Here we are roughly one year after the release of Left 4 Dead, and its sequel is already out. For Valve, Left 4 Dead 2 represents an unusually speedy turnaround time considering the delays and release date fuzziness generally associated with its games, notably in the years leading up to Team Fortress 2 and the still mysterious status of Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Despite that history and the potential concerns associated with how soon this game is showing up after the first, Left 4 Dead 2 is very much a complete game, much more so than the original, and is without a doubt the better product. If you're still in the mood to group up with friends and slay packs of ravenous undead, then it doesn't get any better than this. However, if you're tired of Left 4 Dead's gameplay formula, the sequel, as good as it is, may not be enough to warrant a purchase. It's a game that's more about refinement and augmentation of existing features instead of offering something dramatically new.
As a result, after you've played Left 4 Dead 2, it's difficult to go back to the original without a mild sense of disappointment. Remember, of Left 4 Dead's four original campaigns, only two were set up for Versus play right out of the gate. It wasn't until Valve released the Survival Pack months later that players got the full Versus experience as well as the now-standard timed Survival mode. Left 4 Dead 2 has five full and more interesting campaigns, a more fleshed out and distinctive setting with some fantastic action set pieces, more personality, more modes, and in general gives you more to do. In many ways, I wish this would have been the product that was released first since it feels much more full-featured than the original, and the fiercely team-oriented style of gameplay wouldn't have been as familiar then as it is now.
It's entirely possible you're someone who never played the first and have no idea what I'm talking about, so I'll take a step back for a moment. It's the zombie apocalypse, and you play as one of four human Survivors who attempt to shoot their way through hordes of fast-moving "infected" (which I'll refer to as zombies) to get to the end of a map. The sequel is set in the American southeast and the new cast of characters is more memorable this time around, as they seem more aware of their situation, chattering away and commenting on specific parts of the environment as they battle through. Ellis' inane stories while huddled in safe houses are a particular highlight as he waxes on about accident-prone acquaintances while mobs of bloodthirsty zombies converge on his position, at which point the others understandably tell him to shut his mouth.
That's not what you should be doing while playing, however. More effectively than most other titles out there, Left 4 Dead 2 forces you to work as a team if you want to win. You need to talk, and you need to participate. Every member of your four person squad of Survivors needs to be communicating about what they're doing, calling out locations for ammunition, weapon, and health pickups, and asking for help when in trouble. The catch is that no stage ever plays out the same way, because there's an artificial intelligence called the Director governing the action. Packs of common zombies can attack at any time, and if what the Director throws at you proves too challenging, your path of progression through a stage may even get swapped around to make things easier. It makes every experience different, and encourages repeat play as it adapts to challenge players of any skill level.
Like before, there are multiple difficulty settings, with Normal serving as a good entry-level challenge while on Expert only those with the best communication, decision-making, and reaction skills will survive. Left 4 Dead 2's Realism mode makes the challenge even more daunting, removing helpful glows around items and weapons amongst other things, meaning it's all up to your communication skills to call out ammunition and item pickups or to let people know you're in trouble. If you're the type of player who generally shies away from a conversation and prefers to remain silent, then you're not going to like Left 4 Dead, mostly because your team isn't going to do very well if everyone's only interacting on a minimal level. Because of how much teamwork is required in Left 4 Dead, it's also one of the best games out there for triggering an emotional response in players, which works both ways. If you manage to pull through, you feel a much greater sense of accomplishment, and if you're losing, it can be singularly frustrating since your success is just as reliant on the behavior of those around you as it is on your own personal skill.
Bots are still included, though, so if you do want to run through the five campaigns by yourself that's entirely possible, and should a person have to drop out midway through a campaign, an artificial intelligence will take over so you don't have to all give up. Your computer-controlled teammates will work alongside, making accurate shots, swapping out weapons, reviving, trading items and healing when necessary. It's nowhere close to as entertaining an experience, but it's still functional and playable solo. Ideally, like when preparing for a dungeon run in an MMO, you'll be able to get a full party together to tackle the challenges, and it's an experience that's at its best when in a full Versus game.
Versus is also where you'll be challenged the most, as four players will be running through as Survivors and four others controlling the powerful boss zombie types. These include the Tanks, Boomers, Smokers, and Hunters from the first game, in addition to the new Spitters, Jockeys, and Chargers. The new boss zombie special powers add layers to the gameplay, such as the Spitter's acid pool that can do heavy damage over time to anyone who stumbles into it. The Jockey's ability to take over control of a Survivor's direction of movement makes for even more interesting combination possibilities here, and overall the addition of these new boss zombies adds in a welcome amount of depth and, if you're playing as Survivors, unpredictability to the play experience. If your Infected team is working together you can time Boomer bile attacks with Jockey jumps and Spitter attacks so large groups of common zombies are attacking while one Survivor stumbles under a Jockey's control and the rest are slowly dying in a pool of acid.
