Publisher: Electronic Arts
Also on: N/A (Xbox 360 exclusive)
Release Date: Friday November 20th 2009
Age Rating: BBFC 18
It must be a thankless task, creating a sequel to a hugely popular game. You’re faced with a big conundrum – do you make lots of changes to the game, and risk alienating your established fan base, or do you play it safe and create a game that plays virtually the same as the original, and risk the wrath of fans that are looking for greater changes? It’s choices like these that must have run through the minds of the developers at Valve when they sat down to create Left 4 Dead 2, and what they came up with is much more an evolution of the first game rather than a revolution. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing will largely depend on your opinion of the original game, and whether you’re ready for more of the same.
When Left 4 Dead was released last year, it became an instant hit thanks to its combination of fast paced action and co-operative gameplay. The ability to co-op through the various campaigns with 4 players proved to be a big pull for many gamers, and the added bonus of the 8 player Versus mode which allowed gamers to play as the special infected enemies was just the icing on the cake. The sequel follows the same basic formula, with the campaign mode seeing a group of 4 new survivors making their way through the various campaigns looking to remain alive. The Versus mode makes a return, alongside the Survival mode which was released via downloadable content, as well as a brand new mode called Scavenge. We’ll start by looking at the meat of the game, which is the Campaign mode.
For those out there who missed the original game and perhaps haven’t paid too much attention to the series, here’s a quick overview. You play as one of four survivors trying to escape from the clutches of the Infected, humans who have been struck by a rabies-like disease causing them to lose all rational thought and to try to kill any non-infected humans they see. The Infected come in several variations, from the common infected (standard enemies) to the various special infected, such as the Boomer, Hunter, Tank, Witch and more. Each special infected has its own unique attacks and abilities and any of them can easily cause a lot of damage to unsuspecting survivors. The Boomer will spit bile on you that attracts a horde of common infected, the Hunter can pounce on you from great distances and tear you to shreds, the Tank behaves just like he sounds, needing some heavy firepower to take him down, while the Witch can easily kill you in a single hit if you’re unfortunate enough to disturb her.
The campaign mode follows the same basic formula from the first game. Each campaign is made up of 4 or 5 chapters, with the aim of each chapter to get from the start of the level to the safe house at the end, or in the final chapter, to escape to safety. While the game is pretty linear, each chapter feels big enough to give the impression of different ways to tackle each area. You would think that a selection of linear levels would get old pretty quickly, but that isn’t the case here thanks to the AI Director Valve has created to watch over and control the action. The Director will look over the game as you’re playing it and dynamically change things up to make things easier or harder, or just to inspire you to keep moving. If you’re lingering in one place for too long, the Director may just send a horde of common infected at you. Find yourself struggling for health or ammunition? You may well find some just around the corner. The Director can even change the layout of the levels slightly if it’s deemed necessary. The way the Director works means that no two games will ever be the same, and should you find yourself performing better or worse than usual, the game will adjust itself slightly to keep things interesting. It’s an excellent gameplay feature that ensures replayability even when you’re completely familiar with the layout of each level.
Just like in the first game, Left 4 Dead 2 is a game best enjoyed with a group of friends. While there are bots available to play with if you’d rather go through the game on your own, and they do a pretty decent job of providing support to you, that is all they do – provide support. You’re still expected to lead the way and they’ll follow you, attacking any infected they see, healing you and each other if you need it, reviving you if you go down, and generally being useful without even being outstanding. It’s still a far cry from having 4 friends playing together online, and this is where Left 4 Dead really shines. Out of all of the games on the market today, I can’t think of any that embraces the idea of teamwork and co-operation like Left 4 Dead does. Surviving through the campaigns, especially on the Expert difficulty, will require proper teamwork from players. Calling out for help, coordinating attacks, informing each other of weapons and ammo, all of this is key in a good team. This becomes even more important when you consider that the Special Infected can easily kill stragglers who have decided to go off and do their own thing, or get left behind. It creates a wonderful atmosphere when you know a single mistake as a team can cause you major problems.
Thankfully you’ll never find yourself too short on weaponry to defend yourself with. You can carry a primary and a secondary weapon at the same time, with the primary weapon coming in the form of various shotguns, rifles and automatic weapons, while the secondary weapon will either be some kind of handgun or, new to the series, melee weapons. The melee weapons, while being a fairly minor addition, offer a new level of variety that wasn’t in the first game, with weapons such as swords, axes, guitars and chainsaws all being available for you to use to slice, dice and bash the infected into submission. As you go through the campaign you’ll find improved versions of each weapon, so your hunting rifle can be replaced by a sniper rifle, your Uzi can be replaced with an assault rifle, and so forth. You’ll also have a few different weapons to toss towards the enemies as well. The Molotov cocktail works exactly how it should, setting everything around it on fire. The pipe bomb has a smoke alarm attached to it which attracts all the infected to it, which can often lead to more than 10 of them being killed at once. We also have a new weapon, the Bile Jar. This works exactly like the bile the Boomers will spit on you, only it will cause the infected to attack anything it hits, which proves very handy if you manage to tag a Tank with one before it decimates your entire team.
