Things go south in Valve's uncharacteristically quick follow up to last year's cooperative multiplayer shooter Left 4 Dead, as the walking dead creep below the Mason-Dixon line—where four new Survivors, immune to zombie-ism—seek solace from the infected hordes.
Left 4 Dead 2 follows the bloody struggle of four random strangers as they fend off new "Special Infected" super-zombies en route from Savannah, Georgia to New Orleans, Louisiana. They do so over the course of five campaigns, armed with new melee weapons, a larger selection of guns and grenades, and new personalities that make them distinct from the original's fondly remembered quartet.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a bigger, more diverse, more comprehensive package than the original was, offering brand new game modes and a complete multiplayer campaign suite right out of the box. Is L4D2 too soon? Or is it everything Left 4 Dead fans were hoping for?
Southern Charm: I had misgivings about the change in scenery in Left 4 Dead 2, as the environments felt less grounded in reality, less frighteningly claustrophobic than in the original. The whole thing, whacking zombies with guitars, undead in riot gear, the Tunnel of Love, it just seemed... corny. Fortunately, Left 4 Dead 2's aesthetic, its southern charms, grew on me quickly. The game's better levels offer a horrifying look at the result of mass panic, our four Survivors happening upon a wasteland of deserted cars, downed planes and abandoned homes in the wake of the recently spread infection.
The murky southeastern atmosphere, which ranges from dusk 'til dawn, from sun-blinding, hazy days to pitch black nights, adds to the variety of horror. The region-specific tunes, which at first I found almost hokey, have grown on me. And my biggest fear, that the original Left 4 Dead was so well balanced with its smaller line up of infected and weapons couldn't be replicated with a longer list of zombies, guns and projectile weapons, was proven to have been misguided.
New Special Infected: For me, the highlight of the Left 4 Dead 2 experience is playing on the Infected side, wreaking havoc on a squad of Survivors with a synchronized plan of attack. The three new Specials, the acid-expectorating Spitter, the shoulder-smashing Charger and the pint-sized nuisance that is the Jockey, are all just as enjoyable to grief Survivors with as the originals were. They add brand-new cluster-breaking strategies, effectively eliminating any possibility of corner camping, an annoying tactic that plagued Versus matches in Left 4 Dead. I have some concerns about the strength of the Spitter, considering the few times I've taken down entire teams of Survivors with one spit, but we'll have to see how strategies adapt online to compensate.
Hard Rain: Each of Left 4 Dead 2's five campaigns, which span four to five chapters, have their stand out moments. Dead Center's opening level, for example, makes excellent use of fire effects for both visual punch and invites new tactical strategy when playing on the Infected side. And Dark Carnival's finale event is truly encore worthy. But it's the Hard Rain campaign, the second to last in the sequence, that stands out as the game's best. Instead of the standard linear progression, Hard Rain asks the player to venture into town for diesel fuel, then retrace their steps back to the escape vehicle. Along the way, day turns into night, the weather goes from bad to hellish, pounding the Survivors with thunder, lightning, wind and rain, all of which are presented with impressive, gameplay changing effect.
People Call Him Ellis, Or El: But he prefers Ellis, because El kinda sounds like a girl's name. Yes, of the four new Survivors, it's Ellis, the young, Georgian mechanic who's the most endearing, the most full of personality. His monologues, delivered in the game's saferooms are the source of most of the game's humor. Nick and Coach have their moments—Rochelle not so much—but it's Ellis who has become my favorite character of the crew.
Gettin' Gas: The Scavenge multiplayer mode, which is about as close to Capture The Flag as Left 4 Dead 2 gets, adds a welcome short-session multiplayer option to the Versus mode mix, which usually requires an hour-long dedication to play. Survivors strive to grab gas cans scattered around a map, then dump the contents of those cans into a vehicle or generator. Infected try to prevent that from happening, stripping them of cans and hoping that a capable Spitter will destroy them with goo. It's frantic and full of strategic opportunities, with a simple scoring system that works well in 4 versus 4 sessions.
Familiar Play, New Strategies: It's not just the Infected that get new toys to play with in Left 4 Dead 2. Survivors now have access to adrenaline shots—which speed up healing, running, reviving incapacitated teammates—and defibrillator units—which revive dead Survivors. These may seem like minor changes, but they have a big impact on multiplayer game strategy. The same is true for new weapons, like the grenade launcher, and the melee weapons, like my personal favorite, the axe. More weapons, more opportunities to grab new weapons, and options for upgrading them, all resulting in interesting trade-offs—should I take this Boomer bile?!—make playing as the Survivors fun too.
Better Scoring: Versus game scoring lead to a lot of confusion in the first Left 4 Dead, something Valve appears to have tried to address in Left 4 Dead 2. The game no longer scores solely based on how many Survivors made it into the safe room, offering bonuses to Infected for incapping humans and balancing how Versus rounds are scored. There seem to be fewer big blowouts in the games that I've played, a minor but welcome change that will hopefully lead to better understanding of Versus play (and less rage-quitting).
Left 2 Die By The AI: Left 4 Dead 2's single-player offerings are just as meager as the first, my main complaint with that title. Players can blow through all five chapters with a group of bots in about 5-6 hours, depending on difficulty, but that's about it. And unfortunately, while the AI Director that controls level layouts and infected spawn events is improved, teammate AI seems dumber than before. They still don't pick up grenade weapons, they'll often leave you to die, and they don't keep up well. Bots still have uncanny aim, but that's about the nicest thing I can say about them. The bottom line is, if you don't plan on playing Left 4 Dead 2 multiplayer, don't plan on playing it.
Bogged Down: Also performing slightly worse than the first is the game's frame rate. It's not problematic in most circumstances, but there are a few times during the campaign that the Xbox 360 version just can't keep up with what's happening on screen—the performance of the PC version is obviously dependent on your hardware and settings. It's most noticeable during the bridge finale in The Parish campaign, but when zombies fill the screen and things get effect-heavy, the game can slow down.
Left 4 Dead 2 really feels like the game that the original should have been. Even though it was delivered with an astonishing (read: somewhat concerning) turn around time, it ultimately doesn't feel as rushed as the first, offering—with the exception of a still-missing capable single-player component—a solid multiplayer suite that doesn't skimp on modes, maps or options. Versus, Survival, Scavenge and the new Realism mode, which I haven't delved into as much as the other game types, all feature plenty of variety in terms of levels and mode-specific maps.
But if you didn't care for the original Left 4 Dead's brand of multiplayer mayhem, Left 4 Dead 2 won't do much to change your mind. Me? I did care for the original Left 4 Dead, deeply, playing more of that game than any other this year. Left 4 Dead 2 brings with it the same high quality, the same barebones storytelling and, at its core, the same intense competitive and cooperative gameplay. But that gameplay has been heavily tweaked, radically changing and improving the experience for the Left 4 Dead veteran, offering a unique environment in which to get infected all over again.
Left 4 Dead 2 was developed and published by Valve for the Xbox 360 and PC on November 17. Retails for $49.99 USD on PC, $59.99 USD on Xbox 360. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through campaign in single and cooperative modes on Xbox 360. Played multiple online Versus and Scavenge matches via Xbox Live.
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