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'Left 4 Dead': Walking in a Zombie Wonderland

There are plenty of thrills and chills in this awesome zombie-killing first-person-shooter. Plus: ''Tomb Raider: Underworld'' and ''Need for Speed: Undercover''

Left 4 Dead | LEFT 4 DEAD There's a reason why real estate is so inexpensive in this city...
LEFT 4 DEAD There's a reason why real estate is so inexpensive in this city...

LEFT 4 DEAD
(EA/Valve; Xbox 360, PC; Mature)

At first glance, Left 4 Dead may look like a typical first-person shooter. Playing as one of four survivors in a city plagued by swarms of the undead, you'll have to pull off frenetic dashes and shoot your way through mobs of vicious (and frighteningly agile) zombies. Five multi-part scenarios are given horror-movie titles like Death Toll (''Hell Came to Earth. These Four Are Gonna Send It Back.'') or Blood Harvest (''No Hope. No Cure. No Problem''). Whether playing with friends or solo (with computer-controlled partners), you'll have to fight your way across a zombie-infested burg before making a final stand at the rescue pick-up location.

The run-and-gun set-up may sound standard, but where Left 4 Dead really innovates is in its complex ''Director'' AI algorithm. The Director takes in information and tweaks the music, narrative, and visuals in accordance to how well you and your teammates play. The Director also adjusts the zombie threat level, too, so expect to encounter sudden waves of the undead, along with battles against five special zombie types. The feral Hunters move faster and pounce on you, Smokers can ensnare and choke you with 50-foot long tongues, and chunky Boomers vomit on you to attract swarms of ghouls. Two other empowered zombies — the hulking, superstrong Tank and the weeping Witch, who goes into a berserk rage when disturbed — also pop up. With the Director, you can play the same missions repeatedly with a substantially different experience every time. L4D features some of the best AI we've ever seen in a game: AI survivors will watch your back and heal you when needed while zombies will try to outflank you and look for optimal points of attack.

L4D delivers a solid single-player offering — but it is in multiplayer scenarios that the game shines the brightest. In Co-op, you and three other human survivors still scramble through environments — from labyrinthine cornfields to sewer tunnels — specifically designed to confuse and confound. The shared sense of danger that L4D creates stands out as its strangest and strongest draw. Where cussing and gloating are usually the norm, L4D teams will find themselves actually exhibiting teamwork, healing one another and discussing strategies. (''Thank you for killing that Boomer, good sir.'' ''Pish-posh, old chap!'') In a stark contrast, the Versus Mode lets you play as the zombie bosses themselves: There is a twisted (and unsettling) thrill in trying to kill humans. Teams switch off between human and zombie, so everyone gets to be hunter and hunted.

The minimalist vibe of L4D works to pump up the sense of panic that you'll feel playing the game: Health packs get sprinkled sparsely throughout the levels and you won't have dozens of exotic weapons to mow down zombie flesh with. You'll always feel vulnerable, no matter how much health you have. In short, L4D marks the first time where it actually feels like a game's trying to kill you. Indeed, Left 4 Dead may riff on the premise of schlocky B-movie tropes, but it joins rarefied air of A-list titles. —Evan Narcisse

What We Like
· The visceral euphoria of surviving against long odds
· Smart, balanced multiplayer design

What We Don’t Like
· The ''last stand'' portion of certain levels can be rather difficult to defend

GRADE: A-

Next page: ''Tomb Raider: Underworld'' and ''Need for Speed: Underground''

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