Review: Left 4 Dead 2

December 21, 2009, Author: Ray Willmott

After I spent some hands-on time with the demo and gave my impressions a few weeks ago, I decided to go ahead and purchase the full version of the greatest zombie slaughter known to videogames. As I alluded to in a previous review, Valve, creators of Half-Life and Team Fortress, have earned their stripes through hard work, dedication to their craft and responsiveness to a thriving community. Although, admittedly during the Microsoft Press Conference at E3, I contemplated that all might be about to change. Announcing Left 4 Dead 2 did not seem to be a logical step, since by the time of its announcement, the original game was just seven months old. What could Valve possibly have to implement in a near brand new game that they couldn’t fit into the original title? Why couldn’t they have held the release back for a few months longer to make the original title a larger, more complete experience? Is there really a point to this release at all except the inevitable desire for money?

Keen to know one way or another, I meticulously played through each campaign and thoroughly tested out the online modes, and I think it’s fair to say that this is more than just your average sequel. Certainly, the mechanics, graphics, sound effects and the premise are practically the same, but what Valve have managed to do is take an already very successful formula, and make it much, much better. In a nutshell, L4D2 is the perfect example to developers the World over on how you approach a sequel to an ultra successful title and confidently set it upon the gaming nation.

Zombie Nation
This time, Left 4 Dead 2 is set in South America, and takes place after an apocalyptic pandemic. There has been an outbreak of a rabies-like pathogen that is causing humans to behave like zombies and as one of the four remaining survivors, Nick, Ellis, Coach or Rochelle you will be faced with five different campaigns which span from Savannah, Georgia to New Orleans, and lastly Louisiana. The survivors will need to move from safe-house to safe-house in each campaign and are in a race against time to look for rescue before the area is quarantined and you’re essentially, left for dead. Each of the environments you play in are vastly different from the other and each feature their own narrative arc and storyline. If you’ve played the demo, you will have already experienced the first half of the Parish campaign, although admittedly not the superior second half. However, for your Zombie slaying delight, there is also Dark Carnival, Swamp Fever, Hard Rain and Dead Centre to sink your teeth into.

One of the first major things you will notice in L4D2 that is different from the original is the implementation of objectives within acts. During Dead Centre, in one of the early stages of the campaign, you will be asked to retrieve a can of coke for a man in charge of a drawbridge before he will let you pass and allow you to continue your progress through the act. Also, more noticeably, during the rescue acts, the objectives are a much bigger deal, with the player needing to fill a car up with cans of gasoline in one campaign or running toward the rescue vehicle along the motorway bridge, fighting your way through hordes of the undead in order to escape, in another. Each campaign follows its own story, be it told through the evolution of the environment or through character development made out through dialogue and banter between the survivors. In L4D2, Valve have made great strides to prove that a game with the intent of just killing zombies can also have a plot and introduce the player to characters who experience a wild assortment of emotion, from the intriguing, to the entertaining and sometimes even the frantic and irritating.

As I outlined in my demo impressions a few weeks ago, there are a few noticeable changes to the way the game is played. Among game favourites like the pain pills, molotovs and pipebombs, L4D2 introduces players to Boomer Bile, Adrenaline and Defibrillators. With the addition of these three items that now double up with the originals on the D-Pad, L4D2 boasts a more strategic element to it than the previous instalment. For example, the player is now forced to decide whether to carry a medi-pack around with him or her for self interest, or to take a defibrillator along to revive a dead friend if the heat of the battle becomes too much. Both cannot be carried at the same time. Also, with melee weapons scattered throughout the game, from the comedic to the excruciating, one will now be forced to decide whether they want that or the fan-favourite pistol to wield in those intense moments where ammo for the big guns are extinct and the odds are stacked.

The rotted flesh and broken bone look is a good one for you.
I’ll be honest with you, if you came to L4D2 looking for enhanced visuals, then you’ll be sorely disappointed as they’re near enough exactly the same, save for some touching up and fine-tuning. Clearly, that’s not where Valve have spent their time in concocting a sequel, and frankly, it wasn’t necessary either. The game is as gripping and as intense as it’s ever been, and the graphics play as significant of a role in that as the previous instalment. While you get your bright, vibrant areas, such as The Parish, you also get a sinister undertone from the Dark Carnival.

