Left 4 Dead’s got great strategic scope, but hopefully modders will add even more

February 21, 2009

FROM JASON’S APOCALYPTIC ARSENAL — Despite initially cheerleading for the game, some critics said Left 4 Dead was destined to sparkle and fade in a matter of a month.

Well, two months after install I am still happily slaying hordes of the infected in the sewers under Mercy Hospital and under the shadows of trees in Pennsylvania state parks. True, there are plenty of things I’d love to see added to the game: the ability to build barricades, turrets, trip wires or razor wire, lay land mines, use flame-throwers, bazookas, place oil slicks, plant dynamite, string barbed wire fencing, use rivers and streams tactically, use chainsaws, axes, and baseball bats, set up stakes….

All that may well come when Valve releases its Source Development Kit this spring, along with additional free levels in which to go-a-zombie-slayin’. I’m hoping that some clever fan-boys with coding skills will dream up some brilliant maps with ample opportunities to lay ambush sites and take to snipers’ nests.

In the meantime, Left 4 Dead is still holding my attention quite well. As Tinker-Toy-ish as the game is in its simplicity, it still offers a wide strategical array if you’re willing to communicate with other survivors. For instance, I recently discovered how overlooked and powerful the hunting rifle actually is (see YouTube video above).

Every n00b starts with the machine guns — as was evidenced last weekend when waves of squeaky-voiced 12-year-olds inundated the servers as Steam ran a half-off sale. Those pimply newcomers made all the rookie mistakes. They shot alarmed cars, nailed boomers at close range, and walked through metal detectors. Worst of all, they all went straight for the uzis and assault rifles.

Now the automatics aren’t all bad, but they suffer for a lack of precision and punch. Most seasoned players stick to the auto shotgun, but I’ve found the rifle has enough stopping power to punch through multiple zombies with a single shot, and the versatility to pull one-shot-one-kill from afar with the sniping scope.

Now, the rifle’s not going to do much against a tank (unless you get far enough away to put several clips in him), but it’s perfect for picking off un-alert infected while sitting high above, or zeroing in on smokers and boomers before they can get in range to do harm. It’s even perfect (refer once more to my video) for dropping slugs into a witch while sitting safe and sound across open ground.

So this is the second time I’ve gone all fanboy over Left 4 Dead. The first time, I mentioned that it sports enough strategic nuances to make Sun Tzu proud; at the time, it was a throw-away joke, but since then I’ve taken the time to actually read The Art of War — something I’ve always wanted to do. You should read it, too. It’s short.

Anyway, the bulk of the work focuses on command decisions, understanding your enemy, marshaling troops, and managing them on the field. But in reading the translation, there were several tactical truisms I couldn’t help but apply to Left 4 Dead:

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.”

This is true. In game, you can run around shooting the undead until your ammo is gone, or you can lure them into fire, draw them in crowds to pipe bombs, or push them from ledges to their deaths on the pavement or ravines below.

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Remember how Hitler (and Napoleon before him) tried to march into the Eastern and Western fields of battle at the same time, and his forces were ground to hamburger? Waging a multi-front war is a bad idea, and my blood turns to ice when brash young players want to “each take a window and hold them off” instead of bottlenecking. Speaking of which:

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”

Dead ends are your friend. Get your back against a wall, load your weapon, and let the zombies pour through the narrow openings like Persians onto the waiting swords of Spartans. If Leonidas taught you just one thing, it’s that a very few can hold off millions if the correct terrain is chosen to make a stand.

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

Seek high ground. It takes time for infected to climb the sides of a truck, or a perch, or a stairwell, or a building. And they can’t attack while climbing, either. It’s true in both swordplay and gunplay — take the high road, and the advancing enemy below will fall into your hands.

“…Those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence…”

This is so elementary: Set up gasoline cans in key zombie rush lanes, wait for them to pour into the gap in numbers, and then ignite the fuel with a single shot. Watch one bullet and a little hydrocarbon wipe out two-dozen infected. Arm a molotov and repeat.

