Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2 Review

Left 4 Dead 2, developed and published by Valve.
The Good: Highly enjoyable cooperative and competitive play, chaotic Scavenger mode, tense Realism mode, picturesque and diverse level design, assorted armaments with satisfying melee weapons, deadly new special infected, excellent gory graphics
The Not So Good: Multiple paths not varied enough, melee weapons are too powerful, barely competent friendly AI
What say you? Improved in every area, this zombie action game offers a more complete experience: 8/8

Sequels are tricky business: you must provide enough changes to warrant people paying full price, but at the same time stay true to the original game. Of course, there is the option to actually eliminate content, but who would pay for that? There was a segment of the gaming population who determined that Left 4 Dead 2 did not provide enough content, an opinion based on not actually playing the game. Well, now it is here, following a typical Valve delay of the demo, in all its zombie-smashing gory glory. I did not play Left 4 Dead 1 when it came out, as Valve ignored my violent threats requests for a digital review copy (I have one now for comparison). Well, my incessant complaining requests have finally gone answered and we can delve into this title properly.

One of the strongest aspects of Left 4 Dead 2 is the presentation, as both the graphics and sound are well designed. The most prominent part of the game is the amazing level of gore: it’s a bit over-the-top, but significant dismembering and lots of blood abound. The first time you shoot the arms off a zombie climbing a fence, causing he/she/it to fall off, you realize how wonderfully graphic the graphics are: heads come off, guts spill out, and blood spatters all over your view. It’s no wonder that Australia was not amused. The zombies that meet untimely death are varied in appearance, offering both male and female versions to have their intestines decorate the landscape in an artistic orgy of blood. The special infected could use more than one or occasionally two models each, though, and their appearance becomes distressingly repetitive. The game takes place over a number (and that number is “five”) of distinctive locations, each with varied appearances and a great attention to detail. The levels look fantastic and realistic; the attention to detail in each of the game’s twenty-five levels goes far beyond a simple expansion pack. The game also features weather effects (most noticeable in the “Hard Rain” campaign) and changes in the time of day: the graphics package is well done. The game also performs quite smoothly considering the graphical aptitude. The sound design isn’t far behind: the weapons are convincing, and the voice acting is competently executed. The characters make canned comments on the surroundings and current situation; while plausible, the dialogue tends to get repetitive when playing the same level again. They do have some varied dialogue at key points of each campaign, but the same combat-related sayings are used over and over again. Still, the chaos of combat clearly emanates from the game. The musical selection is good and dependent on your progress, subtly adjusted for important events like an incoming zombie horde or a special infected. Overall, Left 4 Dead 2 delivers a very solid package.

Left 4 Dead 2 follows the harrowing take of four survivors (get it? Left 4 Dead? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!) of the impending zombie apocalypse, caused by either swine flu or John Cusack. This sequel uses different characters from the original game, although I can’t tell the difference 95% of the time: choosing a different character does not impact your in-game performance, like lowered health or faster running speed. The game features five campaigns as the survivors trek across the Southeast from Savannah to New Orleans in search of zesty rice (or such is my understanding). Each campaign takes place in a distinctive setting: the shopping mall of Dead Center, the amusement park of Dark Carnival, the swamps of Swamp Fever, the hard rain of Hard Rain, and the mythical town of New Orleans in The Parish. Each of the game’s levels are very well designed and quite detailed, with more open areas to be less of corridor shooter. There are also some nice moments during each campaign, from breaking into a store for cola to fighting on a roller coaster and through flooded streets. The AI Director can control the weather, time of day, and the specific paths available to you; there isn’t quite as much variety as I would like here, though, as the changes are quite subtle and you are usually only diverted for a minute at most. Each campaign takes between one and two hours to complete, and I have found that the advanced difficulty setting is appropriate for coordinated veteran players.

But that’s not all! Left 4 Dead 2 features four more modes of play for your gaming enjoyment. Brought over from the original game is the so-so Survival mode and the popular Versus mode, where four people take the roles as the special infected and attempt to stop the survivors in one of the campaigns. There is a lot of coordination potential with the new infected types (details later), although it would be nice to be able to choose your infected from a list of two or three choices (I lack the coordination for the hunter’s crouch/pounce). For those with less time to play, a new shortened competitive mode called Scavenge is available. Here, the survivors attempt to collect gas canisters to refuel something (a car or generator) while the infected attempt to stop them. The matches take place in a small portion of a campaign map for much more concentrated gameplay. Most of the maps are balanced well, although some are confusing and too strung out. There are some nice strategies to employ (gas canisters can be shot for a sacrificial wall of fire) and coordination is still imperative; it’s a great way to still enjoy competitive play in a shorter time span. Finally, Realism mode is perfect for veterans of the series. Instead of simply making the game more difficult (you can play Realism mode on “easy”), the silhouettes around the survivors and items are removed, head shots inflict significantly more damage, death is permanent until the end of the level, and the Witch is a formidable opponent as attacks are one-shot kills. The Realism mode places an even higher focus on teamwork and sticking together, which is really what Left 4 Dead 2 is all about. Finding all of these game modes is easy enough: while Left 4 Dead 2 lacks a server browser, it does list how many games of each type and each difficult level are being played, so that you can gauge your probability of joining a low-ping contest. You can, however, join a match in progress: a much appreciated feature.

