Zombies. We get many zombie games these days. There’s so many approximations of storming the streets of Omaha during the early hours of Z-day out these days that it’s hard not wonder just what they’re all aiming at. Left 4 Dead 1 for me was easily the most streamlined, no nonsense and best presented attempt: Simply find some mates, pick a campaign, and wade through the horde to the chopper or other such escape vehicle. Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t try to change this basic formula; what it does do is improve on the pacing and inject some much needed variety while dialing up the production values.
L4D2 certainly recognizes where the previous game fell short with its pacing . The first campaign, Dead Centre highlights the new design philosophy excellently; you never really stop moving except when the director gives you breathing space, and the variety of special events is certainly refreshing: From escaping a building on its last legs, to breaking into the worlds noisiest grocery store, to dashing around a shopping mall to look for fuel, it’s full of ideas and new scenarios to improvise plans around. Throughout Dead Centre and other campaigns, there are some brilliant set pieces, that frankly to describe would spoil half the fun – they’re truly superb. Atmospheric, balanced and intense in equal measure. The new “gauntlet” crescendo events events for the most part force you to progress, and crucially to work together to make sure everyone makes it through. The second you leave someone straggling, they’re going to go down. React to the situation too slowly, and you will too. The level design is superlatively superior this time around, and it’s clear that Valve were acutely aware of the previous game’s failings in this regard. There are some somewhat standard defensive scenarios in certain campaigns; and while they do bring back memories of old closet tactics, they’re not nearly as frequent, and thus work within their own place in the levels. And exception perhaps are the frequency of defensive finales, which is a tad disappointing. Dark Carnival somewhat makes up for it somewhat via some button pressing that moves you about a bit, and stylistically it’s hugely entertaining (to tell you why would be a massive spoiler once again!) Swamp Fever‘s finale is certainly the most conventional, and easily the most disappointing, while Hard Rain‘s damp squib of a finale certainly detracts from what is otherwise one of the finest pieces of level design in years. The Parish finale – without giving away too much – certainly demonstrates where L4D2‘s strengths are. It’s tense, tough, and immensely gratifying to fight through it, and again demonstrates why Valve really are masters of level design.
Such excellent design is only one aspect of this improved pacing; the new infected do as much to rejuvenate the formula as they do to increase variety. The Charger is probably my favourite, smashing through survivors, grabbing one and pounding them into the ground, making for some brilliant rushes to save friends. The Spitter is perhaps the most game changing; its ability to block areas off, split up survivors and dig them out of a defensive positions forces you to remain alert, moving, and constantly aware of your friend’s positions. The Jockey is an intriguing little bastard. His low profile makes him harder to detect, allowing him to sneak in some dirty little swipes right when you’re low on health, while his main attack allows him to leap on top of a player and move them about where he wants them to – unless they manage to fight back against him by altering his movement. He can completely disrupt a group of survivors, but I’ve found he’s probably the infected least capable of delivering consistent damage. Also of note are the new “Uncommon-Common” infected; campaign specific Zs that have the same amount of health as normal ones, but have special attacks or defensive measures. For example, in the Hard Rain campaign, helmet and muffler equipped construction worker zombies ignore pipe bombs – which subtly prevents you from swiftly dealing with hordes, and can be a real menace when playing on expert difficulty. It’s hard not to love the squeaky shoe equipped Clowns of Dark Carnival too; leading zombies along and making a brilliant honking noise when you clip them on the nozzle.
The next big shake up is the increased weapon count. All the previous weapons from L4D appear, and are bolstered by new bullet spitting tools, and the much advertised melee weapons. New guns for the most part offer alternatives – I’m a big fan of the new SCAR “Desert Rifle”, whose 3 round burst fire perfectly complements how I used the Assault Rifle in L4D. Melee weapons offer a totally different and visceral experience. They replace your side arm (you’ll be asking yourself Desert Eagle or Katana far more than once!) and allow you to deal one hit kills at close range. They’re tactically interesting, allowing the point man to defend himself against the zombies who inevitably target them first, or block off door ways with their bloody strikes. Personally, I’m a big fan of combining a Desert Eagle with a Grenade Launcher; the former allows me to retain a powerful one-hit-killer for stragglers, and to be able to rain awesome death upon mobs of Zs. I know others who just love slicing their way through everything. Crucially, the increased weapon count not only makes them feel less standard, but offer decisions to be made on the move, and alternative playing styles which should increase the longevity of the game greatly.
