- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

Superhero and cartoon characters have become integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Valve Software’s Left 4 Dead.

Films and video games in the survival horror genre blend to perfection in Left 4 Dead (for Xbox 360, Valve Software, rated M for mature, $59.99). The makers of Half-Life 2 have put together a premiere first-person shooter that takes players into four horrifying apocalyptic adventures.

What’s the story: Within two weeks of its release, a virus infects humans around the world, turning them into flesh-eating mutants and crazed animals. It’s up to four brave but cliched souls - the horror-movie-loving female college student, the grizzled war veteran, the tough biker and the rattled white-collar worker - to escape this undead meat grinder.

Control your destiny: A player picks one of the main characters and dives into B-grade horror movies. He chooses from “No Mercy” (escape an urban hospital setting), “Death Toll” (a small town), “Dead Air” (an airport) and “Blood Harvest” (farm community).

The mission is to grab a weapon and work with three survivors controlled by the computer, another gamer or a mix of the two to move from safe house to safe house, eventually getting rescued in each cinematic adventure.

Get to the action: Punch and shoot at “28 Days Later”-style infected folks. The primary horde is fast and aggressive and usually accompanied by a selection of especially nasty mutations to add more danger to the mix. Also, programming called AI Director changes the pace and intensity of the action every session, down to the location of resources and abundance of enemies.

Multiplayer possibilities: Here’s where the game really takes a bloody bite out of a player’s time. As four strangers meet online and enjoy Left 4 Dead within the Xbox Live universe, the use of a speedy connection with live chat should make for an all-encompassing adventure submerged in teamwork.

Unfortunately, my experience with the playing level of real people participating online leaves little hope of humanity surviving if creatures actually do attack. Be it profanity-laced commentary directed at less-adept players, obviously underage youths who can’t even spell “cooperation,” or those joining easy levels simply to gain Xbox achievements quickly, it was a pathetic cross section of gaming humanity.

My advice is to find trusted friends and enjoy either split-screen games or private online matches. Another online option for a passel of friends is the versus mode as four-member squads of zombies and survivors battle it out.

Memorable moments: The moments include swarming undead popping up anytime, especially in dark areas lighted only by my flashlight, and the frenzy unleashed when a witch is disturbed. I also suggest letting someone else play for a few minutes and closing your eyes. The haunting musical score (listen to the plinking on the piano) combined with sound effects (flies buzzing around the carcasses) and the moans, cries and screams of the infected paint a chilling aural picture.

Violent encounters: In the finest traditions and skill of makeup artist to the undead Tom Savini, the players turn packs of enemies into piles of decaying, bloodied meat using a variety of weapons such as a shotgun, assault rifle and Molotov cocktails. This smorgasbord of slaughter pulls no punches in its cinematic depiction of death, and a strict 17-and-older warning always should be applied.

Read all about it: Image Comics provides the premiere zombie-comic-book companion in the Walking Dead. Writer Robert Kirkman has orchestrated the grisly black-and-white epic for five years. Readers looking to gorge themselves need only purchase a selection of eight trade paperbacks (averaging 10 issues and $29.99 each) to appreciate the full fright of his work.

Pixel-popping scale: 7.5 out of 10. The first-person perspective captures the moments to terrifying perfection, especially when a swarm of infected beings attacks. I’ve seen sharper-looking games but none that evokes quite this level of anxiety-filled desperation. I still have goose bumps.

What’s it worth: No question, Left 4 Dead breaks ground in social multiplayer online cooperative play and programming muscle to deliver a potent gaming experience. Mature adults enamored with the ghoulish genre will find it an irresistible experience.

* Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times’ Community pages (www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks).

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