One thing I really like about the campaign mode this time around is the way the 5 campaigns are now linked together. In the first game each campaign was its own unique story, but in Left 4 Dead 2 you’ll find the ending of one campaign leads directly to the start of the next, hopefully leading to your ultimate escape. You may find yourself escaping one campaign in a souped up stock car, only to find at the start of the next campaign that the car is now out of gas and you need to try to find alternate means of transportation. The new characters here also add an extra small layer of polish to the game, as they have much more to say and are not afraid of sharing their stories as you progress through the various campaigns.
Should you ever tire of killing the various infected enemies, and perhaps fancy killing the survivors instead, then the Versus mode is perfect for you. Played by up to 8 people, the groups split into teams of 4, one half playing as the survivors, the others playing as the various Special Infected. As you play through the missions, each team will attempt the level twice, once as each side, trying to either kill all of the survivors to win the round, or to reach the end of the level safely. The way this mode is handled, swapping players from the survivors to the infected and back again, stops players from getting bored of perhaps playing the same side every time. The fact that you’re randomly assigned any of the Special Infected characters to take control of (bar the Witch who is completely non-playable) means that you’ll have to use different tactics throughout the game to take advantage of the unique abilities of each Special Infected. Even here as the Infected, you’ll need to use teamwork and co-ordination if you want to achieve some spectacular results. Using the Spitter to fire an acid pool at the survivors, then using a Jockey to ride a survivor and direct him into that acid is a surefire way to inflect massive damage really quickly on anyone unfortunate enough to not get out of the way quickly enough.
The 4 against 4 action continues in the new Scavenge mode. Rather than being set in complete levels, the areas are more compact without the need to travel from the start to the end of a level. Instead, the Survivors are tasked with finding and collecting the various gas tanks that are strewn about the level, using them to power a generator to keep the game going. Just like in the other modes, team work will be key here as you try to collect the gas tanks, protecting the people carrying them, dropping them off ledges to other players waiting below, and trying to avoid accidentally shooting them and causing them to explode. The matches are a best of three affair, and just like in the Versus mode you’ll find yourself swapping sides as you play, keeping the action fresh.
The graphics in Left 4 Dead were never the best available on the Xbox 360, and though they are improved slightly for the sequel, that still holds true. Built using Valve’s Source engine, the animations of the infected has been improved here, giving them a more realistic look about them. They’ll tear apart satisfyingly as you slice, dice and shoot them, letting you shoot off limbs and watching them fall over with only one leg. The game does suffer from the occasional touch of slowdown, which is perhaps unsurprising when you consider how many enemies can be on screen at once, but it’s very infrequent and doesn’t hurt the action. The music here is also of a high quality, with appropriately creepy music which changes dynamically as you play, with audio clues popping up whenever there are Special Infected nearby. The voice acting is also very well done here, with each new character having more depth thanks to the improved dialogue.
Final Thoughts: Left 4 Dead 2 does what all good sequels should do – it takes what was good about the first game and improves it without compromising what made the original game so much fun. As the gameplay here is so similar to Left 4 Dead, if you played the original and didn’t like it, then this is very unlikely to change your mind. However, if you did enjoy the first game, then there is little doubt that you’ll love the sequel. If you have a love for cooperative gameplay then you simply can’t afford to let this pass you by without giving it a whirl. The action is fast, furious, barely gives you time to breathe, and is quite simply fantastic fun to play. Get yourself some friends and prepare to have a blast.
Story – 8: There’s not so much a story to speak of in regards to the pathogen that infected everyone to begin with, but the characters tell their own stories throughout the game which makes them much more memorable than the characters in the original game.
Gameplay – 9: The Director keeps the action flowing and will change the levels on the fly as needed to keep the levels challenging. The new melee weapons give you extra ways to kill things, which is always welcome.
Graphics – 8: The Source engine is perhaps starting to show its age now, but that doesn’t stop Left 4 Dead 2 being a pretty game to look at. There’s plenty going on at once to look at, and watching infected run around covered in flames never gets old.
Sound – 9: A dynamically changing score helps create an excellent atmosphere, while the audio will clue you in whenever a Special Infected is nearby. Great voice work too.
Overall – 9: Left 4 Dead 2 isn’t a game that will appeal to everyone, as the gameplay is pretty basic when you break it down – get to the end of the level, killing everything in your path. If you don’t play games online then this might not be worth a purchase as you’ll be missing out on the main appeal of the game, which is the cooperative nature of the gameplay. If cooperative gameplay in any way appeals to you, then Left 4 Dead 2 is definitely something you should look to pick up.