For most first-person shooters, “co-op” isn’t just an afterthought – it’s a misnomer. Dropping a group of typical twitch FPS players into a standard single-player campaign and assuming they’ll work together is like throwing a few balls of yarn into a basket of kittens and expecting a Persian rug. Instead, the end result is usually closer to parallel play than a genuine group effort; you only truly notice your teammates when they steal your kills and beat you to the power-ups.

If the game industry’s approach to co-op changes in the next couple years, we’ll look back at Left 4 Dead as the game that changed it. With the exception of those of the massively multiplayer variety, no game has been so singularly focused on getting players to work toward a common goal – in this case, survival.

In Left 4 Dead, you take control of one of four survivors of a mutated rabies epidemic that turns the Infected into a soulless (yet bizarrely heterogenous) horde of flesh-eating monsters. It’s standard fare in the film industry, but for the glut of videogames featuring the living impaired in one form or another (mind-controlled Spaniards, frozen ghouls from the North Pole, undead curiously susceptible to properly spelled words and phrases), few games have managed to convey the salient point in zombie fiction: the need for people to band together to make it out alive.

Nearly every gameplay decision in Left 4 Dead has this objective in mind. Simply put, it’s shockingly easy to die. If being swarmed on all sides by a pack of Infected and losing your ability to move isn’t bad enough, there are three species of special Infected tailor-made to pull your group apart at the seams. Smokers are the snipers of the bunch; they lurk around corners waiting for a survivor to stray too far from the pack, then lash out with their prehensile tongue, slowly asphyxiating their victims as they pull them further from the group. Hunters are less subtle; crawling around walls and leaping from building to building, they’re a bit like zombie Spider-men. If one manages to pin you, he’ll claw at your face while you lay helplessly on the ground until one of your teammates knocks him off. Boomers are walking bags of zombie-attracting bile; they’ll either vomit on you, distorting your vision and sending a fresh pack of Infected in your direction, or lumber up to your group and wait for a stray bullet to burst their over-inflated guts, drenching everyone in the stuff.

Then there are the boss Infected – tanks and witches. You’ll know you’re approaching one by the ominous background music and creepy, ambient sound cues. Tanks come tearing toward your group at full speed, swinging their hyper-muscular arms around like wrecking balls and hucking chunks of concrete at you and your allies. It takes a coordinated effort among all four Survivors to ensure that everyone gets away (relatively) unscathed. Witches, on the other hand, just want to weep in their corner and be left alone. (QQ more, IMHO.) Turn off your flashlights and quietly creep past them, and they’re little more than scenery. Startle them and they come alive, flailing their claws and screaming like a banshee. One hit and you’re on the ground; a couple more and you bleed out entirely.

As compelling as the Infected are, it’s Left 4 Dead‘s much touted Director that steals the show. The Director is the behind-the-scenes A.I. that spawns enemies according to an arcane formula that takes into account your group’s past performance, credit scores and various astrological data that are too numerous and complicated to list here. The net effect is that no two treks between safe houses are ever the same. It also forces players to constantly communicate about incoming enemies or risk stumbling upon the wrong zombie at the wrong moment.

Left 4 Dead is meant to be played with a headset, but if you’re feeling antisocial, the game does a decent job of communicating for you through the characters. You’ll probably get tired of hearing your Survivor bark “Reloading!” every 10 seconds or so, but it’s by far the most aggravating example of presenting vital gameplay information without relying on a cluttered HUD. Run low on health, and you move more slowly and develop a pained, shuffling gait. Grab a first-aid kit, and your character slings it over his (or her) back for your teammates to see. Walk past a supply or ammunition cache, and your character will call out to his (or her) teammates to share the wealth.

But the game’s cooperative experience is just as notable for what it lacks: namely, meaningful competition between players. Sure, the game tracks stats like headshots and total damage taken that display during the loading screens between rounds, but they’re only useful for bragging rights – you won’t ever make it that far if you’re only concerned with your own performance. More importantly, all weapons and ammunition are shared between players; you’ll never get stuck with a pistol while your teammate mows through waves of undead with a full-auto shotgun. And while health buffs like pain pills and first-aid kits aren’t communal, it’s incredibly easy (and satisfying) to share them with your wounded comrades.

It’s ironic that Left 4 Dead styles its four campaigns after feature-length films, because, save for the climactic rescue scenarios from each locale, there’s nothing particularly cinematic about Valve’s storytelling here. The game opens with its sole cut scene, and it tells you everything you need to know about the world you’re about to inhabit. Four Survivors? Check. Six types of Infected? Check. Zombies attracted to sound? Check. Have at it.

The lack of backstory will likely rub some the wrong way, but it’s clear Valve trusts its design decisions to communicate more about the characters than grandiose speeches or tearful conversations about who the Survivors left behind. It’s the same less-is-more approach to narrative as last year’s Portal, and it works just as well here.

If there’s one criticism you could levy against Left 4 Dead, it’s that the environments, while perfectly suited to this style of gameplay, will occasionally be little too familiar to those who have played previous Valve titles. At times, it feels as if the infected boroughs in Left 4 Dead are pretty much City 17 with the lights out. Thankfully, you have a steady supply of flashlight batteries this time around.

Left 4 Dead isn’t simply one of the most subtly innovative shooters to come out in years; it’s perhaps the best example yet of the instructive power of videogames as a medium. It will have you huddling so close to your fellow Survivors you’ll forget they’re likely piloted by a bunch of foul-mouthed pre-teen misfits. Any game that can get stereotypical Xbox players communicating and collaborating deserves more than just rave reviews – it deserves the Nobel f**king Peace Prize.

Bottom line: Valve has created the first game truly worthy of the word “cooperative,” and – no surprise here – it’s fun as hell.

Recommendation: If your gaming rig is up to the task, grab it on Steam for mouse and keyboard support and a (slightly) more mature community. Otherwise, pick it up for the Xbox 360. If you’re stuck with a PS3, hop into LittleBigPlanet with three of your friends, throw on some zombie costumes and make the best with what you’ve got.

Jordan Deam is reloading.

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