Friday, January 28, 2011

Review: "I Hate Mountains" (L4D)

Hey, I Hate Stuff, Too!
review for I Hate Mountains, 1-4 player mod for Valve's Left 4 Dead

Say what you want about Left 4 Dead - for all it's tightly integrated mechanics of play, deeply hilarious yet horrifying zombie genocides and beautiful co-op integration, it certainly didn't pack that much of a punch visually. Now don't get me wrong, it was more than technically competent and the environments were very well detailed, the weapon and character models all very realistic and the zombies suitably eerie. But... compare the first five minutes of "No Mercy" with the first five minutes of Half-Life 2: Episode Two, visually. Same engine, same company.

Episode Two opens with a grand reveal shot of a distant, mystical storm - the staging is pitch-perfect, with Alyx standing in front of you, looking out over the ruined city. It's truly a breathtaking sight - and it's followed by possibly the best use of generated physics in the game, the destruction of a bridge. A lot of bridges get destroyed in the Half-Life games. What does Valve have against bridges? Oh, right.

In the opening of Left 4 Dead - you walk down some halls. There are chairs and tables, and bathrooms. You walk outside and it's raining a bit. Y'see, as brilliant as the effects improvements of the Source engine were in Left 4 Dead, the environments were all very mundane and pathetic. Which added to the immersion of course - just a normal house? Overrun by zombies? Fuck yeah, that's how the movies work, bros! But the Source engine wasn't exactly pushed to its limits with the environments, what with all the zombies on-screen at once. For lack of a better word, Left 4 Dead's graphics were... bland. Technically brilliant and fantastically designed, but incredibly mundane.

I Hate Mountains is a mod by those wily creators of Portal: Prelude, a mod I personally hated for trying to shove a useless Portal backstory down my throat, using horribly-voiced NPC scientists who sounded like Microsoft Sam's slightly more emotive kid brother. It had nice puzzles and graphics though, which made up for the slight... pretentious overtones it had, taking Valve's universe from them instead of envisioning there own. Luckily, being Left 4 Dead, they couldn't quite cram much story bullcrap into I Hate Mountains - which is a massive improvement right off the bat. Artists Geoffroy Espinasse and Marc Bidoul obvious took the design philosophy when they started - we may not be able to tighten up how Left 4 Dead plays, but we can change how it feels. From the opening scene set by a massive waterfall, to the underground tunnels that reflect light, not dissimilar to the grub tunnels in Episode Two, I Hate Mountains clearly was built with fantastically well-rendered environments at its core. If you thought Left 4 Dead was immersive before, then I Hate Mountains will blow your expectations through the roof.

I Hate Mountains takes place in (as far as I can tell) Canada, in the... well, mountains. Our four survivors find themselves stranded in the forest and fight their way to an old abandoned church, which greets them with a banner alerting them that there is a radio inside the adjacent mansion they can use to call for help. With little obstacle standing in their way, the survivors walk up the massive tower and radio in for a helicopter, which starts to go towards you for the rescue. Of course, the helicopter alerts the zombies - and this is where I Hate Mountains goes from "quite good" to "better than Valve maps". The zombies start pouring out of the woodwork - literally like termites - and the old, creaky mansion starts to collapse. The stairs fall apart and you have to find your way down the stairwells and outside as the zombies keep pouring, pouring, pouring from every nook and cranny. The fight is possibly the most intense I have ever witnessed in a Left 4 Dead title, with the exception of the bridge rescue from "The Parish," in Left 4 Dead 2. And, of course, as you reach the helicopter, the goddamn thing blows up - the zombies apparently having got to it before you - and its chasis flies across and field, blowing wide open a gate you need to use to proceed. Yikes.

As far as design goes, every element of I Hate Mountains is incredible. The levels are brilliant, nearing a Valve-like perfection; the crescendos and other such moments seem ripped from a movie, and the graphics - as mentioned before - are really fucking ramped up. With a whole lot of custom effects and textures, the mod truly does have an expansive scope, and the immersion is helped to no end. The lighting is also wonderfully played with - just like in Valve maps, they know when to turn off all the lights and leave you in pitch blackness, just for screams.

So now you're thinking maybe you'll download it because it sounds perfect and it's free, right? Well... no. You see as much as the design and execution of the mod is perfect, there are a lot of... annoying bugs and glitches that really really seem like massive oversights. At one point the game offered two separate paths, of which I picked the left - and somehow, probably my own stupidity but whatever - somehow I ended up coming out the right. It's like... wow. They really made it so you can backtrack this far? The design was awesome so I don't know what did go wrong - maybe I missed something - but that I did miss something shows that the designers probably should have put in a big "YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY" clue. I don't know, would have helped. Also - and this is my biggest issue - I ended up stuck in the shrapnel of the helicopter. Don't ask me how I did it, but I was stuck. A little. I could hold forward "w" and move at a snail's pace. I did eventually make my way out, but then I turned around to find my teammate's had made the same mistake. Eurgh. Maybe it was a technical failing, I dunno, but the point is it did happen.

So the mod isn't exactly 100% smooth. The original game had its share of pitfalls, too. Every game does. It doesn't detract from the experience, they just make me scratch my head. I can't be the only one dumb enough to walk into those sort of glitches, right? Regardless.

Another thing that may affect your enjoyment of this mod is the rampant Left 4 Dead 2 hatred. The mod is designed for Left 4 Dead, but the include a Left 4 Dead 2 version - which remains a buggy, inconsistent mess. Left 4 Dead 2 is a great game, fixing and expanding upon the original's already tight-as-hell formula. There's no reason that tiny extra work could have been put in and have the Left 4 Dead 2 version be improved upon post-release, but it seems the developers are holding that grudge that a lot of people have had since the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott went up in arms. Doesn't really effect the mod itself, but it's an odd thing that the developers have somehow picked up on.

Oh, and worst offence of all - despite the title, I Hate Mountains does not contain all that many mountains. But hey, whatever.

recommendation download now

Regardless. Everything I've said, I can only repeat - immersive, tight, really well designed, with a lot of really great crescendos and events. Not perfect, but what 3rd-party Source mod is? (Besides Zombie Panic: Source, I mean.) Go and download this mod right now from it's website over at Get the Left 4 Dead version, avoid the Left 4 Dead 2 version, and have a lot of a fun in this really great experience crafted by people who clearly know a lot about what they're doing.

*please note: mods will not be scored numerically, rather with an overall recommendation such as "download now" or "worth a look".

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