I admit, I wasn't too high on Left 4 Dead before the game was released but the demo got me hooked and I've been playing it constantly ever since. A majority of my nights after I put my son to bed was spent killing zombies with three strangers. It's one of the very few games I play online with people I don't know as it's a different experience each time with how people play as a team as well as the AI Director changing things around. I was really surprised to see Valve Software come out with a sequel so soon after the release of the first game but here we are with four brand new survivors, new Special Infected, new gameplay modes, and some updated graphics.
Left 4 Dead 2 tells the tale of Rochelle, Coach, Ellis, and Nick. Rochelle's a female news reporter, Coach coaches high school football, Ellis is a mechanic, and Nick is a gambler. The setting is now in the south where you'll fight through New Orleans and Georgia to name a few places. While the first one was connected very loosely between the four campaigns with Crash Course actually bridging campaign 1 and campaign 2, Left 4 Dead 2 actually features a story throughout the five campaigns. You'll still play through four or five levels in each campaign with an end sequence but there have been some improvements to make this game stand out from the previous installment.
The first campaign set in a mall has an end sequence that requires a lot more teamwork to succeed. No longer are you fighting off two rounds of zombies before you reach an escape vehicle. Oh, some campaigns still have that but in Dead Center, you're now taxed with filling up a car with 13 gas cans scattered throughout the three levels of the mall area. There are a few strategies to try and finish this one but if your team doesn't work together you can pretty much kiss your life goodbye. The zombie hordes aren't as numerous in this one but they do keep coming at you so you are better off finishing it as soon as possible. What was hinted at with Crash Course's final where you had to do a little task has been expanded here making it a chaotic experience that's really fun to play. Hard Rain features some great weather effects where the storm can get mighty strong at times limiting the amount of distance you can see ahead. Its unique feature is that you ran through the map in each direction. You start out heading towards a gas station to pick up some gas cans and then run back to signal the boat for rescue. The Parish's signature event is a run across a bridge to an awaiting helicopter. Of course, cars litter the roadway and the bridge isn't exactly in the best of shape. The tanks are pretty dangerous in this one as they can fling cars at you causing you to be down in one quick hit. Valve has tried and mixed up each campaign to play a little differently making it a more diverse experience, which I do appreciate.
One of the big additions to Left 4 Dead 2 is the use of melee weapons. In the first game, you could only push off but here you'll get an assortment of items to use against the zombies. You'll have to give up access to your hand gun though to do so but I feel it is worth it at times. The reason being is that like the Versus mode in Left 4 Dead, you can't constantly push back the zombies in co-op mode anymore. After a certain point, you'll stop and have to rest before you can push off again. That's where the melee weapons really become beneficial as you can swing those constantly without tiring out. Also, you're pretty guaranteed a kill on a regular zombie with most melee weapons equipped. It does seem items such as a frying pan, cricket bat, or baseball bat don't kill as often as say a machete or a katana sword so the latter two are the ones I usually choose when the choice is available. Back to the importance of melee weapons in Left 4 Dead 2, with the ability to swing constantly it makes for a pretty effective strategy to sit in a choke point and hack away at the incoming horde and at the same time save on ammunition.
New guns compliment the old ones available giving you more of a variety to choose from in this game. The original guns do appear in the game, but the new ones offer up some nice new choices of weapons to use. The grenade launcher offers some powerful damage but it slow to reload and you can't refill the ammo from caches. One of my favorites is the gun that's very similar to Counter-Strike's SG550 sniper rifle where it's continuous fire and powerful rounds can take out zombies with ease. While some of the guns are similar, you get a more diverse set to play with in the game.
With new guns comes some new ammo that they can use. Taking up your health pack slot, you can carry around a box of incendiary or explosive bullets with your until you want to deploy them. A player can deploy these to the group and each person grabbing some will get a limited number of these bullets to use in their main gun. Incendiary ammo will light those that hit on fire making it a nice one shot kill to regular zombies and doing perpetual damage to Specials before it gets extinguished or it dies. The explosive bullets really help against Specials as they can push them back. The witch is no longer a rushing juggernaut to you as you can make her stumble when you pounce on her with these bullets. It takes a little strategy to know when's a good time to deploy it and the one carrying it will have one less health item to use.
Along with new ammo, you can outfit your gun with a laser sight. It says it makes the gun more accurate and it might just do that when firing while standing or running instead of being crouched as I seem to be on target more with certain guns using the laser sight this way. It's a feature that's in a few mods that's out for the original game, but Valve decided to make it an official item here. You just can't outfit any pistol with the laser sight though which is a minor disappointment.