These are all tremendously simple tactics, but the wonderful thing about Left 4 Dead is that the designers left a rich and varied topography where they can be applied in many ways. After all, the game is fairly limited in scope when you strip it down to the essentials — a few select weapons, health packs, and fire. But it’s the combination with the environment that keeps me going back, and I don’t expect my fascination with the game to run dry anytime soon.


That stupid jerk, Andrew, is making me watch ‘Battlestar Galactica’

February 11, 2009

FROM JASON’S SIGHS OF RESIGNATION –– Well, Andrew has finally convinced me to join him in his nerdery and watch stinkin’ Battlestar Galactica. I might as well start spouting pimples and debating whether Plastic Man or Reed Richards would win in a fight.

I’m only five years late; I wanted to get in on the ground floor with this one, but missed the miniseries in 2004. And if I miss the establishing episodes of a serialized drama, I can never get into it.

So here we are in 2009, with the series finale coming up, and I’m about two hours and 20 minutes into the opening act. I’ve ignored all the geek buzz and speculation about the plot that’s been so prevalent on sites like our favorite forum, so I’m still pretty much a virgin where the twists are concerned.

That said, I grasp so far that there are 12 “wetware” cylons built to blend in with humans, so I figure the show’s going to play out like an Agatha Christie who-dunnit, with the chance to spot 12 culprits instead of one. That’s turned Battlestar already into a spot-the-literary-tell-tales game, and I have some guesses.

1) One of the Adamas is definitely a cylon. It’s apparent that this show’s going to be about religious iconography, and it doesn’t get more blatant than a corrupted form of “Adam,” the supposed first man. Both characters have made decisions that sacrifice lives callously in the name of “the greater good,” and the elder made that ambiguous speech at the start of the first ep about how morally the cylons and humans really aren’t that different.

2) Tigh is probably a cylon. In an early scene, he’s seen lighting a pic of a woman on fire; Andrew says with a wink that it’s just his wife (or ex-wife, I can’t remember), but again in religious terms there’s nothing quite like purging by fire to show hatred and a desire to seek purity.

3) Baltar could well be a cylon. He’s seeing visions of Six, which she chalks up to “maybe while you were sleeping I put a chip in your head that projects images of me right into your conscious thoughts,” but I think she could just as easily be transmitting right into his CPU. She’s all about writing backdoors into software, right? And there’s nothing so far that says that all the cylons know they’re cylons — maybe they’re programmed to think they’re human until they need to complete some specific task, just like with post-hypnotic suggestion.

4) The Asian pilot (I don’t know her name) is probably a cylon. I can’t remember her name, but she’s an orphan. Now, this is completely based on a gut feeling, and also on my English degree — writers don’t typically make characters orphans unless it’s going to contribute to the story by casting doubt on their origins. If they wanted to sympathetically round out her past, they would have given her a family to lose in the Caprica invasion.

5) The following people are probably not cylons: The “president” (cancer is not an identifying characteristic of a machine), The Chief (he’s too emotional and relatable), Gaeta (he’s made mistakes that have inadvertently helped the Galactica safe), Billy (the guy who assists the lady president) is too vanilla, and the really, really cute black girl in the Galactica control room, whatever her name is. I’d get with her. Oh yeah. I would. You know it.

Whether Starbuck is a cylon remains up in the air; I wouldn’t put it past the writers to write that in there as a big 180 punch on the audience. So far, she seems to have very little to do with the plot except as a foil for Lee Adama, anyway.

Now, those of you who are five seasons ahead of me and know the answers, KEEP YOUR GOD-DAMNED MOUTHS SHUT AND HELP ME STAY SPOILER-FREE. If you ruin this for me, I will cut you.

Oh, and Reed Richards would totally kick Plastic Man’s ass. So many reasons.