Left 4 Dead 2 PC and Xbox 360 Developed by Valve Released in 2009
Though Left 4 Dead was a major success and is remembered fondly by many, the announcement of a sequel went over poorly. Tens of thousands of gamers gathered in a boycot against the game’s new direction and fears that the original Left 4 Dead would be abandoned barely a year after its initial release. While Valve used their charms and quelled the boycot in time for the sequel to hit store shelves, was it really such a smart move to push “L4D2” out of the door so soon?
Just like the first game, Left 4 Dead 2 follows a group of four unlucky people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, this time in a more American south setting. This time the cast consists of former high school teacher “Coach”, professional conman and resident cynic Nick, the excitable mechanic Ellis (owner of the sexiest southern accent ever), and Rochelle, a young production assistant who, according to her character bio, helped cover the initial spread of the zombie infestation. Together these four need to escape the city, find a safe haven, and deal with Nick’s constant complaining.
Unlike the first game, Left 4 Dead 2 actually chronicles a single, constant journey rather than a series of random events that only loosely tie together. The first campaign leads into the second, the second into the third, simple stuff that nevertheless makes the game more interesting from a story perspective. In fact, a lot of fun stuff happens on this journey as well, like a meeting with the cast of the previous game. On the offside, I don’t enjoy the new cast of characters as much as the old guard. Nick is definitely a more fleshed out character, but lacks the simple appeal of his fellow rude cynic Francis. Similarly, Rochelle is just not as fun as Zoey was.
To be fair, Valve did get better at fleshing out the characters during gameplay. Dialogue still tends to be informative a lot of the time, “I’m reloading!” and such, but characters now also comment more about the environment around them. The first mission even features an introduction sequence while taking an elevator, which was sorely lacking in the original game. All in all, I am satisfied with the improvements in the storytelling and Ellis more than makes up for his companions being a bit uninteresting.
Story score: 8.5/10
Always knew the AI’s would turn on us
The gist of the gameplay hasn’t changed much, so let’s keep that brief. You and your three companions, be they computer-controlled bots or other players, play through zombie-infested stages with the goal of reaching the safe rooms at the end, which serve as transitions to the next stage. Each campaign has about 4 chapters with a finale event at the end where players fulfill a task in order to escape. It’s a zombie-blasting first-person shooter and you still have one main gun, one side-arm, a health kit, painkillers, and a throwable item, all of which have to be found during play.
The AI director has been improved on the one used in the first game and he also has more toys to work with. Survivors will be pleased with the new guns, as well as the defibrillators for reviving fallen friends, adrenaline that makes them faster, bottled boomer bile for luring zombies away, and the ammo kits that allow survivors to stock up on incendiary and explosive rounds. The pistol can also be swapped out for various melee weapons that make it easier to deal with enemies up close.
On the other side of the coin, new zombies and special infected are also thrown into the mix, and some of the existing ones have grown stronger than before. The jockey is a short-ranged alternative to the hunter, jumping on top of survivors and literally steering them away from their friends, the spitter has a projectile that becomes a puddle of acid, and the charger can grab survivors mid-charge and carry them off. Even when these tricky special infected remain absent, players will struggle against irregular zombies thrown in with the horde, like Mudmen that are hard to see and cover survivors in mud, or armored zombies that take a lot of punishment. I was also less than thrilled to discover that witches can now walk around.
The game still has a knack for figuring out how to really get the players, to the point it sometimes felt almost too well-timed for an unscripted moment. One that stood out in this game was when I tried to snipe a witch from afar, but the moment I took my first shot a smoker’s tongue grabbed me and dragged me towards her. That was a little awkward and even the bots seemed caught off-guard by it. The system does have some quirks, though, like some hordes being really small, or one finale where it spawned two tanks at the same time.
