Considering just how long Valve takes to make any kind of content, Left 4 Dead 2 should’ve taken 2 years to develop – 2.5 years tops. So it’s a miracle how they’ve managed to shove in five campaigns, more than doubled the amount of weaponry, added in two new gameplay modes, and even rectified just about every single nitpick and outstanding issue its predecessor had. Valve did it in just under a year. So, where the hell is Episode Three?
"It’s better than the first in almost every single way."
I digress. Left 4 Dead 2 is an awesome game. It’s better than the first in almost every single way. It makes a few controversial narrative decisions, like taking the setting to the south and recasting all four members. It was never a decision I dug all the way up to release, but save for the vapid Rochelle, the new members are great. Coach’s infinite appetite and the nicknames and descriptors he gives to all the special infected are genuinely funny, Nick’s sardonic nature towards everybody and everything gets a few chuckles, and Ellis takes center stage with his endless stories and constant remarks on just about everything. They’ll never replace my fondness for the original four, but the new cast doesn’t make me pine for the original four to be in Left 4 Dead 2 at all.
The story also expands just a bit; government intervention is more prominent, and the graffiti on the safe-houses and terse blurbs from the survivors shed some more light onto the situation. It’s just enough, and, once again, it’s great just how well Valve managed to integrate the single-player qualities of their games with their multi-player ones. It’s the kind of care that adds a whole new layer of atmosphere and believability, and it makes the game more than just a game about blasting the living daylights out of everything. It makes the panic of fending off a horde that much more chaotic and the base emotional response to simply survive that much more palpable.
All five campaigns are a blast. Dead Center’s dimly lit malls, and Dark Carnival’s carnival and completely rocking finale are such obvious things that should be in a zombie game, that it’s kind of amazing how they weren’t in the original game. The weakest link is the final campaign, The Parish. It never truly takes advantage of its setting like the other four do, and while its finale is second only to Dark Carnival’s, much of it feels like it was the first campaign Valve made for Left 4 Dead 2, before taking that experience to the other campaigns.
If you’ve played Left 4 Dead for an inordinate amount of time, some of the changes are immediately obvious. Level design in general contains much more in the way of open spaces. Even with Dead Center’s extensive indoor locations, the malls are absolutely massive. It allows for the new special infected to start up some real hell. Chargers can tackle survivors from one end of an open area to the next, Jockeys can head-hump lingering survivors to the far corners of the map, and the Spitter can pretty much break apart any cluster of survivors. Many of the crescendo events have also been altered, forcing you to push from point A to B instead of huddling in a corner until things literally die down. Essentially, Left 4 Dead 2 demands a greater degree of teamwork than its predecessor. There’s much more going against you, but at the same time, there’s much more to help you along the way.
Offensively, the biggest inclusions are the melee weapons. These things carve through hordes and their damage output is incredibly high, making them useful in plenty of situations. While a bit impractical when the going can be easily solved by guns – running into lines of fire and getting yourself surrounded due to your bloodlust is pretty foolish – when the director decides to send a substantial horde, having an infinite supply of arm strength is better than a gun that can hold only so many bullets. Outside of the melee weapons, the gun count has been given a boost. AK-47, grenade launcher, Desert Eagles – there are plenty of new guns to shoot with, and all them are a really joy to use. Even more, boomer bile can tag the infected and can make tank battles a cinch, adrenaline shots speed up just about anything you do, and explosive and incendiary rounds offer temporary but extremely substantial buffs to your killing capabilities.
There’s just so much in Left 4 Dead 2 and all of it is useful, fun, and make the game better than the original. With so many new additions to the gameplay, it opens up more options, and more options open up new strategic decisions to make. While never all that complicated (Do I take this or that? Do I use this now or this later?), it creates a greater degree of variety. Combining that with the ever-ominous and omnipotent AI Director, every game feels that much more different than the last.
And this is just the game’s campaign mode. Versus, basically an eight-player griefing session, returns with the new infected, which are bound to irritate, annoy, and wreak havoc on the survivor team. The amount of fun I had with Versus definitely varied; it’s highly dependent on the people you play with. One game I was with a talkative, generally carefree group, and it was great. I couldn’t wait to play another game. The game right after generally turned into a game of bitter accusations, insulting teammates for failing to pull this or that or charge this or that.
Still, Left 4 Dead 2’s Versus mode is better than Left 4 Dead’s. Much of this has to do with the new scoring system, which doles out points based solely on the amount of distance a survivor covers in each chapter. Medkits don’t factor in anymore, making Versus games a lot less lopsided. It’s possible a team down by a thousand points can catch up; it happened just a few days ago. Rage-quitting is less of a problem, and this is one thing Left 4 Dead should get through an update.
If you don’t have the time to put in the required hour-plus to finish a Versus game, there’s the new Scavenge mode. Survivors search for gas cans to fuel a generator, while the infected team takes them out before they have a chance to fill up the generator. It offers brief, bite-sized games, making this a really great alternative to Versus if you just don’t have the time. It’s a ton of fun, and with a scoring system that simply factors in the amount of gas cans you’ve filled the generator with, these games can be relatively nail-biting on a rather frequent basis.
"Yep, there’s a lot of game in Left 4 Dead 2."
Wait, there’s just a bit more. The new Realism mode for the campaign gets rid of the glow that helps you find and identify items, and the infected take a greater amount of punishment before going down, making headshots crucial. Witches also kill with one hit, making them incredibly dangerous in any difficulty. It’s not so much of a brand new mode as it a few tweaks to some of the variables, but it makes a real difference, and the mode makes it worth playing through the campaigns again. Then there’s the Survival mode, which tosses you into a closed area until you die. Some of the Survival areas have seriously opened in space, giving you greater opportunities to adjust and move from point to point. Yep, there’s a lot of game in Left 4 Dead 2.
It also looks like Valve’s spent just as much updating the Source engine. Team Fortress 2 still is and probably will remain the best-looking Source engine for a long, long time, but Left 4 Dead 2 stands as second best. The character models in particular have received a great deal of attention. There’s a greater amount of nuance and minor details – the wrinkles on Rochelle’s lips, the folds of fat on Coach’s neck, the lipstick on Nick’s collar – they all add up and are easy to appreciate once they’re seen. It makes one wonder just how much better Episode Three will look with new and improved character models. The gore model for the infected has also received a huge boost. They’ll defecate themselves to death if you shoot them in the right place, intestine trails string along as they come after you, and the melee weapons can slice and dice in ways that Left 4 Dead only wished. There are a few blemishes; some of the environments look drab and blocky, and while the daylight is refreshing, it tends to expose more blemishes than the night-time levels do. Source still has legs, as after five years in commission, it’s still an engine capable of mighty things.
The audio remains up to par with all of Valve’s previous efforts. Guns sound rich and powerful, and there’s a greater variety of music. Dark Carnival gets its own tracks and the southern flavor to a lot of the tracks is welcomed. Voice acting is up to the usual Valve standards.
Left 4 Dead 2 is better and bigger than Left 4 Dead. It’s a sequel that builds on its incredibly stern and ludicrously fun foundations, expanding in all the right places and scrubbing out all the little problems that existed in the original. An expanded weapon load-out, an expanded infected cast designed to tackle all the common turtling strategies, and more expansive level design to accommodate the new infected: It’s simply a better a game and one of the best this year.