New friends, more zombies, better apocalypse. That's what Valve has promised, and that's what fans will come to expect when they finally pick up the sequel to one of the best zombie games ever made. Left 4 Dead 2 was developed to capitalized on the mass success of the original game, adding new characters, campaigns, Special Infected and weapons.
With Valve's latest game finally in our hands, the ultimate question is ready to be answered: Does Left 4 Dead 2 pack enough content and zombie-splattering fun to justify making a sequel less than a year after the original title's release, or is Left 4 Dead 2 an unnecessary follow-up that was released too soon?
Read on to find out if new friends and new zombies does indeed make a better apocalypse.
Left 4 Dead 2 (PC, Xbox 360 [reviewed]
Left 4 Dead 2 gives us control of four new survivors, Nick, Coach, Ellis and Rochelle, as they fight across the American South in five brand new campaigns. The core gameplay of Left 4 Dead remains relatively unchanged -- you team up with three friends and blast your way through never-ending hordes of violent, rage-ridden zombies.
As always, the Survivors will need to work together in order to reach each chapter's Safe House. Sticking close to each other, reviving fallen comrades, sharing health packs and covering backs are the key to success, more than ever before. The zombies are more plentiful, more violent and more varied this time around, making for a tougher and more stressful experience. Left 4 Dead 2 is chaotic compared to even its predecessor, and while the novelty shock value of the game's premise has worn off since Left 4 Dead 1, the new zombies and crescendo events definitely make up for it, bringing a whole new brand of panic to the experience.
One of the major new challenges is the appearance "Uncommon" Infected. These differ from the Special Infected in that they are no more smarter and able than the common horde, nor can they be played in Versus Mode. However, they are not to be trifled with. Zombies in hazard suits that are invulnerable to fire, "Mud Men" that run on all-fours and fling filth into your eyes, riot police that wear bullet proof vests, and even more that I daren't spoil are to be found hidden among the horde. The simple inclusion of unique common Infected makes even the most mundane battles more spicy, and makes for a more varied and fun game.
Of course, the Special Infected get a boost as well, with three brand new zombies to play with. The Spitter is capable of projecting a gob of acid that spreads on the floor and breaks up survivors, the Charger bowls into a group, grabs a survivor, and smashes them into the ground, while the Jockey leaps onto a victim's head and is able to take control of their movement, riding them into fire, acid or Witches. Speaking of Witches, they can walk around during the game's daylight levels, and players have to be doubly wary of them this time around.
The Survivors have their own new playthings too. Incendiary and explosive ammo can be added to weapons for an offensive boost, while lazer sights improve targeting. Boomer Bile is a brand new grenade weapon that turns the Infected against each other for a brief period of time, and there are new consumable items such as Adrenaline, which makes Survivors faster and allows them to power through hordes. Joining the iconic Medkits is the new Defibrillator, which will bring a dead Survivor back to life.
Most importantly of all are the new melee weapons, that can be swapped with the standard pistols. These range from frying pans and cricket bats, to more heavy duty objects like axes, katanas and chainsaws. Sometimes the hit detection is a little off, but the overall experience is one of pure satisfaction as heads roll and limbs fly in all directions. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, there's also the occassional grenade launcher hidden around the map. All these toys give the Survivors more of a fighting chance against the Infected.
They'll need that fighting chance, too! Left 4 Dead 2 is harder than ever before, with some incredibly challenging obstacles to get through. Chief among them are the new crescendo events. In Left 4 Dead 1, crescendo events alerted the horde and charged players with the simple task of holding them off from a fixed location. In Left 4 Dead 2, much more is required of the player. On one stage, the Survivors need to break into a supermarket to get some cola for a shopkeeper so he'll let them pass. On another, players will need to retrieve gas cans to fill an escape car. The original formula of Left 4 Dead has been experimented with and varied in all sorts of surprising and unique ways.
This seems to be the driving force behind Left 4 Dead 2 -- taking everything that was created in the first game, and seeing how versatile it is, playing around with it and extracting as much gameplay as possible from a fairly simple concept. In this endeavor, Valve has triumphantly succeeded. Left 4 Dead 2 manages to constantly throw curve balls and new ideas at the player, despite the core gameplay having changed very little. The situations the Survivors find themselves in -- be it escaping from a burning hotel or navigating a dangerously cruel storm -- are constantly changing and each campaign has an incredibly distinct look and feel, bringing their own special challenges. Whereas Left 4 Dead 1 felt like the same game throughout every campaign, Left 4 Dead 2's five campaigns are so individual that it feels like five completely unique experiences.
Be warned though, that the game is much tougher, and not always in a good way. Even on Normal difficulty, the Campaign can put up some incredibly stiff resistance. It's not uncommon for a campaign's finale to have two tanks at once appear (I actually fought off three at one point), and the new Special Infected can seriously aggravate the player to the point of being more annoying than fun. It's crucial that all four Survivors are human-controlled as well. Playing with the AI is a heartbreaking experience, as the computer will send characters off ledges, or make them stand and watch as a Hunter rips you to shreds. Quite how the AI is less efficient than in the last game is beyond me, but it's horrendous.