Those are the fundamental changes as they affect standard Co-op games. Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t just stop there however. As anyone who played 1 will know, “Versus” mode allows you to play any of the Co-op maps competitively; your team of survivors against another team, taking it in turns to take control of special infected. To pull down one particularly fun experience of the mode from last night using them, on Dark Carnival’s roller coaster gauntlet set piece we managed to bowl the hapless team we were playing over with a charger, all but downing two of them. As a jockey, I seized the moment, jumping on one proceeding to ride a survivor around the roller coaster. Genius. Versus matches are also far more unpredictable; where as in the previous game, Versus could become repetitive – after a few runs, you would come to know exactly where the ambushes were going to happen, and how. No more. The added special infected leave the survivor’s guessing as to how you’re going to deal with them. Granted, it means you get let time to get accustomed to a favourite, but it keeps things far more varied. Detracting somewhat from versus is the matchmaking system. In two weeks of playing L4D2, I’ve yet to see 4v4 matchmaking (where you make a team up of friends and challenge another such team) work once. You either fail totally to find a team, or find one, only to get through to one stratospheric pings. Useless. The alternative is to do it manually, normally meaning if you’ve set up a game with friends you’re going to be playing a much less well organised opponent – inevitably resulting in repeated quitting due to your superior teamwork. This is disappointing, especially after a year of it being like this in the original.
Those who played L4D for some time after release will know Valve released a new game mode named “Survivor”, allowing players to pick a map and simply hold their ground until they fall, in a race against the clock to beat people on their friends list. It returns in L4D2, though not all the maps are available – which though disappointing, makes sense given the lack of defensive crescendos which such maps were based on in the original version of the mode. Also of interest is the new “Scavenge” mode, that I’ve admittedly not played more than a couple of games of. They’re essentially based on the finale to Dead Centre, challenging your team to collect fuel for an escape vehicle while being assailed by an opposing team of infected, swapping around with them turn by turn. It’s fun, though I would say not as much fun as either Versus or Co-op, where the sense of progress in each map trumps an uninspiring fuel gauge. For those who enjoy it however, it should extend the game hugely.
All this is wrapped up in exceptionally high production values. By streamlining the use of the engine, optimizing, and tweaking, L4D2 looks amazing, and plays smoothly. Of particular note is the new gore system which is no doubt facilitated as a result of improving performance across the board. Playing L4D2, you can’t help but be impressed by the physicality the brutal new animations bring to the game. Bullets rip huge chunks of flesh, revealing bone and organs. It’s hard not to be impressed by incidental details; zombies charging towards you while entrails unravel in the air behind them, or when you shoot off both arms and they’re still after your blood. The pipebombs are a cathartic joy – where before they simply turned zombies into red mist, they now erupt in a blast of limbs, blood and guts. It’s thoroughly spectacular. Besides the gore, new weather effects, improved textures and other incidental animations make L4D2 easily one of the most graphically imposing titles out there. Source may not be the most technically proficient engine any more, but L4D2 is a testament to the team’s ability to improve it year in, year out.
It’s hard not to go on. I’ve barely touched on the narrative which unwinds subtly through use of incidental detail, and the superb new voice overs that bring a sense of true characterization to the new set of survivors. I’ve not said nearly enough about how the Director AI constantly throws situation after difficult situation your way, or how parts of the level layouts are changed by it. There’s numerous such little touches that make L4D2 not only superior to the previous game in every regard, but easily the most intense, brutal, and unrelenting zombie shooter out there. It doesn’t change the game’s previous formula vastly, but it certainly adds far more variation, atmosphere and longevity in most regards. As I’ve pointed out throughout the review, there are some niggling issues; connecting to a game can be a painful experience sometimes, while some dull finales can ruin otherwise excellent level design, but frankly these are small issues that do little to dent what is by and far an excellent co-op zombie shooter.