Left 4 Dead had one of the best multiplayer experiences ever seen in gaming. It didn’t matter that the game was light on plot and had no real single-player mode; any problems with Left 4 Dead were overlooked by the sheer fun of fighting the zombie apocalypse with a few friends. Because the game was one of my favorites of 2008, I was excited when Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2 earlier this year, despite the sequel coming unusually fast for the developer. Unlike some people, it never occurred to me to be worried or upset by the move; I got much more than $60 worth of value out of Left 4 Dead, and expected to do so with the sequel. My enthusiasm was warranted, and once again I find myself overlooking flaws and forgoing all other games to fight zombies night after night.
Once again, there isn’t much of a plot in Left 4 Dead 2. You will take the role of one of four survivors in the southern United States, trying desperately to stay alive against all odds as you make your way from Savannah, Georgia, to New Orleans. The new survivors are Rochelle, Ellis, Nick, and Coach, and each has a distinct personality. Ellis likes to tell long-winded stories about his childhood, while Coach enjoys singing along to his favorite band, The Midnight Riders. Rochelle, though seemingly a nice Southern girl, shouts “nothing to see, no health here!” upon finding first aid, and Nick’s a gambler in a white suit. The lack of plot development actually makes sense within the context of the game. As the player, you only know what the survivors know: there has been some kind of outbreak, turning normal people into flesh-hungry monsters. Bits of information are revealed with writing on walls of abandoned houses and safe rooms, and with the often-humorous dialogue that occurs between teammates.
The basic gameplay from Left 4 Dead has been carried over to Left 4 Dead 2, but there have been some tweaks and additions along the way. With five campaigns across state lines, each one with four or five chapters, there is a good deal of variety. The environments have been designed to be more open, giving players options of which way to go and making it easier to get separated. It’s simple to get left behind in “Dark Carnival”, while you take the time to check out the carnival games, and the murky waters in “Swamp Fever” make it more difficult to keep up with the group. Furthermore, Left 4 Dead 2 adds daylight and weather, two elements never seen in the first game. While the added visibility of sunlight may give you a false sense of security, you’re in just as much danger as you would be at night—zombies don’t care what time it is. The ever-increasing downpour in the “Hard Rain” campaign, meanwhile, heightens the suspense and feeling of danger, making it difficult to see and slowing down your team.
One of the things that made Left 4 Dead so much fun was the Director, the behind-the-scenes force pulling the strings. The Director would send hordes and Tanks your way if you were having too easy a time in a level, or dole out health and ammo if you were struggling. In Left 4 Dead 2, the Director 2.0 is a bit more sadistic. The game is definitely harder, even on Normal difficulty, though I was able to complete each campaign several times with various live and AI teammates. In particular, the finale of “Dark Carnival” gave me the most trouble; in one incident, we had to face two hordes right outside the safe room after restarting half a dozen times. Overall, it seems like Valve really wanted to heighten the difficulty, but sometimes this can lead to frustration.
Like in L4D, there are four difficulty settings—Easy, Normal, Advanced, and Expert—but during the campaign, players can turn on Realism mode, which makes everything a lot more difficult. Realism eliminates the outlines around players and makes the undead a lot harder to kill. You don’t realize how important those blue and red lines are until one of your teammates is crying for help while pinned by a Hunter and you have no idea where he is. It’s definitely a challenge, and requires more teamwork and communication than usual, but gamers who found Expert too easy (and yes, they do exist) will enjoy this ultra-difficult gameplay mode.
More types of Special Infected add a lot to the game as well. The Hunters, Smokers, Boomers, and Tanks from the first game are prominent down south, and they’ve got some new friends. The Spitter, as the name implies, spits acid onto the ground, which continually drains your health if you remain in it; this pretty much eliminates the old “hole up in a corner” strategy of Left 4 Dead, because she makes it impossible to stay in any one spot for too long. The Jockey will jump on a player’s head, leading him away from the rest of the group, which makes it easier for the infected to overwhelm everyone. The Charger, who at first glance looks like a smaller version of the Tank, has one oversized arm used to ram and pummel survivors. Additionally, level-specific “uncommon infected”, such as zombies in riot gear or Hazmat suits, are harder to kill than regular zombies. Then of course, perhaps the most terrifying is the Witch, who not only wails to alert you of her horrifying presence, but also wanders around a small area, and will knock you down or kill you instantly, depending on your difficulty setting.
In order to deal with all of these new zombies, the players have plenty of new weapons at their disposal. The addition of melee weapons, which replace your pistols if you choose to use them, are one of the biggest changes in the game, and help level the playing field against the undead. It is immensely satisfying to swing an axe at a surrounding horde, watching heads and limbs fly, as well as hearing the satisfying “clang” that a frying pan makes when used to bash a zombie’s head in. You can still carry one or two pistols as secondary weapons if you prefer something with a little more range, but I found melee items to be invaluable, especially when running through groups of zombies. Boomer bile joins pipe bombs and molotovs as a new projectile, and throwing it at any area—or any enemy—redirects the horde’s attention. There are new support items too; adrenaline makes you run and heal faster, while the defibrillator can revive dead friends. Rounding out the extra weapons is explosive ammunition, which can be picked up and deployed by any of the survivors. The new attack options do more than just give players a few new things to pick up along the way; they make Left 4 Dead 2 feel like a whole new experience.
While it is possible to play through the game with three computer-controlled teammates, Left 4 Dead 2 was made to be experienced with other people. Survivor AI is not great, and though your AI teammates may have good aim, they’ll often walk past you while you’re on the ground, or fail to save you from a Smoker or Charger. Once again, up to four players can play cooperatively in each campaign, and there’s an eight-player Versus mode. Versus works basically the same, with one team taking the roles of Special Infected and the other being survivors. However, the additional weapons and types of infected make for a much more fun Versus experience than the first game offered. The new Special Infected and updated scoring system make Versus more balanced this time around; players get points based on how far they make it through a level, not just making it to the safe room. Special Infected can also earn points for incapacitating players. Survival Mode also makes a return in Left 4 Dead 2, with players trying to stay alive as wave after wave of infected come after them. The only new mode is Scavenge, a competitive four-on-four option that has a team of survivors attempting to collect gas cans while the infected try to stop them. Scavenge was probably my least favorite of all the gameplay modes, but is still fun when played with the right group of people. The only major problem with the game’s multiplayer is the lag that occurs over Xbox Live when playing on dedicated servers. Switching to local servers seems to eliminate the issue most of the time, but makes jumping into a quick match more annoying than it should be.
Though Left 4 Dead wasn’t a bad-looking game, it definitely didn’t push the 360 to its graphical limits. Left 4 Dead 2, on the other hand, is incredibly polished, and the improvements are visible instantly. Attacking zombies will leave visible wounds; rib cages will be exposed with a gunshot to the midsection, while hacking away with an axe or machete will result in slash marks, the loss of limbs, or beheading. The undead who converge on a pipe bomb will explode in a flurry of entrails, and corpses remain on the ground a little longer. The gory effects are a great touch, and make the experience even more immersive. Audio cues alert you to the incoming horde or Tank, with the Special Infected making distinct sounds. Unlike some games, where the sound seems like an afterthought, Left 4 Dead 2 simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
Left 4 Dead 2 has followed in its predecessor’s footsteps, quickly becoming a multiplayer obsession. With five campaigns, more enemies, better weapons, and plenty of challenges, you will probably still be playing this game well into 2010. There are a few issues, but these are easy to overlook when the gameplay is so fun and satisfying. Once again, Valve has made the zombie apocalypse one of the best experiences of the year.