Another new item that I'm happy Valve incorporated is the defibrillator. In Left 4 Dead, death means you having to wait until enough time has passed for you to spawn inside a spawn room or the level changes. If you died on the last level, you're pretty much done for. Now, someone carrying the paddles can bring a dead Survivor back to life so they can fight again. It does take up a health pack slot like the ammo box so again, you'll need a person who's pretty good at not taking damage or one that uses a lot of pills to carry this around with them. It's great to be able to bring back a buddy quicker than waiting for them to respawn when things are hectic. It’ll take some time to use the defibrillator on a downed friend, but it's all the more worth it to keep your group numbers intact.
While the Molotov cocktail and pipe bomb return in the game, a new item to toss now is the bile bomb. These can be found on the shelf or dropped off by a zombie in a haz-mat suit. As the name suggests, the bile bomb is a jar containing the boomer's bile but now works for you rather than against you. Toss one of these babies and watch the horde of zombies come rushing to it like zombie catnap. Hit a few zombies or a tank and see the horde start pounding on the ones being slimed. It's won't cause any damage to your friends and offers up a relief against the horde or help against a Special Infected. It's one of the cooler new items and one I use a lot.
Three new Special Infected make their debut in Left 4 Dead 2 with the original five also making an appearance as well. The Spitter can shoot out acid at a pretty good distance and anyone being hit or stepping in the puddle will take some pretty hefty damage. Killing her will also leave a pool of acid for a short period of time so it's best to stay away until everything dies down. She seems to have an average amount of hit points but isn't too hard to take down. The Charger can be considered a mini-tank based on the size of it. What it does is it can run full speed and push the group apart as well as grabbing one of the Survivors and pound him into the ground constantly until killed. You're pretty much toast unless someone comes and takes cares the Charger but it doesn't take too many bullets to bring him down. I was surprised at how easy it was to kill one of these things and with the way the size and strength it exhibits, I would've expected a tougher kill. The Jockey is surprisingly hard to kill though based on the size of the thing as it takes more bullets than I thought it would. These guys jump on your head and try to guide you into danger such as a horde of zombies or fire. You can fight the Jockey by pushing in another direction but you'll need one of your friends to get him off. One of the funnier moments in the game was watching a Jockey lead one of my buddies right off the ledge and a fall to his death. All three are a great addition to the current four and found them to be different enough to make them fun to play both as and against.
You now have a nice diversity of zombies in the game but even the old breed gets some improvements. The hunter now dresses in shorts but keeps the hoodie when he leaps towards you in New Orleans. The smoker gets a new skin making it a little seedier with a more ugly looking tongue. Oh yes, there's now a female boomer who's as disgusting as you think she looks as well as the original male boomer. The witch looks a little different as well as the tank. Seeing new skins for familiar foes was a nice change for a player like me who has logged many, many hours on the original game.
While I didn't see much in terms of AI tweaking on the old crew, there were two changes that was pretty noticeable. Tanks, in the first game, usually tried to finish off a downed Survivor. It's at this point where the other three could just stand in front of it and unload their ammo on it. In Left 4 Dead 2, the tank will now go after any other upright Survivor after taking down one of them. Therefore, the strategy to just unload on a tank pounding on a Survivor is null and void in the second game. It does make getting the incapacitated Survivor up easier though as a remaining Survivor can lure a tank away while another brings him back to life. Witches will now walk around sometimes so don't expect them to just sit and cry in one place. They will still do that but you'll also have to be careful against the wandering kind as well. Sometimes this can be to your benefit as I've had a witch who initially was in the way wander around me and out of our path. So, two of the more dangerous Special Infected from the first game gets both a skin update and some behavioral update that changes it up a little. In Left 4 Dead, you were pretty much assured that when being attacked by multiple Special Infected, you would get a unique one. Not in Left 4 Dead 2 as I've experienced two hunters and chargers coming at us at the same time. It didn't happen too much but being attacked by multiple of the same Specials can be pretty tough depending on the combination. Two chargers really gave us a fit as they kept pushing the group and grabbing one of us. Now, you're a little more on your toes when you kill one Special Infected as another same one could be right around the corner if you're not expecting it. It also adds some variety to these sequences when the Specials attacks as you don't know what to expect now that there are any number of combinations of the six along with the witch and tank. Having to deal with multiple witches in the Hard Rain campaign does make for a nice challenge and seeing two witches chasing you at the same time is pretty intense.
The regular zombies also get some needed help from what's being billed as uncommon infected, which is pretty cool to see. For example, those in riot gear can't be shot from the front as you have to push them and turn them around to where you can shoot them in the back which is vulnerable. A couple of these in a pack of zombies can prove troublesome. Another group wears flame resistant clothing so tossing a Molotov or shooting them with incendiary bullets won't bring them down. Well, enough bullets would but it won't set these guys on fire. Clowns can bring about a small horde with them when they honk their noses, same as a Boomer would when it vomits on your but with lesser amount of zombies. Mud men attack and can obscure your vision with swamp mud while doing so. It adds a little bit more variety to the horde when one or a few of them show up to torment you.