In order to defeat the infected horde, you’ll need guns. Lots of guns. Left 4 Dead 2 offers way more than the five (five!) non-pistol guns of Left 4 Dead Original. You’ll start out with the choice of a shotgun (long reload time but powerful) or submachine gun (shorter reload time but less powerful) and move up from there. The much more expanded offerings also include a silenced submachine gun, chrome shotgun (shiny equals better), combat shotgun, hunting rifle, sniper rifle, burst-fire combat rifle, AK-47, M-16, and even a grenade launcher. I do find it weird that every weapon has a flashlight attached (on a sniper rifle? OK…). Before, your only defense against a large number of enemies was “push back” (right mouse button), but melee weapons are now available for violent disposing of the enemy. There are lots of choices here: an axe, baseball bat, electric guitar, frying pan, katana, nightstick, and, of course, the chainsaw (which has limited fuel and attracts attention to itself). The melee weapons take the place of a pistol and are quite useful when being swarmed. I think they are too powerful, however, as it’s just way too easy to simply keep pressing the left mouse button when surrounded and kill away, since most of the melee weapons are one-hit, one-kill. Various items are available for support: you can carry one form of first aid (a health kit or defibrillator for reviving fallen allies), one consumable (health pills for a temporary boost or adrenaline for faster actions, useful for using in conjunction with a melee weapon), and one throwable (Molotov, pipe bomb that attracts infected, and boomer bile that is intended to be used on the tank to make infected attack it) item. You can also find laser sights that supposedly make your weapons more accurate and incendiary and explosive ammunition. Additionally, you can carry around gas cans, oxygen, and propane tanks in order to explode them, although Mythbusters showed this does not actually work, which totally ruins the otherwise complete realism of Left 4 Dead 2.

In addition to slight changes in weather and level layout, the AI Director also controls how many enemies you’ll face. You will come across the common infected, uncommon common infected that will be harder to kill (that zombie’s wearing armor! I want armor!), and the special infected that provide more of a challenge. The five from the original title remain: the vomiting boomer, the leaping hunter, the fishing smoker, the startling witch, and the powerful tank. New additions include the charger, which knocks people down and pounds them into the ground, the spitter that creates a lake of toxic acid, and the humiliating jockey that rides and guides people into hazards. These three new special infected enemies further increase the variety of strategies you need to employ in order to be successful, and also increase the cooperative nature of being an infected in one of the competitive modes. Once a survivor’s health has been depleted, they enter an incapacitated state where they can still shoot with pistols while laying on the ground. This makes no sense if you have switched your pistol for a melee weapon; this might be a good balance to remove this ability due to the melee weapons’ over-powered nature. If people are not rescued in time, they will appear in a closet (makes sense!) later on. As you might expect, cooperation is imperative for survival; Left 4 Dead 2 makes it impossible to win if people are off doing their own thing, especially since you are unable to defend yourself once a special infected has attacked. Human players obviously make better allies as the AI bots provide less than decent support: they generally follow your lead, but tend to get stuck and get themselves killed at the most inopportune times. The AI can be used in any of the game’s online modes as fillers, though, so that's a plus. You can’t, however, issue orders to AI bots, so organization with computer players is less than ideal.

There’s no way you’re going back to Left 4 Dead 1 after playing this. Simply put, Left 4 Dead 2 is better all around, and the collective improvements are enough to justify a higher-than-expansion price tag. Getting together three friends (you do have three friends, right?) to purchase the four pack drives the unit price down to a respectably affordable $37.50. I think Valve should have offered a discount to owners of Left 4 Dead 1 (since everything is tied to your Steam account), but there is still enough new and improved content to merit a purchase. The new characters don’t matter for me, but the addition of the addictive capture-the-flag-like scavenge mode and more hardcore realism mode are notable. Scavenge mode emphasizes the teamwork element while restricting the action to a small portion of the map, and realism mode takes away those silly silhouettes and makes the Witch a force to be reckoned with. The five campaign locations have an impressive amount of detail and truly varied settings: the detail alone justifies the price of admission. Left 4 Dead 2 significantly increases your arsenal as well (can you believe that the original game has only five non-pistol weapons?!), from better shotguns to more varied assault rifles and the disturbingly enjoyable grenade launcher. And the melee weapons, which are (a bit too) powerful. In addition, the boomer bile is a very useful tool in disposing of special infected, and the additional ammunition types are fun to play with. Speaking of the special infected, the three new types are welcome and all quite annoying (in a good way), my personal favorite being the spitter (a fine counter to those damn campers). The AI director continues to change up the game by altering the weather and enemy concentrations, though the changes in available pathways are minor at best. The graphics are a significant step up from the original game as the level of gore has drastically increased. Compared to this iteration, Left 4 Dead 1 looks like it came out far longer than a year ago. Taken as a whole, Left 4 Dead 2 is a fantastic game, and that’s how I am rating it since I did not do a review of the original title. And even if you consider that it is a sequel released a year after the first game, Left 4 Dead 2 is enhanced in every area; whether you decide to invest in the new game depends on your overall enjoyment of the series. And who doesn’t like killing zombies?