Cliches may be the enemy of originality, but sometimes they’re a creator’s best friend. “Left 4 Dead,” the newest masterwork from acclaimed developer Valve Software, uses the familiar conventions of zombie pics to immerse players in the most innovative multiplayer videogame since pioneers “Quake” and “Doom.” Thanks to a brilliant marriage of gameplay mechanics with cinematic genre, “Left 4 Dead” creates genuine fright while not only enabling, but forcing cooperation between four players fighting for their survival. Endlessly engaging and virtually flawless, it’s destined to be one of the most successful original vidgames of 2008, and set a new standard for cooperative gameplay.
The brilliance of Valve’s games is that they surround innovation with elegant simplicity, allowing players to focus on the teleportation mechanics of last year’s “Portal” or the emergent story and groundbreaking physics of 2004’s “Half-Life 2” without being distracted by other features that aren’t up to par.
“Left 4 Dead” is divided into four campaigns with B-movie titles like “Dead Air” and “Death Toll” that are populated with a quartet of stock characters — the grizzled Vietnam vet, the horror film-loving college student, etc. — a creepy soundtrack full of staccato piano notes, dark rooms lit only by flashlight, and amusingly cliched dialogue (“I can’t believe we made it!”; “Son, we just crossed the street.”). Anyone familiar with survival-horror pics knows exactly what they’re getting, which is the point. Rather than spending time developing a plot, Valve drops players into one so familiar they can fill in the details themselves.
Four disparate survivors fighting off a horde of creatures after the apocalypse makes the perfect backdrop for multiplayer action. Every element of the game, from the onscreen display to the menus to the level design to the enemy artificial intelligence to the weapon distribution subtly encourages and eventually mandates strategic cooperation. Going off solo or trying to screw over one’s teammates is completely counterproductive, while healing fellow survivors and defending them from the “infected” is a necessity for success. The ultimate compliment for “Left 4 Dead” is that four random strangers matched together online will likely find that their approximately 90 minutes together completing a campaign leave them a tightly bound unit, not at each other’s throats.
The relatively short length of each campaign is already drawing ire from some gamers, but just as with the story, the size of the maps is simply a means to an end. “Left 4 Dead” uses a creative artificial intelligence system that lets enemies attack at different times and in different combinations during every playthrough, making the twentieth attempt to reach the airport in “Dead Air” nearly as fresh as the first. The dynamic A.I. is also a perfect match for the genre. Just as in any good horror movie, “Left 4 Dead” generates its best scares from the anxiety of never knowing when a scary creature is going to leap out of the darkness.
Game is further enhanced by a four-on-four mode in which teams switch off between controlling the survivors and the game’s most deadly creatures, who have unique, and appropriately disgusting, abilities. Whereas most vidgames cut out small portions of their solo maps for multiplayer, “Left 4 Dead” remarkably utilizes its entire geography, letting competitive teams work their way through an entire campaign to see who’s most successful by the end.
Though it’s possible to play alone with the game’s competent computer-controlled humans, who also smoothly take over when anyone drops out midgame, it’s worthwhile only for rookies, who might want to practice without the pressure of impatient teammates. Anyone with an Internet connection and a basic knowledge of action gaming will find “Left 4 Dead” is compelling with strangers, extremely rewarding with a group of friends, and scary enough to make merely watching zombie movies feel like a snooze.