Speaking of the regular zombies, they are now a little bit tougher in the second game. Before a shot taking off an arm would level one to the ground. Now, they have a chance of coming at you even with a lost arm. Legs being shot off still constitute a downed zombie though. One of the fun things to do is run up to a climbing zombie and slice both legs off with a katana or machete. The locational damage adds a little more variety to the kill and there's even an achievement for beheading a number of zombies with your melee weapon.
Two new game modes have been added offering up more ways to play in the sequel. Realism mode makes it so nothing is highlighted and no respawning is available as you can only bring your friends back to life with the defibrillator. Also, head shots do more damage and limb shots do a little less making aiming a little more important. You can play on any difficulty and it's a nice challenge for Left 4 Dead veterans to tackle. Just make sure you have a good team that talks a lot when you play this mode. Scavenge mode takes the end game of Dead Center, for example, and turns it into a three round affair. Like Versus mode, the teams are split into Survivors and Special Infected with the Survivors having to put 16 gas cans in the car. A timer is visible and should it run out the round is over. Adding gas to the car increases the time so you're racing against the clock and against the zombies. Another map for Scavenge forces you to keep a generator on with gas cans as well. It's a pretty fun game mode and one that you can quickly jump in for a few rounds, unlike Versus where it can take anywhere from a half hour to two hours to finish a full game. Speaking of Versus mode, it's nice that we get all the maps to play this mode out of the gate, unless the initial release of Left 4 Dead.
Even though the Source engine is starting to show a little bit of age, Valve made some tweaks to Left 4 Dead 2 to give it a little more visual flair. For starters, you can now shoot out zombies to expose their innards which is a cool effect. A nice shotgun blast to the chest and you'll see the muscle, ribcage, and intestines in plain sight. Once in a while, you'll see a zombie's intestine drag behind it as it walks towards you dying. I have to say it's pretty sweet to see a trail emanating from a dying zombie as it loses its insides along the way. In the first game, a group of zombies exploding from a pipe bomb produced a flash of blood sprouting from the middle. In Left 4 Dead 2, bodies fly now making it a much better effect when blowing up a group of the undead. In the dark, the zombies now have glowing eyes which make for a more eerie sight when they chase after you. The fire effects have also been improved as well making it more realistic. You can really see it in action on the first level of Dead Center where you run through a burning apartment building and fire burns all around you as you progress through a part of the building. Little improvements here and there make for a familiar looking game but with some added details that make Left 4 Dead II look better but not that much better than the original.
What wasn't improved in the engine was the Survivor AI as they are even dumber in this game than the first. If you played by yourself, you'll at least be able to finish a campaign on normal difficulty with three computer AI in tow. Not here as the more complex sequences and tougher enemies seem too much for the computer allies. It's definitely a game that's meant to be played with at least one other person if you want to succeed on normal and a full squad on higher difficulty. I, personally, rarely play without a few humans on the team but those that want to play through in single player mode be prepared to get frustrated at your teammates and don't look to get through to the rescue much.Critics of the first game that say it’s too repetitive might find the same with Left 4 Dead 2 though. You’ll still battle hordes of zombies as you walk through various locales but Valve has tried to change things up a little with events scattered in the middle of the campaigns such as rushing to turn off an alarm or running an entire rollercoaster track to turn off the ride and stop alerting the horde. Again, it’s not a big change from the previous game but they did manage to tweak and adjust many little things to, I think, create a better experience on the whole and make it not so repetitive in the end.
Playing on a modest computer setup consisting of a Q9660 cpu, 4 gigs of ram, a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 275 video card, and running Windows 7 64-bit, the game ran pretty well at 1680x1050 with 4xAA enabled. As with my preview, I tried the final game out with NVIDIA's GeForce 3D Vision and the experience was still the same with the floating crosshairs that was distracting. The rest of the 3D performance, though, worked out really well and it was fun to go through the various levels in true 3D using the system. Since the system has to render each frame twice to produce the 3D effect, you'll need a good powered system to get smooth performance. With my system, you could see noticeable slow down when a very large group of the horde came rushing in but it wasn't to a point where it was unplayable. Once NVIDIA comes out with a profile to fix the crosshairs in the game, then I'll definitely be playing Left 4 Dead 2 with the shutter glasses but for now, I'll keep them off until the little quirks have been worked out.
While Left 4 Dead 2 only took a year to come out, it definitely offers up a lot to warrant a full price purchase. With the many additions and changes to the gameplay, Left 4 Dead 2 does feel different yet familiar at the same time. It's a much more polished game to the first one and those that enjoy Left 4 Dead will no doubt find Left 4 Dead 2 fun as well. I'm going to assume Valve will continue to support Left 4 Dead 2 like they did for the first game and other Valve games in their library so you can expect to get more than your money's worth out of the purchase. As a fan of the original, I found Left 4 Dead 2 to be a great, great follow up offering up more zombie co-op killing fun that should last you a long time. It's another quality release from Valve and one that I am sure I'll find myself on for many, many hours.