Look at that, I haven't posted in so long that I got bumped off the main page by Crimson's various ramblings. We can't let the average post quality be diminished for any longer, so here I am back again! Also possibly related, I had to work like a dog throughout Nov-Dec to submit my PhD thesis (about something boring) and accordingly didn't have much time to post, only to troll other people's blogs as usual :p
Anyway, Left 4 Dead. I have been playing it. It is 9 kinds of awesome as I mentioned previously. Reasons:
1) Awesome post-apocalyptic setting with lots and lots of zombies.
2) You get to PLAY zombies, not just kill them. And not the shambling braaaaaiiiins ones. The super-duper, special powers, fly screaming above the roof-tops, car-throwing, face-munching, uber zombies. This is so much fun that I have been known to switch teams when it's my turn to play the humans, except my computer loads faster than most which sometimes leaves no people on the human team, causing the zombies to automatically win :/ Anyway, zombies are awesome.
3) The 'Quick Match' feature. This saves you the typical FPS mini-game of searching for a server with an adequate ping, the right game type, right number of players, etc. At first I thought it was crummy because sometimes it didn't find me games, and so I discovered how to access the actual server browser usually included with Valve games (in case you're wondering, find the developer console under options, enable it, and then hit '~' and type 'openserverbrowser'). I then realised that a lot of the servers were simply full because there are a ton of people wanting to play this game, and also realised that the Quick Match feature was finding suitable games a damn sight faster than I could.
Long story short: after loading the game, you can be in a PvE or PvP game with literally 2 clicks, and zero dicking around.
4) The game design is awesome. The game revolves around the Survivors working together as a team, because the Zombies get some crazy powers that can easily incapacitate a lone survivor foolishly wandering off on their own. I have never, ever, played a game that promoted co-operative play so well.
The raw power of the Zombies creates a lot of tension. In one game Crimson and I were gunning for the achievement in which you complete a campaign on the hardest difficulty. This is no mean feat, and we were hobbling along to the rescue helicopter at the very end when Crimson was incapacitated by a horde of salivating brain-eaters. I was almost at the rescue helicopter, and although the thought of leaving him as bait to allow me to get away safely did occur, I instead plowed through the horde, threw a pipe bomb to distract them, helped him up and guarded his noob arse all the way to the rescue chopper. He was practically in tears with gratitude over voice chat. It was an emotional rollercoaster for us all.
5) Oh yeah - voice chat included in game. Gotta love it (except when you're paired with 12 year olds, which is embarrassing and leads to them quickly being muted).
6) It's not like a regular FPS. I can tell because I suck horribly at most FPS's, but in this game I'm fairly good, despite my sucky aiming skills and reflexes. Reason? A lot of the game is point-blank, there's very little bunny hopping possible, and it's pretty much all tactics on a slightly higher level than who-can-quick-draw-the-fastest.
7) The PvE campaign is really well done, thanks to multiple difficulty levels, the unpredictability of the AI director, some awesomely designed levels and scripted events, and the struggling-to-survive feeling that the game inspires. There is no story thrust into your face, but should you care the various writings etched on the walls provide some answers.
8) It's very hard to get lost. Heading into a new area, you have this oh-shit-am-I-going-the-right-way feeling, but you end up getting to where you need to go (there are shorter and longer ways of course - the point is that you don't need a detailed knowledge of each level to be able to play well).
9) The learning curve is very shallow. There are 4 types of weapons in the game (pistol, rifle, machine-gun and shot-gun), which can be upgraded as the level/campaign progresses by finding a stash along the way (ie dual pistols, auto shot-gun, etc). But only 2 weapons (pistol and one other) can be carried at a time, which limits the number of things you have to know the function of to be able to enjoy the game (compare this to an MMO).
The choice open to you at any given time is then usually shoot, melee attack, or move (there are other, less frequent options such as throwing a bomb or using a medkit). The Zombies are fairly similar but have even less options open to them. But there is plenty of skill and complexity involved in using these in the right ways at the right times. Simple and complex at the same time.... what all game designers strive for, but few achieve.
10) The PvP is perfectly balanced, as I mentioned previously . Swapping teams means that it doesn't matter if one team is more powerful than the other - it all becomes completely fair, which allowed the designers to clearly focus on the fun and not get bogged down in the details.
11) There are lots of little tricks to master in the game, that aren't required to win unless you're up against a very good team. For example, each area that features a massive zombie rush usually has a nearby location to shelter in that is easier to defend than others. A Hunter can run through fire (which kills them fairly quickly), but if they pounce a survivor their hits will do double damage. Propane cannisters sometimes found across levels can stun the ever-feared tank. Hunters who leap from rooftops get extra damage for the fall, and this can be maximized by aiming upwards before you leap. There are just so many little tips and tricks that you pick up, which help add to the depth of the game, but aren't so intrusive as to give it a steep learning curve. Extremely well done.
12) And finally, the fear. When you first play this game, if you're the type who scares easily at horror movies, you will get scared. The zombies come fast, unexpectedly, are rendered in fantastic graphics by the game, and scared the living shit out of my girlfriend, which was hilarious. I must admit that even when I first started playing the game, I was hesitant to proceed at more than a snail's crawl because the atmosphere was so bloody foreboding. This is a good thing :) Unfortunately I have been de-sensitized to all the gore and such after a fair amount of play-time, but on the plus side I should be pretty good to go when the inevitable zombie apocalypse actually hits Earth.
Well, I said it was 9 kinds of awesome, and as you can see above, it's even more than that. The game was an instant classic for me, and makes a great, casual change of pace compared with my typical MMO fare. It's available on Steam for US$50, although I managed to snag it on sale for US$37.50 (both of these work out much cheaper than the retail cost in Australia, although I gather that in other countries retail is more competitive). There's also a Valve 'complete pack' for $100 which includes pretty much everything of note that Valve have done to date, which is ridiculously good value.