Zombies appear to be a staple in gaming. From way back in the days of DOOM; the zombie has plagued first person shooters as rampantly as the disease/demonic infestation that creates them. A year ago, Valve released Left 4 Dead, their survival horror game which pitted a group of four survivors against hordes of ‘infected’. A year later, and to much criticism from the normally loyal Valve fanbase, they released Left 4 Dead 2.
The uproar from the normally loyal fan-base when Left 4 Dead 2 was announced was enormous. The fear of Valve becoming an EA ‘knock a game out a year’ styled franchise was unthinkable. There were also the cries from the L4D hardcore who demanded that Left 4 Dead 2 could and should be made into a DLC pack for Left 4 Dead. Threats of boycotting the game appeared on Steam via Steam Groups – still Valve soldiered on and delivered Left 4 Dead 2 one week after the mass hysteria of Modern Warfare 2 hitting the shelves.
With this little prelude into the surrounding history of this game concluded, grab a shotgun, pack some ammo and lets get into the details of the game itself.
Whilst the original Left 4 Dead (L4D) originally had a very open narrative, the four campaigns that comprised the first very loosely tied together – Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) has a clear cut narrative; the ending of one campaign leading directly into another.
The story begins with four survivors, Coach – a former American Football player, Ellis – a country hick mechanic, Rochelle – a TV reporter and Nick – a distrustful gambler and conman. These survivors, at the beginning of the ‘Dead Center’ campaign, arrive at the top of a hotel – a designated evacuation point – only to see the last evac-chopper flying away.
Left for dead, the survivors have only one choice. Travel South, to New Orleans – the final safe haven in America. Grabbing some weapons and some med-packs; the survivors set off. Their journey takes them to the local shopping centre, before heading through what comprises the other four campaigns. ‘Dark Carnival’ sees the survivors through, as you may expect, a carnival full of infected. ‘Swamp Fever’ takes the survivors into the Louisianna swamps – leading on to ‘Hard Rain’; a town with more than a few surprises. The final campaign, ‘The Parish’ sees the survivors reach their destination and have to travel through the city to make their final escape. Each campaign has it’s own little nuances and quirks, making each a different experience.
The addition of the more solid narrative gives the game a more film-like feel; the first seeming to be patched together – especially when the downloadable content was added tying in the first and second campaigns. The characters each have their own little quirks and banter between each other, much like the first game and are all as well rounded as their predecessors were.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a co-operative play game. There are no two ways about it, if you fail to work with your team mates, you quite simply won’t survive. The increased difficulty over the first game means that it is a challenge to players of the previous game, but newer players may find the curve a bit much – for a while. The improvements to the AI ‘Director’ allow it to change the difficulty on the fly, making it easier or harder depending on your progress. Not only can it dictate the placing of weapons, health gear and ammo, the Director has been given control path-finding for the survivors – changing them each time the game is played. In the ‘Hard Rain’ campaign, the Director can control the weather. As with the previous game, the director can still control ‘horde’ spawns, a rush of numerous Infected that come from literally everywhere and the spawn of the ‘Special’ infected. The old favourites are there, the Hunter, Boomer, Smoker, Tank and Witch. All have had very little changed from the tweaks of the previous game, apart from the Witch who will now walk about during daylight hours – making her a bit more of a danger than she already is. The new specials however, offer a lot to fill out the Infected side.
The Charger is the ‘group-breaker’ – with a massively mutated arm, it can rush into the survivors before grabbing one and pounding it into the floor. Unlike other infected, such as the Hunter or Smoker, this brute won’t let go if hit with a melee attack; it’s got to be killed before it will stop causing damage.
The Spitter is the path blocker. Mutated in a similar way to the Boomer, the Spitter can vomit forth a ball of ‘Spitter-goo’, a highly acidic substance that causes damage over time to survivors that stray into it’s area of effect. The longer the survivors stay in the goo, the more damage is done to them. Whilst a dangerous ranged enemy, the Spitter isn’t too hard to take down – with reasonably low health, a couple well placed shots normally does the trick.
The Jockey is by far the most interesting of the new specials. A small, hunched mutant with a hunter-style leap attack, the Jockey latches onto a survivor’s back before moving them in the direction it wants and causing damage as it goes. A Jockey can be beaten off a survivor, which is advisable before one of the survivors gets lead away into oblivion.
As with the first game, there are numerous standard infected to go along with the specials. Along with these, however, come the ‘uncommon common’ – infected that will only appear during that campaign and have some unique ability to set them out from the crowd. Two such examples are the ‘Riot Cop Infected’ found in The Parish campaign – which is impervious to damage when attacked from the front. The other is the Clown Infected – moving with squeaky shoes which, apparently, drives infected a tad mad and causes them to rush towards the survivors with the Clown. Overall, these small but well designed additions keep the campaigns fresh, as your never quite sure when the Director will spawn an uncommon common or one of the newer Specials.
As with any first person, taking down the infected relies on a good gun, more of which have been added over Left 4 Dead’s original six weapons and two grenades. The addition of melee weapons is a most welcome and most important game mechanic – as with the difficulty increase, there are often times when your main weapon runs out of ammo, forcing players to switch to side arms or melee weapons. Side arms, such as the pistol and the Magnum still have distance, but need reloading. Melee weapons, such as the frying pan and the staple of zombie slaying – the chainsaw – have limited range, but don’t require a reload and can take out numerous infected in a single swing, whilst also pushing others not caught in the deadly arc back. To coincide with the increased difficulty further; there are two more options for survivors to heal with – the Adrenalin Shot and the Defib. Unit. The Adrenalin Shot, whilst not as good as the pills has the bonus of giving the player a boost in speed and strength, allowing them to run through hordes easier. The Defib unit allows dead survivors to be revived, but takes up your med-pack slot. Choosing carefully re-enforces that necessary team-play feel.
Multiplayer still retains the co-op mode, survival mode and versus mode, with two more additions. Realism Mode pits the survivors in an increased damage environment – as close to the real thing as it gets, where players really have to work hard to get through the campaigns. Scavenger pits two teams in a versus style match, the survivors having to find gas canisters to power a generator, the Infected having to stop them. Whoever has the most gas canisters in the generator at the end, wins. These new modes and the constant replayability of the campaigns with other players means the game has a very high replay value.
Graphically, the game has recieved an impressive overhaul from the previous game. The infected all look much more horrific, the Smoker and Hunter specifically and the addition of the ‘gib’ system is a gore-enthusiasts delight. Limbs fly off and holes are blown through body parts in welters of blood and bone – all controlable by an adult content filter.
As with any game, there are the bad points. Whilst Left 4 Dead 2 isn’t rife with them, there are two major ones that spring to mind.
First, AI. Whilst alot of careful attention went into the Director and the Special Infected’s ambush strategies, the survivor AI if your left to play on your own is at best hilarious and at worst awful. In one game, a pair of AI compatriots staring down a Witch who was getting increasingly more annoyed whilst I willed them to leave her be. In another, the AI ran between two downed survivors, trying to decide who to pick up first. These should hopefully be addressed with time, but in a first release should really have been ironed out. Realistically, the game needs to be played with friends rather than the AI which can get a bit silly.
The second is the lack of any major progression over the first. Whilst the additions described above all warrant a new game – I can’t help but think it all could have been taken that little bit further. Entitling the Director to control the weather over all campaigns and to change the path-finding of more sections of map would have made the replay value massive.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a survival-horror fans dream. As a first person shooter, as with any other Valve game, it is well rounded and incredibly well balanced – enough variation and set pieces to keep the action interesting. The additions make this worth the price of a full game and should be bought by anyone with a love of co-operative games.