Unlike most other shooters, Left 4 Dead hinges on cooperative multiplayer. You and three friends must shoot, tear and slash through an unrelenting mass of raging zombies. From the moment you leave the safe house to the final rescue chopper, you are completely dependent on each other and constantly hunted by special boss zombies that behave with their own aggressive, strategizing intelligence. Thanks to Valve’s omniscient “AI Director,” the zombies spawn differently every time, the special infected try alternative attacks, and even weapon drops are changed based on your performance. This makes every single playthrough slightly different, and the resultant strategy to survive much more organic and integral than any other FPS on the market. Just like Street Fighter is much more than mashing on buttons, Left 4 Dead is far more than mindless shooting. Played properly, L4D offers 100+ hours of unrivaled co-op insanity.
Above: Ellis, Coach, Rochelle and Nick, just trying to stay alive
Surprisingly, Left 4 Dead 2 is able to out-gore, out-scare and out-explode the original in just about every way. Instead of a very grey, kinda boring cityscape, you’re running through hotels, swamps, plantations, riverfronts, malls, abandoned highways, amusement parks… we could go on. The diversity is staggering and ultimately makes each movie-like campaign more exciting, tense and memorable than the first game.
Above: Eerie sunsets and daylight make the horde even more frightening
There’s also a sense of immediacy to the new campaigns not present in the original. L4D2 begins just as the government realizes the infection is widespread and not containable, so you see evidence of the underwhelming CEDA response (that’s a knock at FEMA, btw), and eventually the military’s “blow it to hell” ultimatum. This makes the entire trip, from Dead Center (a blazing hotel) to The Parish (an amazing scramble across a bombed bridge) a hellish nightmare of not just the zombie apocalypse, but also how harshly the outside world is willing to deal with the threat.
This in-your-face, “apocalypse in action” scenario is further bolstered by the addition of vicious melee weapons like crowbars, axes and katanas. Regardless of how good you are, at some point there’s gonna be a wall of zombie flesh up in your shit, scratching and pounding without rest. Normally you’d have to shove them back, shoot and turn to help your friends out. Now you can swing blindly and chop these guys into bloody stumps. Seriously, the blood and gore are much, much nastier this time around.
Above: You’ll see spines, guts, brains - all kinds of innards flying around
And finally, no zombie game/movie/book is complete without a shrieking, rusty chainsaw. Mysteriously absent from the first game, you can now get your zomberjack fix in the most gloriously violent manner possible.
The amped intensity, combined with new guns, items and infected, would have made for a strong successor. But Valve didn’t just push the “sequel” button and give us the same shit on a different day. Next page we’ll explain why.
Each campaign is divided into chapters (five usually, though Dead Center and Swamp Fever have four), and somewhere in there is an “event” moment where you have to trigger something loud enough to attract an entire horde. The typical strategy was to hole up in a corner and wait for either the rescue vehicle to arrive or for the horde to dissipate. Now, not only do the Charger and Spitter force you to break up, you also have to accomplish actual goals while the whole place goes to hell around you. It’s no longer just about surviving.
Above: Dead Center ends with you gathering gas for this supercar
Above: Tactical cola extraction marks the first time we loved a fetch quest
Above: Hard Rain ends with a disorienting, blustery tropical storm
So, not only are the locales new and exciting, but the game’s most famous feature has been radically altered. The original’s crescendos required minutes of preparation, from placement to equipment to overall battle plan. Now, you barely have time for any of that, as there’s now an alarm to deactivate or a roller coaster to run. Yes, there are still a few “normal” events, but we’re incredibly pleased with the variation.
Above: Gas cans are quite far apart, so you have to stick together
There are several gas cans littered around a small area, and the survivors must venture out for them to keep a generator running. Once the timer runs out, the round ends and you switch sides. On the surface it’s like versus, as the special infected have all the same tricks (Smokers pull you away, Hunters pin you, Jockeys force you in a different direction etc) but now you’re impeding an actual process instead of the survivor’s quick run to the end of the map. Furthermore, Spitters can ignite cans when they’re held, or spit a glob of burning acid right over the generator, preventing the humans from filling for a few seconds.
Above: As the special infected, it's your job to mess with the survivors
As with versus, you have to learn the nuances of the special infected to truly appreciate the balance. We heard a lot of complaints about L4D’s vs mode, usually that the specials were too weak, died too fast or were too hard to use effectively. All those are true, but learning how to pull off amazing combo attacks is part of the charm. Scavenge takes this one step further by allowing you to execute elaborate plans built to stop the survivors cold.
Obviously we weren’t able to play truly online (game’s just out today, after all), so we can’t comment on matchmaking or the new team making options. Odds are they won’t affect the score or magically be so bad we’d have to revisit the review, but just for honesty’s sake, we played in a Valve-controlled environment and it worked just fine.
They take forever to save you from special infected, usually running all the way up and shooting instead of shoving them away like a human player would. Or they dick around outside the safe room while you scream “GET IN THE GOD DAMN DOOR FUUUUUUUUUUUUU” for 30 seconds. Or, in this wonderful scene, they fail to do anything when a witch incapacitates and kills us.
The rest of our concerns are slight, but do add up. There’s a grip of new weapons, most of which are forgettable and nearly indistinguishable from one another. They do have small pros and cons, but we play that shit on expert and rarely found a need to stray from the tactical shotgun/assault rifle combo from L4D.
Above: But the grenade launcher is badass
Level design is somewhat confusing too. The maps are expertly laid out so there’s a few different ways to tackle them each time, but the first trip through is unnecessarily labyrinthine. We know to run up these stairs or through that alley, but what clue was there that some random door, that looks like every other door, was the one and only way through this area? Meanwhile, the horde has spawned, a Jockey pulled someone away and a Charger smashed Ellis up against the wall. Game over.
Finally, and this is definitely subjective, L4D2 feels considerably harder than the first game. Specials spawn more frequently (we feel) and coordinate better than they did in the first title. The zombies themselves tend to run in front of you and surround faster and more efficiently than before too, making even a regular group a hazard if you’re playing on Advanced or Expert. Then there’s the Realism mode, which takes away highlighted objects and cranks the damage levels from “wow, really?” to “OK I quit.”
Fun for some, ruthless for everyone else.
We did want to give a special shoutout to the aforementioned Achievements though, as they’re part of the driving force that keeps you playing (aside from the Director’s random decisions). Dark Carnival alone has four specific goals to shoot for, like punching 10 clowns in the face or using an adrenaline shot to pound a “test your might” attraction.
Above: But our favorite’s Gnome Chompski
God damn that thing. You win it by beating a shooting gallery, and then have to carry it through the rest of the campaign. Yes, all five chapters. It’s quite a task, and a perfect example of how developers can use Achievements (or Trophies) to suck us in well after the credits have rolled. We were already planning on playing this for dozens of hours, and now we have 1000 reasons to go beyond.
Modern Warfare 2? Depends. They're not the same at all, but as the fall’s two premier shooters there are bound to be comparisons. Both contain senses-shattering spectacles, violence galore and exemplify multiplayer heaven, so it’s more your call than ours. Do you want a more strategic take on shooters, or do you prefer bullet-bathed Free-For-All?
Borderlands? Yes. Again, markedly different experiences, but in our eyes L4D2 offers more gameplay variation and more guaranteed entertainment than the MMO-esque Borderlands. As fun as it is, four-player Borderlands is quite the grind-fest, leading to more than a few hours of repetitive tasks. Churning zombie faces into paste never has to worry about getting stale.