Written by Zack Cain and Seb Parker.
On Nov. 17th 2008, Valve released the zombie game to end all zombie games, Left 4 Dead (read our review of the original here). Though many gamers firmly believe it’s a cult classic, it wasn’t without its flaws. The complaints mainly focus on it being an unfinished product. DLC was promised in the form of new characters, new infected, new campaigns and new modes. Then it happened. Only six months after release, a sequel was announced. Many gamers, primarily PC/Steam players, were angry, to put it lightly. They felt Valve had broken their promise of releasing DLC for the original. Valve then went on to release Survivor mode and the Crash Course campaign L4D, with the promise of more to come. However, neither of these quite had the weight people had hoped for. So the question on everybody’s lips is "does Left 4 Dead 2 deserve to be DLC, or the retail game that it is today?" Read on to find out!
Anyone that has played the original L4D will know the story is virtually non-existent. We hate to have to tell you this, but not much has changed. Coach, Ellis, Nick and Rochelle make up the new team. Coach, a former defensive lineman in college, had to settle for a career in teaching after a nasty knee injury. Ellis, the mechanic, is stupid but incredibly endearing. Nick is a self-confessed conman, and Rochelle a producer for a news radio station, who’s taken on the zombie apocalypse to further her career. We wouldn’t have known any of this had we not read the manual, as like the first game all you have to go on in order to work out the characters’ personalities and pasts is their dialogue, and even then it’s rare you’ll hear something of note. Valve, again, messed up big time here. We understand why L4D and L4D2 have a cut up campaign. We get it, it’s a multiplayer game and you want us to play with friends. But there is no reason why Valve can’t keep the campaign layout the way it is for multiplayer and create a more unified, solid, story rich campaign for single player. Cut scenes, like the one found when you load up the game, would have been be much appreciated as well.
As you can imagine, Valve have not made any sweeping changes to the main gameplay, instead using the past year to perfect all the niggles the first game had, adding more modes, more weapons, and a host of other improvements. The most exciting addition is melee weapons, including axes, crowbars, electric guitars, and even frying pans! As far as damage goes they’re all pretty similar, though the chainsaw is a force to be reckoned with - it does have a gas meter, but it’s fairly generous. These won’t necessarily overhaul the way you play, but it does add a fun factor to the game. Our favourite has to be the machete though, brutal. Other attack items new to the scene are Boomer Bile, if you haven’t guessed it already, it’s a bottle of Boomer vomit. Throw said bottle onto whatever you like (even a Boomer itself!), and the zombies will ravage it. Laser sights and explosive and incendiary ammo also add to the variety. New defense items leave you in a dilemma - the defibrillator units are a life saver, quite literally, but they take the place of your med kit. Adrenaline shots offer a 25% health boost, which is less than Pain Pills, but then it also gives you an energy boost, enabling you to run through hordes and use items in half the time.
We can’t be the only ones that think the real stars of the L4D series are the special infected, and with the 3 new additions, there’s quite the variety. The Charger will run at the survivors very quickly and keep going until it hits an obstacle. If he manages to grab a survivor along the way he’ll drag them along and continuously pound them into the floor.The Jockey uses a lunge attack and jumps onto the back of a survivor, and then manoeuvres them into danger. Survivors can resist, but it’s not an easy task. Lastly, the Spitter uses a toxic spit to break up team mates and incur damage. We have to take our hats off to Valve, as these infected may not seem totally original on paper, but in Versus mode it allows for some good tactics amongst the infected team. For instance, say the infected team have a Hunter, a Boomer, a Spitter and a Charger. The Charger can charge into as many survivors as possible in one stroke, then the Spitter can to split the team into 2 groups, with the Hunter on the same side as the charger and the Boomer puking on the other two.
Tanks seem to be more numerous - we had to face off against what seemed like one after the other in the finale of the Dead Centre campaign on one occasion. Witches are also in abundance, as they now roam the streets in the daytime. The other infected are in as well, with some slight appearance changes, but nothing too drastic. All in all the infected team is deadly this time around. As well as the new special infected, there are also ‘uncommon common infected’, which are specific to each campaign. For example, the Dark Carnival campaign, which is set largely in a theme park, has killer zombie clowns which tend to lead the horde.
A.I. Director 2.0 really shakes things up in that if you’re doing too well, you’ll get a hard time. You’ll get weaker weapons and harder special infected. On the other end of the scale, if you’re not doing so well you’ll be let off a bit. The overall game seems more difficult than the original; it’s not as pick up and play as the first, which in a funny kind of way makes the game actually feel more like a finished product. The Director also controls pathways, weather and enemy population. A great improvement all round. Crescendo events add further challenge to an already advanced A.I. In fact, instead of pushing a button, then running to the corner and defending yourself, you actually have to do something, like deliver a 6 pack of cola to a man barricaded in a safe house, or fill a generator with gas. This is a great improvement over the original, and it’s also where the game's core focus - teamwork - comes to light.
