Left 4 Dead 2 Xbox 360, PC Review

Released almost a year to the day of the original, it has been both one of the year’s most anticipated titles and bore the brunt of one of the biggest boycotts. Coming from Valve, the creators of the masterful Half-Life series, Left 4 Dead was voted the top game of 2008 by the writing team here. I could round this review off right here and now by saying L4D2 makes L4D1 redundant, but that wouldn’t be giving the sequel the credit it deserves. L4D2 evolves the formula to a new level, it does add more, more maps, more modes, more items, more special infected, but these aren’t just empty gestures or a throw of the hand to support the notion of a sequel. These additions strengthen and add depth to the familiar gameplay, add solutions to old problems, add variety to just replaying four campaigns over and over, and more importantly add lots of new tactics to a game, but I’ll get into all of that later. For now appreciate the fact this game is a legitimate sequel.

The game relocates the action to the American South, a setting that’s quite an inspired choice for a zombie holocaust. Gone are the industrial cities that housed warehouses, office blocks, alley ways and abandoned apartments, with Valve choosing to leave that behind and focus on small villages and towns, the open road, marsh land, wilderness and really show another side to the level design.

The first campaign, Dead Centre, is the shortest, but by no means the least sweet. You’ll again have trouble deciding on a favourite campaign because they all offer something different while also offering the same experience as ever. It begins with the new survivors being abandoned by the rescue helicopter and deciding to team up.

Every level of L4D2 is significantly more action-packed than a level of L4D1. Take the first level that tasks you with escaping a burning building. The biting catch here is that you can only carry a mêlée weapon or a pistol, making you defenceless at either long-range or close quarters attacks. Things get really interesting when the only way to continue is to shimmy across the side skirting of the building. Knowing a wily infected will send you plummeting several stories to your death if you don’t watch your flanks is all part of the fun. Without 100% awareness from you and your team that will happen, every single time. Later you need to run through the burning lobby, with heavily reduced visibility from the flames and smoke. Despite the chapter’s short length it’s quite rare all four survivors make it to the safe room which is a nice change from L4D1 where nothing was really an instant death.

In L4D1 it was a frequent occurrence to find yourself pressing a button that would trigger several waves of zombies, and as entertaining as these bits were, once you found a good place to dig in and camp there was little that could be done to take out an organised team. The solution comes in ‘gauntlet events’ these add another step to the scenario, usually requiring you to reach a location to stop the otherwise infinite zombie horde. Triggering an alarm by opening a door then fighting to reach the security control panel is a frequently used scenario but there are other styles. These events add considerably more difficulty and some of these gauntlets I’ve never actually seen cleared. If you limped through expert mode last time, don’t even try it this time, it’ll only bring you frustration.

The range of campaigns on offer is pretty impressive. Along with the aforementioned Dead Centre, these include: Dark Carnival, with the brilliantly lame ‘you must be this tall to die’ tag line; Swamp Fever, a surprise hit for me as trudging through movement speed reducing marsh land is one of those pitches that doesn’t sound appealing at all; Hard Rain, where the survivors are hit by torrential rain and take to the roof tops to navigate a flooded town. There are also about ten witches in one level which gives a nice bit of stealth to the proceedings. Last up is The Parish, the level demo players will be the most familiar with and the finale being that epic dash across the bridge. The five campaigns all offer something radically different but you can’t help but wish there was a sixth, or the return of the four classics that Valve talked about importing.

We’ve also got four new survivors. Coach the aptly named football coach who once dreamed of being an American football player; Ellis the Southern boy who probably has a personal hero in Bruce Springsteen; Rochelle the journalist who likes to take deep breaths to calm down, and Nick the con man whose going to turn over a new leaf by the time all the craziness is over. Valve again stayed away from obvious stereotypes and gave the characters realistic back-stories combined with the rational and realistic dialogue. In any case the writing is good enough to build a dynamic between them and they’re great together. They first bond over coming up with names for the special infected realising ‘hooded dude’ and ‘something is riding me’ wasn’t good communication. It’s a nice little touch and there’s a few other in-jokes but without cut scenes or any real plot or character development you can’t really get into your role or care about the characters.

More importantly there are new items. Melee weapons are an obvious one, they become invaluable the moment you’ve been boomed with their ability to slice down attacking zombies in one hit. No mêlée weapons seem to be obviously stronger than any other. Bar the hugely over-powerful and therefore given a crippling lack of ammo chainsaw. Melee weapons are a must to maintain mobility you’ll find yourself using them just as much as ranged weapons swapping as the situation warrants.