Certainly, L4D1 had its share in variety in area but L4D2 is clearly the superior. Each area is vastly different from the previous and is more of a story hub of sensible locations brought together, than just a random selection of areas thrown together that hold no real continuity. L4D2’s graphics will find you frolicking with clowns, fraternising with Swamp Men and fighting Hazmat Zombies, each logically positioned within areas that make sense.

But in addition to the waves of the undead, this time you’ll also be up against nature and battling against extreme monsoon like conditions in the swamp and members of the human race who have mistaken you for infected! Also seeing the fine detail in which a melee weapon strikes the opposition brings a wicked grin to your lips as you watch zombies crumple into heap at your feet, globs of their decomposed, degenerate brains smattered and smeared all over you.

There’s a lot to see in L4D2, and the visual effects are as important to the game as they have ever been with warning signals flaring up when being assaulted by Special infected or seeing waves of zombies horde over your wounded body, curb stomping and punching you to try and finish the job is still terrifying. Even though it’s not much of an upgrade, the game is still spectacular in its own right, despite some minor discrepancies and texture glitches which seem to have been inherited from L4D1.

The Swamps are alive with the sound of undead zombies groaning!
If you’ve played the original, you’ll also be familiar with the sounds of Left 4 Dead 2. The same thundering music that signifies the Tank is still in place and the growl of the hunter and whine of the witch will still be there for those familiar to the franchise. However, you’ll quickly get used to the piano-esque accompaniment that signifies the Jockey and the chilling melody announcing the arrival of the Spitter, and treat them as if they’ve been a part of the franchise from the beginning. Of course, there are fresh sound effects such as the comedic twang of the frying pan being bashed against the skull of an unsuspecting zombie or the revving up of the chainsaw, that spits out the rotted flesh of the damned.

The music in each scenario is very well suited. The style of New Orleans is well represented and helps paint a picture of the Southern hemisphere in your own living room. Generally, the music is a wide range, with metal and soul also co-inciding with jazz to create a much different ambience from the first game, landing it somewhere between the mystery and magic of voodoo and Stephen King inspired evil.

Also, while we’re on the subject of music, fans of Depeche Mode will be happy to know that they play a big part in L4D2, and their likeness can be seen on Rochelle’s t-shirt and you can play a tune or two of theirs through jukeboxes scattered at various points in the game. Apparently, as massive fans of the previous game, the band lapped up the opportunity to be a part of the sequel.

On the downside, a grating beeping noise has made its debut into the series, which can be more than a little irritating. Granted, that’s probably only to a certain type of person, but I found myself wanting to mute the Television, and over time, wanted to stick my fist through it. The beeping usually comes when the game wants to draw the players attention to something or if you’re incredibly low on health, and, with the difficulty clearly ramped up for this sequel, you’ll find yourself hearing this sound a lot! Obviously, a game can’t be criticised for a single sound effect, and it is actually very helpful in certain mind-blanking situations when you need to rely on your instincts and gaming skills to survive, as opposed to focusing on health bars and team mates, but after a while, this can become both tedious and frustrating.

The voices for each of the characters are also well suited to their in-game depictions. The game shows how well suited they are to their backgrounds and hearing their own little stories to give more colour to their origins really adds a three-dimensional layer to what many people argued was only a one-dimensional game. In particular, Ellis’s stories about tales of the unknown during time in the safe rooms is usually interrupted with perfect comedic timing by other survivors and shows a real friendship and family-like quality between the survivors, perhaps something that was lacking a bit in the previous four.

The Famous 4

The Famous 4

My best buddy is a zombie and he needs to die!
One of the key selling points of L4D1 and one of the main reasons it has stayed in the Top 10 Most Played Games on Live and Steam over the last year is the addictive multiplayer. Multiplayer in which you can play alongside your friends and against them. Much of that has been left untouched in L4D2, with four of you still able to play through one campaign together or being able to pit yourselves against your friends in Vs mode, playing as the old and new Special Infected. This time around, Valve have also included the Survival mode that was given to owners of the original as DLC in the summer, with some enhancement and fine tweaks that make it seem more than just a tacked on addition and have made it a much more immersive experience.

