"Left 4 Dead:" High concept, low quantity

Insert "braaaaaaaains" joke here

Valve Software mastermind Gabe Newell has stumbled upon the solution to delays in his company's releases. In the imaginary Valve-land I have in my head, Gabe gets up every morning and checks the news for word of upcoming modifications to one of his games over a nice healthy breakfast. He immediately buys up the rights to the most promising mods, hires the developers, and releases the end product as an "official" Valve title.

This happens often enough that Valve's business model might as well be stuck in its own version of Groundhog Day. After Team Fortress Classic, Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, Portal, and all their updates and sequels, the Valve catalog is less a portfolio of first-party development and more the trophies of a Great White Hunter of game publishing after a trek through the jungles of indie development.

While any managing director with a few million to spare can play Monopoly with the half-baked goods of indie developers (GULLIBLE READERS: if this describes you, call me immediately about an investment opportunity), Valve's crucial caveat to integrity has been the quality of the products acquired. The Team Fortress and Counter-Strike franchises were the staples of online multiplayer FPS gaming back when Bungie was still making Myth games, and if Portal isn't one of the best proofs-of-concept for innovation in the first-person model, I'll eat my hat.

As the promise of the next step in team-based gaming by a prominent Valve third party, Turtle Rock Studios' Left 4 Dead, a team-based post-zombie-apocalyptic FPS built on an upgraded Source engine, had gaming futurists marking it as Valve's Next Big Thing, a sentiment cemented by Valve's acquisition of Turtle Rock in 2008.

Left 4 Dead aims to do more with multiplayer gaming than has typically been done in the past. Instead of traditional setups (deathmatch, capture the flag, etc), Left 4 Dead places players in one of four quasi-linear campaigns, each of which is divided into a series of chapters. Between one and four player-controlled Survivors (with the others becoming NPCs) rush through the zombie-dotted landscape, while between one and four specialized Infected (and an impressive few hundred of their AI friends) try to clog the Survivors' weapons with their bodies.

Each team plays both sides in a single round, and the winner is decided at the end of the campaign by an aggregate score. If only one team is playing, victory is declared once that team survives the last chapter of the campaign, but who plays that way? Half the fun of Left 4 Dead involves stalking the living as an Infected and making the Survivors as miserable as possible before your inevitable death, and if you play any other way, you might as well have bought Care Bears Team-Up Snuggle Party.

Unfortunately, not all is well in Left 4 Dead's happy little stereotypical hellscape. The problem with Left 4 Dead is one endemic to Valve's "purchased hits" library: There just isn't enough of it. From the monotonous hordes with too few variations to the cleverly implemented but anemic scenario levels to the pitiful assortment of weapons and items (for the Survivor side) and "natural" attacks (for the Infected), Left 4 Dead is a tiny little experience of a game.

If the player is a fan of repetition or likes his games in indistinguishable bite-sized morsels, Left 4 Dead is a perfect choice. If, however, you prefer not to have seen all of what a game can offer within half an hour of its first play, Left 4 Dead might not be for you.

Despite the game's (admittedly innovative) "AI Director" functions, which map each player's skills and alter everything from horde spawns to musical stings accordingly, Left 4 Dead's difficulty is largely left to the ever-present difficulty slider. Each campaign, and to an unreasonable extent each chapter within a campaign, is no more or no less difficult than the last… unless I demand it be otherwise. Campaign-based games, no matter the headcount involved, are supposed to steadily increase in both risk and reward as the scenario progresses. That babysitting is the half the point; if I had enough discipline to nudge a difficulty slider up every time I needed a challenge, I wouldn't be playing video games in the first place.

And it's not like you can't milk a zombie invasion for a bit of plot. If Capcom can squeeze 12 sequels, prequels, and spin-offs out of Resident Evil, then Valve can release a zombie shooter with more meat to it than Left 4 Dead. If Valve could release its own products on a decent schedule, Left 4 Dead would have made a great add-in for Half-Life: Episode 3's variation on the Orange Box (see also: Team Fortress 2, etc.), but as a stand-alone product, it isn't quantitatively worth the price of admission.

Review game supplied by Game Connection (6960 Maynardville Pike). In case of zombie apocalypse, try the hardware store next door. Any other day of the week, try Game Connection!