Many people joke about something called “Valve Time”, an imperceptible chronological measurement visible only to the revered developers themselves. Games of all sorts, even episodic content, seem to take forever to be released, but they are always of the highest quality. The original Left 4 Dead was also subject to the whims of Valve’s crazed machinations; it suffered delay after delay before finally being released to a heap of praise. Now, after only a year, the beloved zombie-killing co-op extravaganza has gotten a sequel. With such a short turn-around time between the original, is a year enough time for Valve to work their magic?
Fortunately, the basic foundation of Left 4 Dead is so strong that all that Valve needed to do was heap a bunch of new stuff onto the formula with some minor gameplay improvements. One of the lacking aspects of the original was the small weapons selection, but now you’ve got more tools of destruction than you can bludgeon a baseball bat with. The selection of guns has greatly expanded, adding some neat tools like the Thumper, a one-shot grenade launcher, and the venerable AK-47 assault rifle. Perhaps the best addition to the weapons line-up is the melee selection: you can replace your pistol with a close quarters weapon like the cricket bat or the crowbar and just go to town. The melee weapons are so effective against the regular zombies that I rarely used a handgun, even when the Desert Eagle was up for the taking. While they may feel a tad too powerful at times for a game that stresses “co-op”, charging a zombie horde with nothing but a fire axe and a massive blood lust is a unique and thrilling experience. Melee weapons aren’t perfect, however, as you need to be careful where you swing you weapon. If you rush into battle and your team-mates are all beside you, you’ll hit them as often as you hit the zombies.
Left 4 Dead 2 also packs some neat upgrades to the inventory system besides armaments. The Pipe Bomb and Molotov cocktail from the first game return, but they’re accompanied by a few new gadgets. You can deploy special ammunition such as frag or incendiary rounds, or you can pack a deffribulator to revive dead Survivors. The new items change the way the game plays, but with all the twists and turns that get thrown at you, you’ll be glad for a little extra help.
Having all these fancy tools without interesting enemies to fight would be pointless, so Valve stepped up the design on the Infected for the Southern USA based sequel. The classic Special Infected are back, and they’ve all gotten a make-over so they blend in better with the setting. The new special zombies are all evolutions of the classic bosses in that their job is to split up, distract, and eventually destroy the Survivors. A well-placed Spitter shot will remove camping Survivors or destroy gas cans, and having a Charger bulldoze through your group and pulverize one of your comrades will result in a few moments of blind panic.
The garden-variety zombies have been updated too; they now sport a “Southern-fried” look and have a new damage modeling system to go with it. Limbs can be blown off, bladed weapons will score huge gouges in chests, and bullets will punch different-sized holes through zombies based on what calibre weapon you’re using. The game is decidedly gorier than the original, and that adds to the fun rather than detract from it. There are a couple types of regular Infected which have their own individual attributes, and these are referred to as “uncommon common”. They can blind you with mud or resist fire thanks to environment suits, so these little bastards can add an extra level of strategy to even your most basic Horde encounter.
The campaigns themselves have also reaped the benefits of having a year to expand upon the base model: the daytime settings work just as well as the night and having the game take place in several varied locations instead of just a darkened city or industrial location is a great way to keep the game from getting stale. Left 4 Dead 2 also features some very impressive particle effects, and the slashing thunderstorm in Hard Rain truly has to be seen to be believed. Fighting your way through a raging gale while zombies assault you from all sides in one of the stand-out moments in a game full of great encounters. While the Source engine may be starting to show its age compared to some recent games, the graphics impress more than they disappoint. The new Survivors are also intricately detailed, especially Coach. It’s rare to see a hefty gentleman in video games because they’re tougher to animate properly, but Valve went the extra steps to make sure everything looks correct. Our latest batch of beleaguered zombie-killers are just as memorable as the old cast, with the unfortunate expectation of Rochelle. Ellis, Coach and Nick all have their funny lines (including one that I’m sure is a Star Wars reference), but Rochelle doesn’t seem to get in anything edgewise. While it’s not enough to bring down the experience, you’ll be missing the snappy patter of the original crew from time to time.
The Survivors aren’t all perfect, though, as the AI for your teammates is as dumb as a bag of hammers. They’ll constantly try to heal you when you don’t need it, or they’ll stand there calmly reloading while a Hunter gives you a face lift instead of switching to their secondary weapon. The one thing that I can give the team AI credit for is that if you fall, they will always come to help you. This can work against you, as well, because it applies to the other AI just as much as it does to you. More than once, I abandoned my team while I ran for the rescue vehicle because they were all getting mauled while trying to help each other. Pragmatism wins over altruism, I’m afraid.
Versus mode also makes a return alongside Survival, but the new star of the multiplayer portion is Scavenge. It’s a classic Infected vs. Survivors set-up, but instead of progressing through the campaigns, you’re locked into an arena setting and battle it out over tanks of gas. The Survivors need to collect as many jerry cans as possible while the zombies try to stop them. Matches are over fairly quick, so they’re perfect if you want you undead-thrashing fix but can’t spare the hour and a half that playing a Versus match takes. The only thing I don’t like about this mode is that the people playing it take it way too seriously: I spent more time taking trash-talk from my team than I did the opposing players. That’s just a personal gripe, but the gameplay far outweighs any negative aspects.
Overall, Left 4 Dead 2 is a superb package barring the AI deficiencies and the slight nagging feeling that you’ve seen this all before, like someone put a fresh coat of paint over your living room and told you it is brand new. If you look hard enough, you can find many of the same faults in the sequel as the original had, but those are so few and far between that it doesn’t really matter. Valve proved that they can apply their craft just as well in a year if they have a solid foundation to build upon which is what makes Left 4 Dead 2 such a great purchase. Just one question though: where the hell is Episode 3?!
That’s my Left 4 Dead 2 review, guys! Have you played this game, and for what system? What are your thoughts on Valve’s “bigger, better apocalypse?”
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