Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice

            Sometime around Half-Life 2, Valve really started to get a lot of praise for their storytelling techniques.  Which is funny, because most of the story isn’t really in the game.  If you want to know what’s going on in Half-Life 2, you have to read the supplementary material.  Left 4 Dead pretty much eschewed anything resembling a story besides the survivors trying to get from Point A to Point B without dying to the hordes of zombies.  So is there really anything you can do with a comic?  Turns out there is.
            The story takes place sometime before the crossover with the cast of Left 4 Dead 2.  The group of survivors (Louis, Francis, Bill, and Zoey) have finally got to an armored carrier driven by the army, and assume that they’re going to the safe zone.  Turns out they’re headed to an army base, where the army is trying to figure out why they don’t turn into zombies…shortly before a horde of zombies starts attacking.  Cue much zombie-killing action, interspersed with flashback sequences that fill in background information on the survivors.
            I’ll warn you right now, this really is a story for the fans of the game.  Now, it’s entirely possible that somebody who doesn’t even know what Left 4 Dead is would read the story and enjoy it.  But there’s plenty of in-jokes and character information that’s not put in this book.  It does its best to try to acclimate the non-gamers who just want a good zombie story, like explaining about the different zombie types.  And thanks to Left 4 Dead’s general lack of story, there really isn’t much you’re missing out on.  The people who are going to get the most out of the story, though, are those who already know these characters well.
            And they really do shine through in this story.  Francis in particular has his rough, snide personality front and center, and provides most of the laughs throughout the book.  But there’s plenty of room for the reader to get to know every other survivor.  The flashback sequences help.  Not only do they tell you what that character was doing before they met up with the rest of the survivors, but they give you an insight into the character themselves.  The game has plenty of back-and-forth between the characters as they’re shooting their way through zombies, but this is the first time dialogue has really been put as the focus.  It’s hard to tell whether it’s the writers strength of writing the characters or Valve’s strength of creating them that really makes the story work, but they’re well done.  These are not your four random people who you’re waiting to see get chomped.  These are characters you don’t want to see die.
            But if half the reason the story works is thanks to how well it’s written, the other half is thanks to the art.  It’s bloody, it’s violent, it’s visceral.  It’s what you want of a bunch of people killing zombies.  This is one of those comics where you also really notice how the panels are laid out.  They’re chaotic, but not in a confusing way.  It’s really in a way that stops any bland form of layout, and more importantly, always makes sure to keep things moving.  It captures the action well.  If there was any complaint I had about the art, it’s that it does get a bit too cartoony for the survivors from time to time.  Then again, I’ve seen many a Garry’s Mod video where “a bit too cartoony” would’ve been the understatement of the century.  It didn’t really impede the story at all, so it’s not worth complaining too much about.
            The Sacrifice does what it set out to do well.  It gives this world some background story that it was lacking, it gives some character development, and it gives plenty of zombie carnage.  A must-read for any Left 4 Dead fans.
           The Sacrifice is one of the stories featured in Valve Presents: The Sacrifice and Other Steam-Powered Stories, along with Portal: Lab Rat and various Team Fortress 2 comics.  Special thanks to NetGalley and Dark HorseComics for letting me review this story.

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