First Impressions: Zombies and Co-op ? 'Nuff said.
Some things just go together like adjacent puzzle pieces in the Cosmic Scheme of Things: peanut butter and jelly, Laurel and Hardy, Salt-n-Pepa (featuring Spinderella), Daisy Fuentes and me . . . Okay, maybe some of these are debatable, but nobody I know would argue against the combination of zombies and co-op action that is Turtle Rock's upcoming Left 4 Dead. This latest project from the people who brought you Counter Strike: Condition Zero and its advanced AI will have up to eight players fighting it out on a post-apocalypse wasteland set fifteen minutes into the future. Rounding out the maps are dozens of AI controlled zombie NPCs ready to overwhelm the Survivor team while supporting the Infected team.
Technically, these aren't traditional zombies risen from the dead due to radiation, a passing comet or who knows what. Like something out of 28 Days Later, a plague has ravaged the world, and anyone infected by it loses their faculties and are turned into slack-jawed mallwalkers with a taste for human flesh. The lucky few immune to the disease survive?if you want to call that luck. Survivors are surrounded by many, many Infected. A four-player team of Survivors, armed with what few weapons they can find, must fight their way through the Horde to victory locations. For instance, they might have to make their way through what's left of a town in order to get to an evacuation location. There should be plenty of variety here, since the game will include four campaigns each made up of four to five maps, each offering about an hour of play time and a mix of terrain ranging from urban to rural.
Co-op means team play, and Left 4 Dead will force Survivor players to work together by balancing the initial power of the characters. One Survivor with a revolver, a shotgun, or some other scavenged weapon might not hold out too long against the Horde, but two characters are stronger than the sum of their parts as they watch each others' backs. They'll also have to depend on each other for healing, ammo sharing and even the ability to climb obstacles.
But there's another team out there that the Survivors have to watch out for. Once all the Survivor roles have been filled, other players will fill the roles of the ?boss Infected,? mutated Infected who have been given special abilities. Each has a unique look and attack, with unique strengths and weaknesses. The one they call the Hunter is quick with a powerful leap and a devastating slashing attack. It's fragile, though, and easily killed with a few well-aimed shots. The Smoker's tongue has mutated into a weapon that from a distance of fifty feet can grab a foe to trip and choke them, or even pull him away from his teammates. As its name implies, it can create a smokescreen to obscure the battlefield. The Boomer vomits a substance that attracts nearby Infected and can be used to target a Survivor for attack. When it dies, it explodes in a shower of this goop. And finally, there's the powerful Tank, a hulking beast with the strength to smash through walls and hurl cars.
The boss Infected team will certainly make for some stiff competition, but don't write off the AI-controlled horde's ability to challenge the Survivor team. Aside from strength in overwhelming numbers, these computer-controlled bad guys will feature a second-generation version of the bot behind Turtle Rock's Counter Strike: Condition Zero. The Turtle Rock AI has been almost universally praised, and could be said to have passed a rudimentary Turing test when developers testing the game had trouble distinguishing the bots from human players. While it's not clear yet what kind of behaviors the Infected bots of Left 4 Dead will have, the CS bots were able to intelligently navigate a variety of landscapes, work together and communicate with one another. One thing is certain, though. Turtle Rock is serious about their bots: they have a whole group of discussion forums devoted to using and improving it.
Left 4 Dead will put this AI's abilities to the test, since its levels won't rely on pre-scripted battles where the enemy is always gathered on the same street or jumps out from behind the same rock. The gameplay has been described as a procedural affair, in which the game distributes the Horde randomly during play and then allows it to react intelligently to the actions of the players. This means that the concentrations of enemies will change on every play-though and should depend on what players on either team do. Maybe a noobish bunch of Survivors will draw Infected attention when they're low on health and looking to stay out of trouble, quickly finding themselves surrounded and fighting for their lives. On the other hand, a clever Boomer player might be able to draw the Horde to a choke point and bring the hammer down on the Survivors and block their progress toward their goal. Boomers, by the way, rack up points for kills made by the Horde on a target they have tagged.
There are plenty of details that should put Left 4 Dead on players' must-own lists. For instance, a stat tracking system has been suggested, but there is no word on exactly what that will entail. It may involve some sort of reward system or even a set of unlockables. Plans are already in to works for future releases of maps and weapons via Steam. And the devs are said to be looking into the possibility of PC vs. Xbox 360 on-line play. If Turtle Rock delivers on half of what Left 4 Dead promises, this game will be peas and carrots.