November 17, 2009
It’s hard to pinpoint where our fascination with zombies lies dormant in our untapped minds. Maybe there is some hard wired and deep-seated fixation on fearing for our lives and being backed into corners, wondering when it will all end. Regardless, this unhealthy appeal with our undead friends has existed both heavily in films and games for years – maybe books as well, but obviously I don’t read enough. In either case, esteemed developers, Valve, picked up on this obsession and based a franchise around the very subject. Clever, huh? Left 4 Dead 1 impressed us last year with its unique and intense co-operative multiplayer, but ultimately felt a little bare. With Left 4 Dead 2 coming out less than a year later, we pose the question; does it expand on the experience enough? So much so that it can actually persuade you to part with your hard earned cash? In a word... Yes.
One of Valve’s main aims with Left 4 Dead 2 was to bring a story aspect to the proceedings, something that the original lacked – instead it opted for 4 separate scenarios taking place amongst a zombie apocalypse. As expected, the sequel takes place around the same time of the original (a week after in fact), but instead opts for a more southern setting, as you take a new cast on a journey from Savannah, Georgia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, in a series of clichéd zombie fuelled events. Delivering a story in-game is always going to be a tricky and often risky move, and that comes across in the game’s storytelling as it will often leaving you wondering what your purpose in this whole mess is, other than to stay alive. Still, it manages to drag you through some crazy and equally as mind blowing environments that include a fairground, a swamp, a mall and across a zombie infested bridge, and that’s all that matters.
Part of that weakness with the story though actually comes with the game’s new cast of characters; Coach, Ellis, Rochelle and Nick, who simply aren’t as likeable as the original counterparts. Other than a context specific moment where Coach blurted out a few lines of karaoke on the mic in one campaign finale, the cast spend most of their time trying to rub you up the wrong way. Listening to Nick moan about the state of his white suit in the swamplands is a moment that I’m desperately trying to stricken from my memory.
From a gameplay perspective, there are 5 campaigns to hack your way through, unlike the original which had 4. To be honest though, I would say it’s more like 4 and a half, considering in the fourth campaign they pull a “Devil May Cry 4” and make you fight your way somewhere, and fight your way back. Something that has become a bit too common these days in the industry and screams lazy.
As you're probably aware, Left 4 Dead 2, like its predecessor, is a co-operative first person shooter, which takes advantage of Valve’s popular Source engine. Of course it’s the AI Director that separates it from any other engine out there – a procedural artificial intelligence that controls the zombies, the weapon placements, etc, depending on your performance – although it really doesn’t seem that different from the original here. Pre-release, the biggest boasted change was that the AI Director could now affect which route you’d have to go to get your objective, but even after multiple playthroughs of the same maps, the changes must have been so minimal that I in fact missed them. Maybe I was concentrating too much on the frenetic action? Who knows? I do know that if you’ve played Left 4 Dead 1, everything here will seem somewhat familiar. A little too familiar at times.
The new change from an engine standpoint that should be lauded with your eternal praise, is the new way the finales – or crescendo events as Valve calls them – are delivered. Instead of clicking a button and sitting tight like you did in the original’s crescendo events, the game will force you to do unique tasks instead. For instance, at the end of the first campaign, players will be required to fetch gas canisters from around a mall to fill a car up with petrol whilst fighting hordes of zombies off at the same time. Even on a smaller level, later on in the game you will have to fight through a gauntlet of zombies to turn off an alarm if you want the hordes to stop rushing you. The experience and the rush that the game can offer you from these new crescendo events alone is worth its weight in gold.
It seems with Left 4 Dead 2, Valve have tried to be a little too clever for their own good by introducing a few other factors into the fray. On the one hand, it’s a totally new and exhilarating experience decapitating waves of zombies under the blue skies of New Orleans, but fighting through storms and smoke ridden buildings actually seems to detract from the experience. It’s safe to assume that they introduced them to heighten the tension, but it fails there on all fronts and ultimately, you end up counting the seconds down until the fun can resume. Oh, and why 2 inches of rain water slows us down to a slow crawl is beyond me. I do know one thing though... it’s bloody annoying! The whole storm and smoke effects detract from the visuals somewhat as well, and Left 4 Dead 2, like the original, is not the greatest looking game on the Xbox as it is. It looks decent, it just doesn’t have the wow factor that other triple A games are delivering more often than not these days. The audio as well looks to remain largely untouched, which isn’t a bad thing at all considering the fine job they did with the original. You’ll be happy to hear that the Witch's crying is still as haunting and disturbing as it ever was.
Those are just engine upgrades though, and from an inventory standpoint, the game offers so much more variety to get the job done now, that it raises the level of the experience up a couple of notches. For starters, Left 4 Dead 2 sees the introduction of melee weapons – 12 in fact, ranging from a chainsaw (which has a limited life) to the amazing frying fan, and my personal favourite, the cricket bat. The melee weapon will replace your small firearm if you choose to take one and will add a ton of fun to the game. Decapitating zombies with a frying pan is comedy gold.
