Gamers can be a fickle old bunch, as Valve found out first hand when they announced that Left 4 Dead 2, the sequel to the award winning online co-op first person shooter Left 4 Dead, was going to be released a mere year after the original. Often knocked for their somewhat slack development regime (we are, after all, still waiting for Half Life 2: Episode 3), Valve has all of the sudden been targeted by fans for releasing something too quickly. Let us be honest, Valve releasing a product on time is a rare thing, so it must be a slap in the developer’s face to finally hit a deadline and then get told off by the very same fanbase they usually leave to age and wed between releases.
Indeed Left 4 Dead 2 has been boycotted in some quarters for being unleashed upon the unwashed too soon after the first installment; which was itself promised to receive future downloadable content that never came. And so, to some, regardless of what is said in this review, Left 4 Dead 2 will still be a glorified, full priced expansion pack rife with content that should have been free to download for the original and arguably overpriced Left 4 Dead. Well, hanging up the hat of corporate cynicism for a moment, I think that the sequel is a massive success. That’s right, at the risk of receiving a slew of negative comments, I disagree with the fan base.
The reason I choose to risk my life for this game is simple: it is the most fun I’ve had online in a long, long time, and that includes the original Left 4 Dead. This sequel to the first zombie apocalypse sees the player once again playing one of four survivors battling their way from point A to point B whilst bringing home the lead on thousands upon thousands of undead locals. There is a certain satisfaction to mowing down a shopping mall full of zombies with three friends that borders on the spiritual, and Left 4 Dead 2 embraces this sense of gratifying fun far more readily than its successor ever did.
One of the most prominent ways in which it does this is through the inclusion of melee weapons. From frying pans and chainsaws to guitars and axes, hitting and slashing zombies never ceases to be an utter joy – so much so that you find yourself wondering how you ever lived without it. A mere five minutes into the first campaign, "Dead Centre," with its emphasis on initially providing only melee weapons and pistols, it becomes very clear that this physical approach to combat gives the game a far more visceral feel than the first. This is helped in no small part by the new damage effects that the undead sustain, with all description of body parts being flung around the room at the pull of a trigger – or at the quite frankly poetic detonation of a pipe bomb.
There are also new Special Infected evildoers, adding to the original rooster of the first game’s mini-boss zombies. Beyond the Tank, Witch, Hunter and Smoker varieties, there is now the Spitter, a rather attractive southern ‘gal’ who spits a pool of acidic goo; the Jockey, an impish tyrant who jumps on player’s heads; and the Charger, a lighter version of the Tank but with more of a penchant for, well, charging. These new Infected go a long way to shaking up the gameplay and will make seasoned players think twice about the tried and true tactics they used in the first game. They also inject the Versus mode (in which two teams face off as infected and survivors) with new life, making the whole experience a trickier affair – there is far more to be wary of for those playing as Survivors and far more to inflict for those playing as Infected.
Beyond these deeper gameplay changes however, there is simply more here to warrant the money spent then the first time around. All the old game modes return, including the aforementioned Versus mode, but with new additions such as Scavenge – in which survivors must fill up an object with fuel canisters whilst players as Infected must stop them, and Realism – essentially the campaign levels with certain helpful things like player and item indicators turned off. There are also five campaigns instead of the original’s four, and they are far more varied in locale, ranging from New Orleans to crypts and a carnival. There’s also zombie shootin’ in the warm light of day on a few levels, which acts as a nice change in mood from the first games never ending night.
There are also a brand new batch of survivors in Ellis, Coach, Rochelle, and Nick, all of whom have far more character and presence than the original trigger-finger four and more frequently exchange context-sensitive dialogue that is both witty and real thanks to the superb voice acting. The story itself is also beefed up a bit more, at least to the extent that it can be in a game such as this, with a more cohesive sense of place and a greater realized narrative goal – to reach the military-led evacuation which forgot them in the game’s opening cut scene. Additionally, the campaign stages link in more tightly with one another. It all feels more like one big story that the player creates as they play, rather than snippets of one.
Indeed the only true criticism that can be aimed at the game is that, yes, it is inescapably similar to its predecessor. The gameplay, whilst strongly affected by some key changes such as the melee capabilities, remains at its core exactly the same. The graphics, whilst improved, are still quite clearly on the same engine, and the HUD is pretty much laid out in the same way save for a few artistic alterations. The added non-melee weaponry is also largely aesthetic, with the different variations offered still essentially boiling down to the pistol, shotgun, uzi, sniper rifle, and automatic rifle setup of the first game.
It is this familiarity that will make or break the game for many people. Again, for those still boycotting, Left 4 Dead 2 will only be a glorified, full-priced expansion pack rife with content that should have been free to download for the original. That is a shame, because whilst Left 4 Dead 2 is by no means a huge leap for the series, it does successfully and simultaneously manage to refine the formula set by the first one and to let it grow into something altogether more fun, brash, and exciting. This is the definitive zombie killin’ apocalypse.
Left 4 Dead 2 is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.