Twice as undead as before. I guarantee!
If there’s one universal truth about zombies, it’s that there’s never just one. So it was inevitable that Valve would follow up last year’s out-of-nowhere crowd pleaser Left 4 Dead with a sequel. But just like seeing a zombie get back up and scramble for your brain pan after you’ve already shot it repeatedly in the head, fans of the first game weren’t expecting a sequel to pop up this soon.
[image1]There’s a reason class reunions don’t happen on a yearly basis. Not much changes in the course of a year. In Left 4 Dead 2 the core concept remains firmly intact—four survivors winding their way from safe-house to safe-house until they get to a rescue point—and many of the first game’s mechanics and features have only been incrementally retooled and refined.
Over the past year, the zombie hordes have developed surprisingly discerning palettes. Where other zombies raid third-world shanty towns and unnamed middle-American suburbs searching for any cerebral matter they can find, these zombies go for the culinary heartland: New Orleans and surrounding Cajun country. Rather than content themselves with everyday noggin meat, these epicurean undead prefer boiled brains and crawfish, brain gumbo, brain jambalaya, brain po’boys, and brain-flavored pralines. Zombies don’t go to New Orleans merely to “eat”. No. They go to New Orleans to feast.
The most noticeable changes in Left 4 Dead 2 are the new weapons and zombie types. The addition of melee combat now lets you slice, dice, and spank the undead horde. Three all new special infected zombies try to Yoko their way into your tight-knit group of four by dividing and conquering. Spitters create gulfs of deadly green goo. Jockeys jump on your friends’ heads and ride them away from you into the apocalyptic sunset. And chargers plow into your friends and carry them far away faster and farther than an overseas job transfer.
There are also a handful of more subtle changes. Low health slows you down much sooner and more significantly than before, so much so that waiting until after your second knockdown to use a health pack is now an act of lucky desperation rather than a planned strategy. New weapons and boosters also force you to balance your arsenal much more carefully, and you’ll have to rely on your teammates to make up for your own equipment deficiencies. For example, pairing a grenade launcher with a melee weapon leaves you without a reliable spray weapon, and walking around with a defibrillator means forgoing a health pack.
[image2]Even more significantly for those like me who spent countless hours playing the campaign mode with friends, you’ll notice after just a few hours just how different the AI Director has become. In the prior Left 4 Dead, you could expect dramatic rises and falls in the action that were tailored to your group’s performance. Do well, and you could expect more crescendo events. Do poorly, and the Director would string you along with extended lulls, allowing you just enough time to revive your teammates and heal up, and only then begin tossing more zombie love your way. You could especially feel the hands of the Director on the game’s higher difficulties where those crescendo events became dramatic moments of controlled chaos.
This time around, however, the AI Director doesn’t seem to be doing much other than twiddling his thumbs and rolling some dice. Crescendo events are much less pronounced, and zombies come in a much steadier stream throughout a level. Also, because the developers have had to make way for the new special infected, the encounters with them feel less, well, “special”. Special infected frequently come in groups of two or three, and they come much more often. Enemy and item spawns are randomized enough to keep the game interesting on multiple playthroughs, but the drama of the first game is missing. And without drama, there’s no real sense of tension or suspense.
Left 4 Dead 2 is also substantially more difficult. While Expert difficulty had been a challenge in the first game, it was doable with a solid crew of friends. In Left 4 Dead 2, I have yet to beat a campaign on Advanced difficulty, let alone Expert. The introduction of Realism mode only adds insult to injury. It’s possible that since I’m a year older, I’m also a year slower, but it’s even more possible that Valve has simply decided to kick everyone’s ass.
The biggest winners in this package are the play modes outside of Campaign. Versus play stretches across all five episodes, and the new special infected seem to have been created with Versus in mind since they add much greater strategic depth for those playing on the infected side. Survival mode is a no-brainer addition, especially since it had already been patched into the first game. And Scavenge allows for short-session versus play where the survivors try to collect fuel while the infected try to stop them. It’s a nice, short alternative to playing a full 2-hours-plus Versus match but without the same payoff.
[image3]The many small graphical improvements are mostly to zombie dismemberment. Legs, heads, arms, and guts can go sailing in any direction. Since many of the episodes take place during the day, you’ll have no problem seeing those parts go flying. But the daylight also takes away some of the horror and intensity found in the first game. In addition, you’ll run into surprisingly frequent graphical glitches and buggy AI routines, which further diminishes the sense of raw terror. It’s hard to be scared of a zombie that’s climbing up and down a ledge over and over again.
As with the first Left 4 Dead, this isn’t a game you’ll want to play alone. Left 4 Dead 2 may have lost some of that new zombie smell, but its cooperative play is still among the best. There’s nothing quite like plowing through mountains of undead crawfish lovers with a friend or two at your side.