While these new items and infected add more choice to an already great game, I do feel Valve has undergone a chance in philosophy when it comes to levels. While the original’s campaigns were well-balanced and memorable despite being a tad simple, the new ones are more gimmicky and geared towards the infected. There are more areas that are large or maze-like, with plenty of opportunities for survivors to lose their group, as well as terrain that is awkward for survivors. Swamp Fever, for example, is filled with water that hides Mudmen and slows survivors, and Hard Rain is so dark and rainy that you can’t see a darn thing or tell friend from zombie.
This certainly made some parts of the game frustrating, especially the finales that quite obviously don’t account for people playing them alone with bots. To make up for this, the “crescendo events” that serve as smaller finales in the middle of stages are a lot better than in the first game. Sure, waiting for a slow elevator or door while zombies pour out of the woodwork is cool, but in Left 4 Dead 2 you’ll find yourself running along an abandoned rollercoaster, dashing through burning apartment complexes, and deal with poor visibility while thunder riles up the infected.
Gameplay score: 9/10
More than just gimmicks
Besides having more gimmicks and memorable encounters, the levels the players work through also enjoy better themes than those in the original. Left 4 Dead, for all its strengths, was really just a collection of dilapidated streets, whereas the second game feels like a tourist’s tour through America. The first level is set in a mall, there is a whole campaign set in a colorful theme park, a neat and orderly suburb, the locales are just a lot more interesting than before.
Visually not much has changed, no big surprise considering hardly a year has passed between the two games. The same applies to the sound department, but then again, Left 4 Dead was already ahead of its time in terms of visuals and had great sound-design, so I honestly can’t complain that this has been lifted straight over to its sequel. It’s just that you don’t have to wager in graphical fidelity when deciding which of these two games to get.
Interestingly, Left 4 Dead 2 does a better job at making its visuals harder to make out, which does lead to some problems. Lighting is a lot sparser this time around, pitting you in a lot of dark areas where I honestly got turned around a few times and didn’t notice until I got back to a place I recognized. Hard Rain, true to its name, is absolutely excited to show off its weather effects and throws rain at you so dense it’s nearly impossible to see. While I like Hard Rain the darkness causes some trouble, such as when I dropped into a sewer and literally couldn’t find a way forward. It turned out there was a ladder I seriously walked past two times and couldn’t spot; Valve was so proud of the tactical placement of light sources that guide players through stages that they put it in the developer commentary of L4D, but this design fundamental is no longer present in the sequel. Weird.
Presentation score: 8.5/10
Fundamentally, not much has changed between the two games. The core gameplay is the same plus some additions; there are the new campaigns, some new infected, it’s impressive they pumped all of that out in a year, but what else is there? A lot.
Left 4 Dead 2 has a daunting amount of bonus content for players to enjoy, including THE ENTIRY OF THE FIRST GAME. If you were conflicted on whether to get the original or second game first, then rest assured you can save 20 bucks and just go with Left 4 Dead 2. The entirety of Left 4 Dead has been ported with the new weapons and infected added into the mix.
Also new are “mutations” where you play missions with a different ruleset. Some of these are made by Valve, others were done by the community. This includes stuff like Gibfest, where you have the best gun in the game and unlimited ammo or Lone Gunman, where you play solo with just a magnum. There are also new modes, like Realism where there are no visual aids and Scavenge, which is pretty much just a campaign finale without any of the preceding stages. The Versus and Survival modes from the last game also make a return, and getting a game going is a lot easier since L4D2 has a larger community.
The sheer amount of content on offer here is, honestly, absolutely remarkable when you consider it’s already a very replayable game in and of itself. And since it’s easy to add in mods and player-made campaigns, you can keep playing this for a loooooooooong time.
Extras score: 10/10
The conclusion I drew in my review of Left 4 Dead remains the same: while the mechanics of the first game have an appealing simplicity to them that you may prefer over the more diverse sequel, in terms of content it’s hard to justify not picking Left 4 Dead 2 when both games have the same price on Steam. This series is a multiplayer blast and even in singleplayer it has some of the best zombie-blasting around, now with the added option to switch to zombie-chopping as well. Add in replayability and this is definitely worth those 20 bucks.