Ultimately though, despite a few balancing issues, the Campaigns are amazing. Well crafted, full of setpieces, and with some truly unforgettable finales, Left 4 Dead 2 throws five unique and inventive experiences at you that take the established L4D formula in all sorts of insane and delightful new directions.
Of course, Versus Mode is the real star of the show, and once again pits human-controlled Survivors against human-controlled Infected in a race to the finish. The Smoker, Hunter, Boomer and Tank all return, with slight tweaks and some beautifully sickening new character models (the female Boomer is particularly grotesque). The new Specials are an absolute blast to play with in Versus, especially the Jockey. In the original Left 4 Dead, the Special Infected seemed severely underpowered, but it appears that the balance for Versus has finally been found, with the new Specials backing up the originals to create a well-oiled machine of grief that will challenge even the hardiest Survivors.
The only real issue seems to the be the fact that the original Infected seem very overshadowed by the new ones. The Hunter especially has been rendered almost totally obsolete by the Charger, who serves the same purpose as the Hunter but performs his role much better. He's not completely useless, but the new maps aren't designed with the old Infected in mind. It's a shame that the Hunter in particularly feels a little big forgotten.
That small issue aside, Versus Mode is terrific fun that will demand just as much time as the original game did, if not more. The new Special Infected, plus the fact that both sides have been balanced out very well, leads to matches that always feel competitive, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. This is helped along with a new marker system that lets players know what percentage of the chapter has been completed. It's no longer about getting to the safe room. It's about getting as close to the safe room as possible and simply hoping your enemies don't get further, which is what Versus should be all about.
Survival Mode, added to the original game as DLC, has returned as an included gametype, and works as it always has, with the Survivors simply seeing how long they can last against waves and waves of Infected. Survival is backed up by two entirely new modes -- Realism and Scavenge. Realism drops players into the regular Campaign, but with a few new twists. For one, players will no longer be outlined brightly so team members can easily find each other. Damage has been tweaked, and the only way to recover a dead ally is by using the Defibrillator. Realism is fine as a novelty, but with the Campaigns already as challenging as they are, it feels a little pointless. Hardcore fans in need of a real fight will love it, however.
Scavenge is a far superior option, and a mode I predict will become incredibly popular with fans. One team, playing as the Survivors, have to retrieve objects strewn about the map and return them to a central location, while another team controls the Infected and tries to stop them succeeding. It's a simple play on the old Versus routine, but it's a very good one and should provide a competitive alternative to the regular online play. The only problem is that it seems difficult to find good spawning places for the Infected, since the maps are small and the Survivors tend to be everywhere, blocking your ability to get into the game.
As always, Left 4 Dead 2 uses the Source Engine, and it has to be said that the graphics are showing their age. Compared to recent releases like Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead 2 looks rather drab. The lighting is still great, and the art direction is fantastic, but it could stand to look much better. Impressive visual effects like the storms in Hard Rain could have looked ten times more impressive than they do.That said, the musical production is fantastic. The original game's score has been given a distinctly "Southern" sound to it, and there are various moments -- which I won't spoil -- in which music has been put to terrific comedic effect. Valve should also be commended for amplifying the sheer volume of gore. The melee weapons are bad enough, but even the guns can rip flesh and send blood everywhere. Left 4 Dead 2 is pure splatter, and it's wonderful.
It has to be said that Left 4 Dead 2 is lacking in the character department when compared to the original. Bill, Louis, Zoey and Francis were fantastic characters that were memorable, hilarious and very quotable. Nick, Coach, Ellis and Rochelle are nowhere near as endearing. Ellis can be very funny and Nick plays a good cynical wisecracker, but Coach is a stereotypical disappointment and Rochelle seems to lack any real personality at all. Funnily enough, the new Special Infected have far more personality. The Spitter's creepy squawking and movements are unnerving while the Jockey's manic laughter and twitchy disposition make him hard to forget.
Left 4 Dead 2 is, overall, a terrific way to follow last year's game. There are some let-downs, like the new Survivors' personalities, and the sometimes strange balancing issues during the co-op Campaign, but the ultimate package is a more than worthy successor to the Left 4 Dead name. The original premise has proven more versatile than I ever would have imagined, and the new modes, new Infected, new Campaigns and new items make it feel like a completely different experience. What's more, the Southern setting has made the game even scarier, with the redneck look of the Infected creating a more unnerving bestiary of creatures to contend with. Ultimately, this game is bigger, better and more crazy than the last, and if you loved the first game, you really do need to pick it up.
Left 4 Dead 2 does indeed have new friends, and it totally has more zombies. Is it a better apocalypse?
Yes it is.
Score: 9.5 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)
THE VERDICT - Left 4 Dead 2
Reviewed by Jim Sterling