I tried two new sections of Left 4 Dead 2 at Valve headquarters on Thursday and found a new best weapon for slaying zombies. I was also looking for enough new material to justify this sooner-than-expected Valve sequel.
To my right in a small conference room at Valve was Chet Faliszek. He's a writer on the game, and he has decided that the frying pan is his favorite weapon in Left 4 Dead 2, the fall sequel to last year's co-op first-person-shooter, anti-zombie hit. It is an effective weapon for smacking the undead, but I discovered I was a sword guy. The new Japanese blade dismembers L4D2's new, bloodier zombies with swift ease. Fans of digital gore will enjoy making heads roll.
For an hour, Faliszek and I, along with two guys from Eurogamer, teamed up through the first couple of sections of Left 4 Dead 2's Dark Carnival and Swamp Fever campaigns. Playing the PC version, I was hunting for what was different in these two chunks of the game.
The campaigns felt fresh. Both starred the game's four new protagonists. I was Rochelle the female TV reporter in Dark Carnival, shooting and slicing through an opening section that moved from traffic-jammed highways to a creepy motel and hillside. The second section had us in the carnival fairgrounds, fighting zombies near a shooting gallery, close to a merry-go-round and near concession stands.
I encountered some of the sequel's newness when the Jockey pounced on my character's back. This new special zombie announces its presence with a tell-tale snicker before it leaps on a victim's back. It rode Rochelle away from allies, thwacking her with a free hand as it went. The player can try to steer in a better direction, but can't outright resist where the Jockey drives them. Later, a Jockey would pounce on Coach, Faliszek's character for the session, driving him across distant rooftops until one of us shot the zombie down.
Also new — newest of all, perhaps — was the Charger, revised since E3 2009 when this whole sequel debuted. This special zombie no longer barrels through the players' group before grabbing one of them. It now rushes in and grabs a human player immediately, smashing them all the way toward whatever wall or other vertical heap is the terminus of their headlong rush.
Some of the novelty in the sequel is subtler. Faliszek described the enhanced teamwork tactics of the special zombies. The sequel-debuting Spitter, for example, won't just spray part of the ground with toxic, damaging goo. It'll spit into safe rooms and other places where players might camp out. Worse — or better — a Jockey may intentionally steer a player's character into the spot where a Spitter just spat. They team up so that you're more likely to lose.
Some Kotaku readers have questioned why Left 4 Dead 2 is a standalone sequel to last year's game and not an expansion pack. Faliszek pointed to content like what I just described as the reason why: Three new special zombies, the new campaigns, the smarter AI director that tweaks the flow of the game, a new unrevealed game mode, lots of new weapons and six new "uncommon common" variations on the game's standard zombies.
Even the sun and its effects are novel for Left 4 Dead 2. In the game's pre-set daytime sequences, Faliszek said, standard zombies will be more agitated and aggressive than they were in the night sequences of the first game.
The sequel-debuting "uncommon common" zombies will provide another new challenge. Some might be bulletproof in the front... or fireproof... or short with more health... or in clown get-up and wearing squeaky shoes that attract more zombies.
Some of the sequel's new enemies and level designs are a response to how Valve saw gamers play the first Left 4 Dead. The Charger, for example, was designed to counter players that excel by staying together in a tight pack. The new game's designers also noticed how people who played the first would stand their ground during "crescendo events," digging in while dealing with a sudden rush of zombies. To counter that, they incorporated moments that cause an endless stream of zombies to flow into battle, ceasing only when players move to another part of the map. In Dark Carnival, for example, one of us needed to activate the power on the merry-go-round, which allowed a gate to open and zombies to pour in for the attack. Only racing around that merry-go-round and reaching a power switch on the other side of it brought us toward safety and began to wind down the attack.
Dark Carnival was fun, and I was intrigued by Faliszek's comment that some of the carnival games, like the shooting gallery, would be playable in the game's final build. But I was even more impressed with what we played of Swamp Fever. Without spoiling its sights, do trust that the two levels we played in it featured striking visual elements. There are surprising objects, large and small, mired in that swamp. There are memorable set-pieces staged within its green and grey muck.
As we fought though the swamp, I played as Nick the gambler. I tried a baseball bat, a cricket bat and an axe against zombies. Faliszek said each of the game's melee weapons has its own offensive quirks but said Valve will prefer players learn those on their own rather than describe each one's strengths and features. He would say that they won't break. The development team experimented with breakable melee objects and decided that such deterioration just wasn't fun.
As I wrapped up an enjoyable hour playing the game, Faliszek talked to me briefly about the game's map editor, which he said would be available, for PC, "right away" when the game comes out. It will be more powerful than the first game's, allowing map-makers to, among other things, affect the weather and adjust the behavior of the game's AI gameplay director, which adjusts the flow of the action depending on how successfully players are getting through things.
What I played of Left 4 Dead 2 felt well-polished and fun, not too different from the first Left 4 Dead, but different enough. The newness was there, built on top of something familiar and smartly structured. Valve still has more to reveal of the game before its November PC and Xbox 360 release. Much of what I described in this post, though, will be available to the public to play this weekend at the Penny Arcade Expo here in Seattle.