There are five campaigns in L4D2, as opposed to four in the original. But more than that, the campaigns here are much more varied and interesting. With the possible exception of Swamp Fever and Hard Rain, which blend together a little too easily, all of the campaigns are brilliantly distinct and each one has a truly stand out moment. The Parish, for example, sees you fighting your way across a huge, mangled suspension bridge, chocked full of abandoned vehicles and zombies (including a tank). Meanwhile, the Hard Rain campaign has you trekking through a witch-infested map whilst torrential rainstorms intermittently break out, severely reducing your vision, slowing your movements to a crawl thanks to the knee-high water level, and drowning out many of the familiar and helpful warning sounds that you come to take for granted throughout the rest of game. The rollercoaster crescendo in Dark Carnival is particularly enjoyable, and that campaign’s finale is certainly unique to say the least. In fact, there are so many more stand-out moments in L4D2 that it’s hard to pick just a handful of examples.
Although solid, the graphics are still dated by today’s blockbuster standards, and minor graphical glitches, such as zombies gliding over the ground towards you or clipping through solid objects on occasion, are blots on an otherwise immersive experience. There are of course areas of improvement, and the series has undergone a host of minor changes. The increased level of gore is a nice touch, particularly when coupled with the new melee weapons and improved zombie dismemberment effects. Environments feel more alive and detailed. All of this, alongside campaigns which have a lot more personality, adds up to a much more visually impressive game.
The familiar theme music returns, although this time it’s given a slight twist that suits the new locales in a fun, and somewhat clichéd kind of way. Some may balk at the change initially, but it soon becomes second nature. The context sensitive music, sound effects and audio cues are still there (assuming you’re not playing in Realism mode) and function in exactly the same way as before.
Your first playthrough of all five campaigns, on the Normal difficulty setting, should come to a total of around five hours. There is clearly more content this time around, but so there should be; the lack of fresh content with Left 4 Dead at launch was woeful. As well as an extra campaign and more enjoyable maps, there are also two new multiplayer modes. Realism mode is essentially the campaign played through with an extra layer of difficulty and certain player advantages stripped away. Items aren't so clearly highlighted, normal infected absorb more damage, and most importantly there are no more auras around players, so if you lose sight of your team and fail to guess their direction of travel... well, it probably won’t end well. Combine these handicaps with the new special infected, particularly the Jockey, and you can see how Realism Mode will completely change your approach to the game. It adds a whole new level of challenge and makes teamwork more essential than ever.
The final new mode is called Scavenge and has you and your team rushing around collecting gas cans, which are littered around one of six different maps, in order to power a generator, which adds precious seconds to a countdown timer. Meanwhile the other team, consisting of special infected, attempts to stop them. The team which collects the most gas cans wins. It’s quite a simple mode, but surprisingly addictive and strategic at the same time. It also offers a fast paced alternative to the standard Versus Mode.
Speaking of which - the Survival and Versus modes both return, as you would expect. There are 10 survival maps in total. For those who aren’t familiar with the original game, Survival Mode basically does what it says on the tin – the aim is to survive wave after wave of increasingly tough and numerous zombie hordes and special infected teams. It’s by far the weakest mode on offer and isn’t nearly as much fun as you might imagine, but it’s good for a few games. Versus Mode has much more staying power. One team of four plays through the campaign as the survivors, whilst a second team play as the special infected and attempt to thwart their attempts to reach the safe room. The teams then swap positions. The three new special infected are all playable in Versus alongside the existing ones, and they slot perfectly into the mix thanks to their special attacks which encourage even more co-ordination and teamwork. What’s more, it also means you’re highly unlikely to end up constantly spawning as the hunter over and over again.
Left 4 Dead 2 suitably improves on almost every aspect of the first game. Everything that was good about the original returns – the superb gameplay has now been augmented with melee weapons and additional equipment, all of which slot perfectly into the mix, as do the three new special infected. The campaigns are much more varied and distinct this time around, and although, once again, the graphics aren’t stellar, the increased gore and dismemberment effects look fantastic. The complete omission of cut scenes and genuine story for the second time is a huge disappointment, and as ever we could have done with more campaigns so that maybe, just maybe, the amount of content on offer finally begins to match the series’ immense replayability. That said, there’s still no doubt in our minds that Left 4 Dead 2 is a more complete experience and a must-have for fans of the original.