Some people like Halo. Some people like Call of Duty. Me? When I’m ready to get together with a few of my closest friends and brutally gun things down, Left 4 Dead is my co-op game of choice. There are many reasons for this: it’s easy to pick up and trade off controllers. The campaigns are a good length. Its goriness is offset by its goofiness. Online play is a blast. And every play-through feels completely different from the last. Overall it’s an incredibly balanced, light-feeling game with those wry and witty details I’ve come to expect from Valve.
Nov. 17, 2009
So of course, when Left 4 Dead 2 was released, not even a spinal chord injury could keep me from playing. Much to my delight I found the gameplay mostly unchanged; you’re still controlling four immune survivors through five campaigns filled with Hannibal Lecter cosplayers. The major changes are the new campaigns and an expanded library of weapons, medicines, ammunition, and enemies.
The South is a trendy setting, and luckily it jives well with the series sense of the absurd. You’ll be fetching snacks for hillbillies in exchange for rocket launcher cover, driving through plate-glass windows in a stock car ala the Dukes of Hazard, mowing down killer clowns with your trusty banjo, and all-in-all enjoying a game that takes itself much less seriously than the average FPS. From a carnival of death to a rainy swamp, the new environments are–frankly put–amazing. They’re atmospheric and diverse, and are sure to provide hours of creepy delight.
The series displayed its flair for the cinematic in the Dead Air plane crash of the first release; moments like these are sprinkled throughout all campaigns, and my first play-through dropped my jaw more than once. I never thought I could be so excited about fetch quests, but there are great strategic mini-missions that force you out of the “shoot everything that moves” mentality. The levels are much less linear this time around, with multiple routes to the safe-house, adding another layer to strategy. There are even moments where you benefit by breaking the cardinal rule of the Left 4 Dead Series: NEVER split up.
Multiple new weapons and items have been introduced to aid your zombie-killing efforts. I’m very much a barbarian when it comes to weaponry: if it kills things, I’ll use it until it breaks or runs out of ammo, then I’ll just pick up whatever is closest. Guns still fall into three categories: things that shoot a lot but hurt a little, things that shoot a little but hurt a lot, and sniper-type rifles. Laser sights are fun add-ons, but they’re more flair than substance. Incendiary rounds and Boomer Bile are best saved for big enemies, but as I stated, I’m a big fan of good-old-fashioned lead. Defibrillators are an implausible but fantastic addition to your medical arsenal, allowing you to revive even long-dead party members. Adrenaline, which will increase your speed, is only useful in very specific situations, and I find the pain pills to be a more practical inventory item. While the expanded choices aren’t uniformly useful, they certainly increase your strategic capabilities.
Unfortunately, with increase in tactical abilities, the intelligence of your companions seems to plummet. I remember fondly that I could count on Zoe to snipe the roof-top Smokers while I was busy spraying friendly shotgun fire onto Louis and Francis. Man, those were the days! Perhaps they gain competency when playing on easier modes, but on advance they felt a bit dopey, especially in the missions that required more action than just firing guns.
Of the new special infected, we have the Spitter, the Charger, and the Jockey. I only really loved the idea of the Jockey, which will take control of you and steer you off of cliffs and into traps; the Spitter overlaps a bit too much with the Boomer for me, but perhaps he’ll grow on me. The Charger, however, was a waste of programming. It’s the annoying little brother of the pants-wettingly frightening Tank, and it fills no function that the Hunter doesn’t.
Perhaps the only disappointment I feel with this release is the loss of the feeling of simplicity and lightness that came with so few options. You had health packs, pain pills, pipe bombs, molotov cocktails, and that’s was it! Now with defibrillators, adrenaline, Boomer bile, laser sights, axes, crowbars, baseball bats, samurai swords, three more kinds of special infected, and multiple variants on common infected, the game has lost the simplicity that made its balance so apparent and so appealing. Since it’s such an appealing party game, I regret that my more casual gamer friends may have difficulty keeping track of all these new toys.
I also detect a small downgrade in the intuitiveness of the game’s flow. Music cues that both helped the gamer and enhanced their excitement have suddenly become as slow as the AI. Character movement feel less vetted, and I found myself firing often at Nick, whose silhouette I found indistinguishable from the zombie masses. Almost invisible features, such as auto-crouching to enter low spaces, has been done away with. You know–small things that made the game faster, easier to learn, and gave you fewer scrambling-for-the-right-button moments. I definitely feel some of the additions were superficial: padding added to justify the release of a new game rather than additional content for the first, especially when so many of the game elements are identical.
Blast Factor: Overall, I probably would’ve been happier with additional content for the first game, or a greater amount of time and thought put into balancing the sequel as well as its predecessor. But despite some issues, this is still a great game, and I’m sure myself and my friends will be pouring as much time into this one as we did the last. The new campaigns are the stars of the show, and they alone make this title well worth owning.
Left 4 Dead 2 is available on the Xbox 360 and the PC, and retails for $59.99 and $49.99 respectively. A copy of this game was purchased for the purposes of reviewing.