Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back from the Dead

It’s been longer than I intended. Some things happened over winter break which really fucked up my outlook on life, and left me feeling broken. I went back to school sick and spent the first week sleeping through most of my classes. I’m still sick actually, but things are looking up, and I’m ready to move on now.

During my dark hours and convalescence, I sought refuge in many forms of fiction, and I will discuss all of them eventually, beginning with three outstanding games which made 2008 a better year: Left 4 Dead, World of Warcraft: WoTLK, and Braid. I’ll be discussing each game with relation to several other titles, not because they aren’t big enough to discuss by themselves (they totally are), but because I’d like to really get at what these games ‘say’ as products of art and where they stand with relation to what else has been done before them. So buckle the hell up.

The boys at Valve proved they knew how to make a first person shooter way back with the first Half-life, and while I was never terribly taken with Counter-strike (mostly because of the crowd that plays it), Team Fortress 2 certainly convinced me they could do Co-op as well. In fact, Team Fortress 2 was the best co-operative FPS I had ever played. Tons of shooters have played around with the RPG class concept but never had such a mechanic been presented in a manner which was so conducive to actual team work. Each class’s unique play style is designed to fit together with the others, interlocking and connecting until the team becomes an avatar of composite badassery. By contrast Call of Duty 4’s perk and equipment system was based more on the trope of character customization, and consequently felt like minor adjustments to a standard issue chasis than adopting a specific role. Then there’s also the fact that each class in TF2 was an actual character; which is to say a distinct entity with personality. Stock personas to be sure, but in a genre where character runs deep as shrink wrap, a little effort and a slick presentation makes all the difference.

Of course, this is all a preamble to Left 4 Dead; the new king of cooperative first person shooting. I do not mean to suggest it has replaced or dethroned TF2 however, but rather that it is a new monarch presiding over a completely new territory. Instead of challenging you to learn the specific advantages, limits and synergies of various playable character types, L4D puts you and three other people on equal footing and has you run a gauntlet of nightmarish yet intriguing combat situations, against the beloved backdrop of a zombie apocalypse. From a narrative standpoint, TF2 is a character driven afair, while L4D is all about the situation. The game implements a new mechanic called an AI Director which decides when and where to plant the games special enemies while the players are distracted by the constant but milder threat of standard zombies. Each of the game’s four campaigns are filled with spots where things can and will go horribly wrong.

Just in like the films which inspired the game, Cooperation is a necessity for survival, and gameplay goes down according to the old adage of strength in numbers. When you have only four people fending off a flood of zombies (all fast and frenzied from the school of 28 Days Later), loosing somebody, even if they suck, is a big deal. At the very mildest, it means you’ve run out of bait. While the survivor characters all handle identically, class based game play pops up in the game’s versus mode where you get to take the special infected for a spin. The head to head is actually remarkably similar to the game’s campaign mode; the only difference is that other people are controlling the special zombies instead of the AI Director.

On each level, both teams get to play both sides (Survivors and Infected), and whoever completes the level more competently wins. The dynamic is similar to football in that you have one group rushing to a goal, and another group trying to stop them. While it might seem a little bit lazy for both co-op and versus to use the same maps, it is far more creative and preferable to some half-assed deathmatch mode. With the exception of the tank, a rare spawning special zombie with the powers of the incredible hulk, all of the Infected characters are weaker than the gun totting survivors. Furthermore, it’s thoroughly refreshing to have multiplayer that’s dynamic. It is a multiplayer shooting game where camping is not an option. The survivors are rushing through the campaign environment as quickly as possibly and the Infected characters have to co-ordinate where to set up choke points and ambushes. Once again, the player is confronted with an emphasis on situation as opposed to character.

In order to successfully coordinate in versus mode, and to fully enjoy all the “Whoa shit!” moments in campaign, you’re going to want to play with a mic. I am notorious for avoiding voice chat, to escape both the social and technical headaches such practices tend to inflict, but after playing just a couple rounds with a headset, I had to admit that the game was better when my friends could hear me scream. On a related note, some people have asked if you can play Left 4 Dead alone. The technical answer is ‘Yes,’ but the game was not designed for such an outing. I’ve played through one of the four campaigns with just bots and the experience was wholly underwhelming.

Again, Valve did a fantastic job of merging practical mechanics with an aesthetic presentation. The AI director fits perfectly with the game’s frame story which presents each campaign as a ‘Movie’ starring the four survivors. A grainy filter dulls and distorts colors as appropriate if the video were being projected from an aging film real. The music builds and climaxes in correspondence with the zombie hordes. But for all of its brain splattering splendor, the game could be better. Like TF2, Left 4 Dead’s presentation outshines its innovation. The Hunter’s pinball like pouncing ability and the Smoker’s noose like tongue hint at the novel experiences you may have had in other Valve titles like Portal and Half-life 2, but it never quite reaches the same echelon as the gravity gun.

Stay sharp, Wrath is coming up on Wednesday. [EDIT: <=== A Lie]

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