As well as the melee weapons, Valve have introduced more variety in the standard weapons too, with different types of rifles, machine guns, shotguns and even a grenade launcher now available. It must be said though, it was hard to tell whether there was much of a difference between variations of each gun type other than clip size and look. You do have the chance to use different ammo types – incendiary and explosive – as well as attaching a laser sight that supposedly improves aim. Does it Valve? Does it really? We couldn’t tell. Expect to find plenty of helpful items along the way as well, like adrenaline shots that temporarily improve speed and health, Boomer Bile that can attract the horde to wherever you throw it, and a defibrillator that can bring back “dead” survivors. Each add a new element and strategy to the proceedings and if none of those take your fancy, all the items from the original make a welcome return as well.
The range of zombies has been expanded ever so slightly now too, so not only will you take on a few new “uncommon infected” that include clowns who act as pied pipers and smack infested golem-esque Mudmen, but there are three new specials as well. Each of the new specials are fantastic additions to the already stellar line-up; the Spitter, who spits really harmful acid on her foes; the Charger, who is like a mini Tank but slightly quicker and not as strong; and finally, the Jockey, who is a pint-sized special who can “ride” the survivors into all kinds of danger. Of course, all the original special infected return too.
Whilst Left 4 Dead out the box was a pretty bare package, Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t make the same mistake. Shipping with the disc this time are all 5 maps playable in the competitive versus mode – which pits human controlled survivors against human controlled special infected; a “Survival” mode which is pretty much Gear of War’s horde; and the all new “Scavenger” mode.
Scavenger takes one of the crescendo events out of the game and allows you to play it on a whole load of maps in a competitive multiplayer environment. In Scavenger, players must work as a team to retrieve gas canisters dotted around the map to fill up an engine to keep the timer running. For every gas canister deposited, the survivors will receive a time bonus, and the game will play out in a best of 3, most canisters wins style objective. The mode is actually a serious amount of fun, both as a survivor and the special infected, and is a mighty fine addition to the overall package. Of course if multiplayer isn’t your thing, you can take advantage of the insane harder difficulties in the campaign, or even the new realism mode which strips you of all indicators, makes headshots more effective, gets rid of respawns and makes the witches kill you with one hit – probably the way the game should be played. Although if you do play it, be warned friendly fire is almost a given... especially when those pesky zombies swarm a fellow teammate.
As far as the achievements go, let me take a minute to try and find something wrong with them... okay, I couldn’t. Seriously. The list has everything you want in a list; creativity, originality, balance, some trickier ones for the hardcore players, humour, some mission based side objectives, and some that encourage you to test out all the modes – something we don’t mind if said modes are actually well delivered. It’s not an easy list, and if you're playing legitimately, some could take you an absolute age to get because they are opportunity based, especially the Versus ones, but we don’t mind that. There is no over-the-top, kill 53,000 zombies achievement either, so we thank Valve for breaking that trend. A perfect list if ever there was one and a contender for our best list of the year easily.
Left 4 Dead 2 is leaps and bounds ahead of the original, but still, despite that, it all feels rather too similar and the cast of characters aren’t particularly likeable. It does boast a lot more bang for your buck though, with 5 campaigns, versus available on all maps, survival mode and scavenger, you won’t feel short changed. With more weapons, items, and the impressive new crescendo events, Left 4 Dead 2 is undoubtedly the best co-operative multiplayer experience you can get. If there is one thing that you'll take out of this review, take this with you... Left 4 Dead 2 is all about creating those unique, heart stopping moments, and boy does it create a lot of those!
The constant screaming of the zombies, crying Witches, daunting tank indicators and the general mood is spot on again. It’s enough to give you nightmares!
The daytime gives the game a more vibrant feel at times, but it’s still light years behind the other triple A titles on the market. Still looks great, and it’s as bloody as ever!
It’s the Source engine, what else can you say? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
A very familiar feeling game in terms of gameplay, but with new modes, more maps, more items, new special infected, new amazing crescendo events and so much more, you can look past that.
Why can’t Valve design every achievement list? The list checks all the boxes, and whilst it will require a ton of skill to walk away with the full 1,000 points, getting 750 isn’t out of the question for a lot of players. It of course boasts a great achievement tracker and awardables as well... which are like achievements, but more awesome. Oh, and the gnome from Half Life 2 Episode 2 is back in a similar and frankly as awesome achievement... un-frickin-believable! Love it!
If you loved Left 4 Dead 1, this will knock your tits off! More modes, more scary zombie madness, a totally different feel to how you romp through the campaign and so much more. Yes, it’s all very familiar, but you won’t regret paying the cash for what is the best co-operative multiplayer experience around. Don’t be fooled though, this is still Left 4 Dead, and if you weren’t a fan of the original, we very much doubt the variety and larger scope is going to change that. Even the story is pretty much throwaway... there, I said it.