However, a lot of the attention has gone onto two of the new modes introduced by the game; Scavenge and Realism.

Scavenge is a point-based, time-limited game for two teams. One team plays survivors, the other team plays infected. With a selection of several maps from each of the different campaigns, the team playing as survivors will need to operate their rescue vehicle in the time allocated to them whilst fighting against the infected. For example, in the mall, the survivors will need to collect a set amount of gas cans to fill up the car and drive off into the sunset. Every time a gas can is put into the car; the time is extended, giving the survivors more time to complete their objective. However, if the infected should wipe out the team, or if the survivors run out of time and none of them are holding a gas can in hand, then the round is over. However many gas cans used to fill up the car will count as points and serve as the survivors score at the end of the round. Then, the roles reverse, and it will be the opposing teams turn to try and beat the score or equal it. The winner will be decided by a ‘best of’ round style of play.

Arguably, Survival is the best online mode that L4D has seen to date. There’s a lot of longevity to be had here and the potential strategies one can employ to ensure victory, I feel, can be elaborated upon over the original multiplayer versus mode. The inclusion of Scavenge will sure to be a fan favourite and can be a lot of fun when there are eight or more of you volleying for every last critical point.

As for Realism, it’s essentially taken an incredibly difficult game and made it a lot harder, as in tougher than Valve’s play-testers can handle! This mode is for true enthusiasts and comes highly recommended to bring a friend to the party; in fact, I would suggest it is a mandatory requirement. The zombies will punish you for even looking them the wrong way, and every decision you make, every weapon you wield and every item you take is invaluable to your survival and truly makes one feel as if they are in a life or death situation.

Multiplayer in L4D2 is a much more expanded and interesting experience overall, with new modes and excellent additions that help create greater balance and a satisfying sense of co-operation in eliminating both rival human players and AI zombies.

So, should I just wait till next year when they release a newer, shinier third installment?
As it ever does, L4D2 has generated a lot of controversy. For starters, this is a sequel to a year old game, which is uncanny for Valve and has elicited roars of aggression from their fanbase who are still demanding content for the first L4D, with some going as far as to boycott the game altogether. Also, the game has been heavily censored in Australia for grotesque violence and many of the elements that characterise this game have been edited, chopped and changed, with the box art among them.

Some people have even gotten upset that much of the games content is focused around the New Orleans area and that this is still a sensitive issue a few years on from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with the depiction of the undead roaming free representative of the victims that died during this tragedy. The game has even been scrutinised for racism with Willie Jefferson from the Houston Chronicle saying that many of the infected appeared to be African-American and felt that the game was teaching people to shoot people of this ethnicity. A similar complaint was lobbied against Resident Evil 5 released earlier this year.

The fact of the matter is the game is still a lot of fun to play, and despite the perceptions of the media and the public, this game has already sold over two million copies in less than a month, easily out grossing its predecessor at this early stage, and is a genuine Game of the Year contender. Valve haven’t tried to recreate the wheel here, they haven’t tampered too much with the formula that made the original game such a success, but instead, have refined the quality of product they already shipped in 2008, and made the hands-on experience more fluid, frantic and most importantly, fun.

Basically, if you were a fan of Left 4 Dead, you need this game! L4D2 is everything the original was and more. Also, you needn’t fear, we’re unlikely to see a L4D 3 announcement anytime soon as it seems Valve have learned their lessons about game content and have just announced a massive cross-over DLC for L4D2 due in 2010, with much more being promised later into the year. To put it layman’s terms, if L4D1 was the template and foundations of the structure of the franchise, then L4D2 is the extra coat of paint and the added nuts and bolts that add more bulk and finesse to the formula. This is how the game should be played, and I guarantee you, after putting it just once into your disc tray, you’ll wonder how we ever lived through the waves of zombies without playing a tune on their skull with an electric guitar or sawing their bones with a chainsaw! Great bloody fun!


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