These kinds of team tactics are subject to further refinement when you take into account the campaign-specific challenges, some of which are sure to get your pulse pounding. To be perfectly clear, this is not a relaxing game. You're tense and fixated on the screen at all moments, and during sequences like the rollercoaster race in the Dark Carnival campaign and the storming and flooding of the second half of Hard Rain, you'll need to pay even closer attention. The campaigns here include exciting crescendo events and defense sequences that any hardcore Left 4 Dead fan is going to go absolutely nuts over. In that sense, if you're still playing Left 4 Dead and are looking for more, then you're going to love this product.
It's not just the better campaigns, the more fully-realized and detailed environments and the switch from the dark city streets of the first game to the bogs, carnival grounds, marshes, and sunlit construction yards that contribute to reasons why this is a better game. There's also a wealth of little things that make this a sturdier, more complex, and more entertaining experience. You'll find scattered around rooms incendiary and explosive ammunition pickups for all to enjoy, a wider range of rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, and sniper rifles to pick apart your opposition (though many of the like weapons models behave similarly), and perhaps most importantly of all, in Left 4 Dead 2 you can take advantage of melee weapons.
These things can absolutely shred the undead, particularly the machete, katana, and limited use chainsaw. They replace your pistol when picked up, and are not only a source of gruesome comic relief, but are also effective at surging through thick clusters of enemies. If your Survivor teammates are trying to heal and share adrenaline shots, choose between med packs or defibrillator kits, or decide between pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, or the new bile bombs that when shattered are like zombie lightning rods, there's no better way to seal off entrance to the area than by meeting any approaching foe with a whirring chainsaw. Or if you're out of ammunition and see the safe room just ahead, instead of simply shoving foes aside, why not smash in their skulls with a few broad swipes with an electric guitar? In other words, the melee weapons aren't just a bullet point on a marketing sheet, but add a noticeable and welcome element to the gameplay. And, for Valve fans, it's yet another opporunity to wield a crowbar.
The most powerful addition is the grenade launcher which, while effective at blasting apart zombies, is a dangerous weapon to use because of its potential for friendly fire. Using the gas cans, propane tanks, and other volatile elements strewn about each campaign map is probably a little bit safer, and something that's incorporated into the new Scavenge game mode. Here, a team of four Survivors battle against a team of four Infected, like Survival mode, the arena is limited in scope. There's no travel destination, so instead the Survivors try and round up gas cans from the surrounding area and dump them into a generator to secure them. The Infected try and stop this process, and it's a best out of three affair as the teams of four swap sides. Trying to stay organized on the Survivor side; deciding which cans to chase, tossing them off balconies to waiting teammates, and ensuring you don't actually set them on fire in the process is great fun, and because the mode tends to end pretty quickly, it's easy to hop in and out of and should serve as a nice bite-sized, more accessible adversarial experience.
Across all these modes you'll find the gameplay to still be electric-quick, as you'll need to swiftly spin and run and swipe while zombies charge in at full tilt, or adjust your aim to help a teammate who's been snagged by a Jockey before they disappear over a ledge. Because of that, this is an experience that feels more at home on the PC than on consoles where mouse control easily allows for rapid movements. The Xbox 360 version is still functional and satisfying, however, so no worries there.
The game also looks better than the first thanks to the daytime setting of most areas that lets the light better illuminate the level of detail, and also because of the zombies' animations. The droves of undead look much more lifelike this time around, sprinting and stumbling with an authenticity that might even be scary if you weren't caving in their foreheads with frying pans and cricket bats. The way they react to gunfire is far more gruesome, and something fans of the ol' ultraviolence will definitely appreciate. It's not just decapitations and severed limbs this time around – zombies nearly disintegrate as you pepper them with bullets. Entrails spill from cavernous abdominal wounds and shotgun blasts can pockmark their torsos, revealing ribcages and all manner of grisly innards. Yeah, it's gross, but it's also rewarding in a gruesome kind of way. The sound design is as strong as ever, which should be no surprise coming from Valve, and new music tunes have been mixed in with familiar ones to better root the sequel to its setting.
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