It is a little known fact that 95.2% of all males above the age of 13 absolutely WANT a zombie apocalypse *. Why? Well, to our testosterone-flooded, Romero-fueled, eternally adolescent minds, it would be fun. And each of us, to a man, is convinced that while the rest of the human populace would be snack food, we would be murderously awesome. What the Left 4 Dead series has proved however, is that we would all totally suck.
It would still be fun though.
If you are unfamiliar with Valve’s co-op shooter Left 4 Dead (L4D) here’s the low-down: A mysterious infection has turned most of the world into a zombie-infested hell hole. All major cities have been evacuated and you (along with 3 other unlucky survivors) have been left behind. Your job then, is to get to designated “safe rooms” en route to some sort of rescue vehicle. There is no plot to speak of and none is required. This game is all about grouping up with like-minded zombie haters with twitchy trigger fingers to leave a trail of guts in your wake. Keep in mind that it isn’t a simple shooting gallery. The zombies aren’t merely shambling undead targets hungry for bullets. They are the fast running types akin to the ones seen in the classic zombie flick “28 days later”. Though not much of a threat in small groups, they can quickly overwhelm your group of survivors when attacking in swarms. Then there are the “special infected”, the zombies with special powers that will make your run to safety a lot more complicated. This turned the game into a very tense, tactics based adrenaline rush.
The original Left 4 Dead was a runaway hit with both consumers and critics alike (Metacritic gave it a score of 89). Not only was the co-op play an absolute blast, the real thrill was in the much loved “versus mode” where 4 human players played the part of the survivors while 4 opponents took over the role of the “special infected”. This game created more “water cooler” moments than other game I can think of.
Though L4D2 is a sequel, it’s much more than old wine in a new bottle. The mechanics are still the same. The idea is still to get yourselves rescued if you are the survivors. As zombies, it’s to ensure they never make it. What makes it different is how Valve has used the lessons learned from the first game to make this one an even more compelling experience. There are more guns, melee weapons (including a laugh riot inducing chainsaw that was surprisingly absent in the first game), more equipment to lend you a hand and of course, new special infected to even out the odds.
Visually, the game still uses the Source engine which, for something so old, still manages to look good. Unlike the original, most of the levels here are set in daylight and although might not look as spooky as the night time levels of the original, they do spring up some nasty surprises. There are five campaign maps, each with its own distinct feel. Valve have truly outdone themselves with the quality of level design. Each map presents unique challenges and requires different approaches to make it to safety. In one instance, the weather can change bringing in a new dynamic to tactics employed, e.g. rain might make it impossible to see beyond a few feet. The game certainly is a lot more visceral and gorier than the prequel. Limbs fly all over the place, bullets do very obvious damage and buckets of blood stain the surroundings after any protracted battle. And this only increases when you start using melee weapons.
Fun as the melee aspect is, it does have a strategic role. This becomes more apparent when you realize how quickly you can run out of ammo. Nothing holds off a horde in a choke point like a chainsaw does. In some cases, zombies show up in gear that renders them fire proof or bullet resistant. A katana can come in real handy then. Keep in mind though, getting up close and personal also means putting yourself in more danger.
The new guns include a silenced sub machine gun, AK-47, military sniper rifle, combat shotgun, magnum pistol and a grenade launcher. Unfortunately, my hopes for a flame thrower were dashed. The newly introduced “incendiary ammo” does set zombies alight though. I guess that will have to do.
Speaking of danger, the new special infected are a dangerous lot indeed. The Spitter, as the name suggests, spits out gobs of toxic goo to either directly damage you or render a patch of ground impassable. The Charger slams into a group like a rhino, throwing people back while carrying one unfortunate victim to be pounded into pulp. The Jockey (my personal fave), is a puny runt with a crazy laugh that jumps on top of a player taking control of his movement to steer him directly into harms way. Devious and funny as hell. Add these to the original special infected from the prequel and you realize just how important playing as a team is.
Even though you could jump into a single player game if you want (the game will give you 3 AI companions to complete your team), on normal difficulty you might find the lack of actual human beings rather frustrating. The AI does a passable job at best but you will find yourself flying into a nerd rage on occasion due to their stupefying actions. Actions such as this one. I can’t knock the game too much for this as it has been designed to be played along with real people.
While we are on the subject of AI, I should mention that the series uses an “AI Director”. Basically, it adjusts the difficulty of a campaign on the fly. So if you are constantly running out of ammo, the director will drop in extra ammo stashes. On the flip side, if you seem to be rushing through a level without much trouble, it will hit you with more special infected and take away any spare med kits etc. This keeps the game balanced and usually works like a charm. It also ensures that no two play-throughs unravel the same way.
The real meat of the game, however, is versus mode. Playing as the zombies is a real blast and even though I’ve been playing the original for almost a year, it never gets old. As mentioned in my preview of the demo, the new special infected were designed purely to counteract cheap tactics like closet camping or huddling in a corner. The emphasis now is to be constantly on the move. Coordination between players is EVERYTHING.
For those of you that are just looking for a quick game, the newly introduced “Scavenge” mode will be right up your alley. The aim here is to (as the survivors) collect gas cans spread around the map to fuel a generator. Each refill adds time to a countdown clock. The zombies obviously, will try to thwart that. The team will switch sides at the end of a round. The first team to win three rounds wins the game. Since this isn’t a long drawn campaign map, games usually last about 30 minutes.
The game did not crash during my time with it but I did find myself getting “stuck” on two separate occasions. In both these cases, I had been thrown by a Charger into a part of the map that normally could not be accessed. I’m certain errors like these are rare and given Valve’s proven track record of constantly updating their games, I would not worry about it.
To sum it up, L4D2 is not just a sequel, but, a refinement of everything L4D itself was. It’s more fast paced, tense, unpredictable and ultimately, a lot more fun to play. The thrill of finding yourself and your near dead friends in the middle of a sea of corpses, constantly shooting into never ending waves of zombies while waiting for rescue is something that has to be experienced to be believed. If you are into co-op action of any sort, you simply can’t afford to miss this game.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
(*In case you are wondering, I totally made that up)