigns, each featuring five maps, and each being painstakingly perfected to ensure an intricately ideal design for the frenzied combat. Rather than simply open sprawling areas, or tiresome corridors, Turtle Rock are creating refined open locations that don't overwhelm the players with choice, but still offer enough alternative routes to provide opportunities for improvised escapes. Which, in turn, offers a chance to develop elaborate and improving tactics for more experienced players.
The zombies in this post-pandemic future aren't your outstretched-armed lumbering buffoons - these are fast, vicious and smart. There's the Hunter, a rapid and stealthy creature with the instincts of a velociraptor. There's the Boomer, a vile Infected, swollen with his projectile vomit, and explosive when shot. There's the Smoker, who uses his 50-foot tongue to throttle humans, then fogs the view in front before making good his escape. And there's the Tank, a great behemoth of an Infected, massively dangerous and hard to kill.
Fortunately, the Survivors will be given some effective weapons in response. Everything you'd expect is present: shotguns, rifles, pistols, the latter offering a dual option for those John Woo moments. There's also good old homemade violence, like pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. This is all boosted by the Shove Attack, where you can swing the butt of your weapon melée-style, knocking back any Infected that get too close. This can even be used as a stealth kill if you catch an Infected unaware.