For me the most interesting new addition to the arsenal is the shot, for most people a minor addition to the game. They take the form of a needle that delivers a surge of expendable health and speed to the player. When you find yourself the last guy standing, stick one in your leg and pick up your downed survivors in half the time, even if zombies are flailing at your frame. There’s other uses for the shot, such as if you want to just run further ahead of your team or get to the safe room when it’s all gone to pot. Shots also give the player a boost of firing speed and allow the player to outrun the common infected that slow you down but the coolest thing about shots is that they even up your chances with the specials. You can outrun a hunter, dodge a leap, and put some shots in it before it can leap again. It gives Rambo-like players another reason to work away from their team.

The defibrillator is an interesting one. It brings back players from the dead, but to carry one a player must forfeit their med kit. It’s an interesting idea, but in practice its use is a bit more pedestrian. For one thing you’ll never find one, unless you don’t need one. Secondly, in campaign survivors will re-spawn in cupboards over time anyway, and in versus it’s a smart idea unless you revive someone to discover they’ve left. It only works once and since sacrificing a medi-kit puts your team at serious risk anyway, the alternative should be of more use. Defibrillators sound like they’d be a big part of the game, in practice they rarely come into it, disappointing.

Bile Bombs are a nice touch as another grenade for the player to throw. Those bombed become the straggling horde’s new target, but in the wrong hands it frequently gets wasted on two straggling zombies. Bile bombs can be invaluable, they have the ability to divert a horde of attacking zombies else where like a pipe bomb and function as an alternative to the Molotov, throw one at a Tank, as meaty as ever and watch waves of infected throw themselves at the hairless behemoth long enough for you to dish out some real damage.

There’s three new special infected types, the first thing to say is that having six specials do not overcomplicate or overcrowd the game at all, they succeed in mixing up the strategy and remove some of the certainties of L4D1. The Jockey is the weirdest one, a weird imp that backpacks the player away from their team mates to an area of higher danger, forcing the players to rush through hordes of zombies they may not be capable of taking on to get the survivor back. In typical L4D1 style, the Jockey is an opportunist, rather than an instigator, a blob of spit or some boomer bile allow the Jockey his most successful joy rides.

Essential to everything is the Spitter, her appearance that of a hideous looking old woman, she gives the survivors the threat of projectile acid to contend with. It is a beautiful thing, waiting for a survivor to begin reviving a floored team-mate only to spit at the moment that sends the standing survivor running for cover while his team-mate perishes in acid. I’m a big fan of the Boomer-Spitter combo myself, in which a boomer disorientates the survivor, and surrounds them with zombies, while the spitters goo eats at their legs. Often the player won’t even notice they’re standing in the spit, and if they did, they’ll have a hell of a time breaking out from it.

Lastly there’s a charger, who has the characteristics of a bull, it bowls into the survivors like bowling pins and pummels one survivor in the ground for heavy damage. The charger has the highest learning curve of the new infected, the amount of times you’ll run right past the survivors and get shot in the back will be very numerous indeed.

The new multiplayer mode to compete with versus in scavenge mode, it fulfils the purpose intended by survival mode, of giving online players a short length game mode but unlike survival it’s actually a great deal of fun. One team tries to collect 16 gas cans dotted around the map and pour them into the generator. In practice this isn’t as mundane as it may sound, but actually brilliant, as it offers so many more opportunities and interpretations than the traditional versus mode.

The mall map for example features several cans on the top floor; two of you can climb up to the top and drop those cans down to the other two but then both groups are in danger of being overwhelmed. The survivors have one health pack each and the infected spawn at far quicker intervals keeping the pace up. If the survivor team horde up several cans in one place those cans can all be incinerated by the Spitter or getting the survivors to carelessly shoot a can themselves. You’ll have most of your great L4D2 moments in this mode, running a circuit and rallying down six or so cans to your team mates to distribute. Scavenger is the mode where heroics and daring ideas most stand out and where they are most rewarded.

This reviewer has always been positive about L4D2 and with the game consisting almost entirely of new content, why not? All five campaigns are new and the overall length is considerably longer than L4D1. The cries to release the game as downloadable content had concerned me, I see now it would only have curbed the ambitious ideas within L4D2. Sure this is coming within a year of the first, but is that really too soon – would you rather Valve held the game back? Would you be happier buying L4D2 if it came out a several years later? L4D2 isn’t perfect, far from it, but its hugely engrossing and entertaining. It has a couple of problems keeping the framerate from flying off when hundreds of zombies are in the fray at once and there’s still almost no long-term appeal for singleplayer fans.

But the real problem with L4D2 is that, even though the content is completely new, it plays exactly like L4D1 with lots of additions. The same movement speed, the same HUD, the same table full of weapons and ammo, the same mission structure, the same sensation of lying on the floor pleading with your team not to leave you for dead. Now this is not a criticism but the problem is it holds L4D2 back, it does everything better than L4D1, everything! But it never forges its own identity; it never steps out of the shadow.

This is Valve trying to better L4D1 in every way, succeeding but never really breaking away from what did work first time, taking creative risks and really pushing the series forward. In any case play it, love it, it’s one of the best multiplayer games I’ve ever played.

9 out of 10