When Left 4 Dead 2 was announced earlier this year, I didn’t want to like it. Why? Because I loved the first game so much.
And I wasn’t the only one: When the game was announced at the annual E3 video game conference in June, it already had its fair share of skeptics. In fact, calling some of these people skeptics would be the nice way of putting it. More than a few fans didn’t necessarily rejoice at the fact that they’d soon get a sequel to their favorite first-person zombie shooter; they were outraged. They complained on the forums and started online petitions. It’s too soon, they cried. The game won’t be as good because it’s been rushed, they proclaimed. I don’t want to pay another 60 bucks for the same game, they bemoaned.
Though I never threatened to boycott Left 4 Dead 2 like some did, I thought these concerns were valid. After all, the sequel was to be released barely a year after we got Left 4 Dead 1, and I, like many others, was still playing the first game, as it was meant to be replayed over and over again.
So looking at it on the surface level, Left 4 Dead 2 is a lot like Left 4 Dead 1. Featuring a band of four new Survivors stranded amidst the zombie apocalypse (this time in Savannah and New Orleans) with cooperative campaigns and competitive modes, the goal is essentially the same: Shoot zombies, stay together and stay alive. How much more could be different?
But remember: this is Valve we’re talking about here. The development studio who’s made beloved games such as Counter-Strike, Half-Life, Team Fortress and Portal, promised to up the ante with Left 4 Dead 2, and they did. This isn’t Left 4 Dead 1.5. Left 4 Dead 2 builds upon the incredibly intelligent AI system, the superb character and zombie designs, the strategic team-oriented gameplay, the visceral graphics and impressive shadow/lighting effects from its first title. And it gives us more than what was on the disc for Left 4 Dead 1.
For starters, there are five campaigns on the disc instead of four. There are new weapons, including a variety of melee ones, which weren’t in the first game; you can now decapitate the undead with a chainsaw, a cricket bat, a katana and a frying pan, to name a few. There are also new types of zombies — aside from the regular fast-running flesh-eater, the “special” infecteds added to the roster include: the Jockey, who rides you around and steers you to your death; the Charger, who comes out of nowhere to push and pummel you; and the Spitter (left), who spews out acidic bile, usually right where you’re standing.
Valve didn’t just come up with some extra content though; they changed the gameplay and level design a bit. I played locally with another player in split-screen, and I thought the campaigns were more challenging and less predictable. I used to plow through the campaigns in Left 4 Dead 1 in about an hour on Normal and sometimes Advanced (there are four difficulties — Easy, Normal, Advanced and Expert). In Left 4 Dead 2, I found that we were taking about two hours per campaign on Normal.
Maybe we’re just a bit rusty. Regardless, there are definitely more special infected attacks, fewer safehouses (areas that let players re-supply and rest up from the zombie horde) and more frequent ammo, weapon and health pack caches, though you’ll often have to find them by being brave and looking around in dark abandoned houses. Thankfully, the player AI seemed better at helping us fight off the hordes and healing us when we needed it.
And for those who want even less hand-holding, there’s the new “Realism” mode, which removes the silhouettes of your teammates, makes headshots more important and doesn’t allow respawning after you die unless it’s done with a defibrillator. Talk about realism.
Difficulty aside, the campaigns also have more of their own unique feel, with varied objectives and obstacles. In the Dead Center campaign, you need to find gasoline to fill the tank of a car in a zombie-infested mall; in Hard Rain, you’re tasked with fetching gas for your boat, but you’ll have to endure Mother Nature’s relentless thundershowers on the way back; and in The Parish, you’ll find yourself racing frantically across a bridge while being chased by zombies, just before it’s bombed to smithereens. In each campaign, the pacing’s noticeably different; some parts are reminiscent of the first game while others feel completely new. You’ll no doubt be able to pick favorite sections, but I don’t think this is a bad thing.
As for the multiplayer modes, there are three to choose from: Survival, Versus and Scavenge. Survival mode, which has players trying to stay alive in one map for the longest amount of time they can, doesn’t play much differently than the free Left 4 Dead 1 DLC except that it’s included here on disc. Versus mode, which has players on teams as infected zombies and Survivors, is also pretty much the same. Though I didn’t end up playing the Versus mode too often in the first game, I will tell you that it was surprisingly satisfying preying on unsuspecting Survivors as the new Jockey or Spitter; they can be pretty lethal. And unfortunately, I didn’t get to try out the brand-new, four-on-four Scavenge mode because I couldn’t find a match to join with Left 4 Dead 2 not being out yet; it pits players as Survivors collecting gas canisters to fuel power generators against players as special infecteds trying to stop them (I expect I’ll be trying this out tonight).
Whether you’re in the campaign or multiplayer modes, the various gameplay elements and challenges offer a good time. But one thing I really love about Left 4 Dead 1, and now in 2, is its personality. Though Left 4 Dead lacks any real narrative (and it doesn’t need it), through the game’s dialogue — when characters utter something based on their actions or what area they’re in — you get to know them, like them and even care about them a little bit. I think this is partly why fans resisted the sequel; we had gotten to know Francis, Louis, Bill and Zoey really well. Ask anyone who’s played the game, and they can name a favorite character or phrase.
So who the hell are these new people? You’ll learn more about the ragtag quartet — Rochelle, Coach, Nick and Ellis — who haphazardly banded together during the zombie crisis as you play through the campaigns; this time, the campaign levels are meant to tell more of a chronological story. And it turns out, these new people, they grow on you. You’ll soon become accustomed to Ellis’ rambling, long-winded stories in every safehouse. You’ll be thankful for Nick, who begrudgingly heals you when you need it. You might laugh at what Rochelle says every time she picks up an ax. And you may even get used to Coach’s big-boned physique occasionally getting in your way. Just like the idea of Left 4 Dead 2.
The point of a review is to talk about a game’s value. Is it worth your time and money? That’s why you’re reading this, aren’t you? But the question of value might apply even moreso to Left 4 Dead 2, considering that at one point 35,000 people, people who called themselves fans of the first game, pledged that they wouldn’t buy it.
But I can tell you, as fan who was sorry to see a new game so soon — it is worth it. And eventually, after seeing the game themselves, some angry fans acquiesced.
So long as Left 4 Dead 3 isn’t announced for November 2010, Valve, we’re cool.
Left 4 Dead 2 is now available for the Xbox 360 and PC. This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher. But I intend on picking up my pre-ordered copy today, anyway.