Written by: Kevin DeStefan, Special to CC2K
With the possible exception of real time strategy, few genres have been as devoid of innovation as the first person shooter. Title after title feels like another lame Halo clone – a game which is already pretty generic. They may try to woo gamers with shinier graphics (see Crysis) or a different gimmick here and there (see Haze) in an effort to stand out from the pack (in fact, see every game that is not Half-Life 2), but inevitably falter. Last year Valve released Left 4 Dead and a ray of hope for FPS fans emerged. What made L4D novel was not a glut of features, but rather, its minimalist approach. Valve took the FPS experience and boiled it down to its bare essence. Gone were techno-armored Master Chief clones, absurdly named laser weapons, and pointless flag carrying. It was just four survivors, a few painfully underpowered weapons, and zombies. A lot of zombies. I really cannot emphasize enough how many zombies. The simple expedition from point A to point B whilst avoiding said zombies became the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences of the year.
So for those of you who have never played Left 4 Dead, here is a quick synopsis. It does not take long to explain and that is the beauty of the series. You started out as one of four survivors, each an archetype of a character you can expect to see in a generic zombie flick: the biker, the war vet, the hot college girl, the shirt & tie clad office worker. You and three others (or three AI bots, if you are anti-social) filled these roles in what can best be described as playing through a B zombie movie. Each campaign opened up with a movie poster featuring the characters and an intentionally cliche horror movie tagline. There is even a film grain effect to up the sense of being in a circa-1970 Romero movie. Each of four campaigns had the same 'Get To The Chopper!' premise (where chopper could be replaced with boats or what have you). You did not play the game for the story, there was none, all you needed to know was this: there are zombies, here are some guns, get out of here! That goal was made difficult by tons of obstacles, dozens of zombies at a time, and even special monsters with unique abilities like pulling team members away, spitting bile that attracts more zombie hordes, or just pinning you to the ground and relieving you of your entrails. The game's online component is what made it great. You could play through the campaign with three teammates or even take on the role of one of the zombies and try to impede the humans. Valve even included a dynamic "AI Director" that would monitor your progress and spawn weapons, health, and enemies as it saw fit, making each run through a unique experience.
But a rule of thumb for any sequel is this: bigger is better. The developers have to up-the-ante to outdo their first endeavor. Gamers demand bigger monsters, glowier laser weapons, stupid vehicles, and overhauled graphics. But in a game whose calling card was refinement, a simple addition could completely throw off the delicate balance. I am pleased to say that Valve managed to walk this fine line and produce a sequel worthy of their ravenous devourer of game of the year awards.
This go around we have four new protagonists: Ellis, a slick gambler, Coach, a grizzled -you guessed it- coach, Rochelle, a plucky TV producer, and Ellis, a trucker hat wearing, Red State stereotype. In the first game, the characters were a bit lacking in personality: only occasionally spewing a one liner here and there. In L4D2 the banter between characters is nonstop and hilarious. They actually feel like distinct personalities and not just a blank slate. When tough-guy Nick pulled me to the side to give me his health pack he whispered, "Don't let the other ones know I'm doing this". Characters constantly converse with one another and interact with the environment around them and it never gets annoying.
The graphics and sound have also been given an upgrade. The infected have been given makeovers and sport more detailed textures, with more ways to be dismembered and mutilated. While the levels are bright and crisp, the bad guys really pop out and look more vile than ever. The game engine hums along smoothly, allowing for dozens of enemies to be on the screen at one time without the frame rate taking a dip for even a second. The soundtrack is top notch, with slide guitars and fiddles giving each level a Kentucky fried ambiance, you will never forget you are in the south. The sound effects are extremely well done, in one level characters are overwhelmed by a sudden hurricane, where all sound is muffled by torrential rain and wind. I was impressed when I took shelter in an ambulance and the sound changed to the percussion of heavy rain against the metal roof.
Even the levels have more personality. An often heard complaint about the first game was that the levels were a bit too generic, each one a late night trek through a dimly lit airport, dimly lit forest, etc. This time players are spilling zombie guts in refreshingly novel locales across the Delta on their way to the New Orleans French Quarter, most of which is set during the day time. From an abandoned mall that will fill Dawn Of The Dead fans with glee, to a theme park littered with zombified staff members and thoroughly creepy undead clowns (whose squeaking shoes attract more of the horde), each level has its own unique look and feel. The climaxes for each level are sphincter-clenchingly intense, requiring team members to take action to escape, which inevitably alerts the horde. In what is destined to become a fan favorite, survivors will need to alert a helicopter for rescue by turning on the stage pyrotechnics at a rock concert. While rock music blasts, players will have to ignite fireworks to engulf hordes in flames, while running from the stage into into the cheap seats to reload. Of course it would be tasteless for me to make a Great White joke here, so let us move on.
Valve has managed to add just enough new items to keep the experience interesting, but not detract from the spartan feel of 'just barely enough to survive'. Characters can now temporarily boost their health and speed with an adrenaline shot, in addition to reviving a dead character with defibrillators. Supplementing the zombie attracting pipe bomb and Molotov, there is the new bile bomb, which covers an enemy in a 'zombie cat nip', which rings a dinner bell for all available zombies to chow down on the doused target. There are a number of new weapons, most of which are spruced up versions of the previously available three weapon categories: machine gun, sniper rifle, and fan favorite shotgun, with a new grenade launcher thrown in, presumably for the purpose of annoying your teammates as you inadvertently take them out with the zombies. These weapons can be augmented with special ammo packs, which can allow standard weapons to ignite targets in flames or explode on contact. But the most outstanding new feature is the melee weapons, which feel so natural you will wonder how you played the first game without them. Players can hack away at oncoming hordes with frying pans, a very familiar crowbar, guitars, a cricket bat (Simon Pegg would be proud) and more. Of course players will race to be to obtain the grand-daddy of all melee weapons: the Chainsaw. With a limited amount of fuel, players can mow through hordes of the undead wildly swinging the chainsaw. If you can do this without grinning, you sir, are dead to me.
No new game would be complete without new enemies. New 'generic' zombies add a nice variety to the hordes, including heavily armored zombie SWAT police, fire resistant hazmat zombies, view obscuring mud zombies, and more. What really changes up the game are the new special zombies, each with their own maddening abilities. The Jockey will jump on the back of a survivor and steer them into trouble or off a ledge, The Spitter vomits up an area-of-effect acid which can effectively cut a survivor off from his or her team, and The Charger, who can barrel through a team, grabbing one player and not stopping until they hit a solid object (which can be terrifyingly far away). As in the original, different game modes will allow players to step into the shoes of these special infected and take on player controlled survivors. The new attacks allow for different strategies, such as using the Jockey to steer a character into the Spitter's pool of acid.
The new game modes are also fantastic. Players will still have access to the versus modes, where players take turns being zombies or survivors and the survival mode where the sole objective is to survive as long as possible. For the truly hardcore or masochistic, there is "Realism Mode," where there are no blue outlines for characters or items, making it extremely difficult to progress without spending an agonizing amount of time looking for weapons and items. The best new mode is unquestionably "scavenge", where eight players will compete with one another to pour as much fuel into a generator (or a Jimmy Gibbs Jr. stock car) as possible. Teams take turns as the four survivors scavenging for the fuel, while four other players take on the roles of special infected, trying to prevent them from doing so.
In all game modes, what stands out most is the tendency -unusual amongst online gamers- to work together. There are only four of you and infinitely many of them. Characters will have to to save each other or die. From risking your neck to throw a Molotov at an inbound tank, to ignoring the infected eating your face to shoot a Jockey off a teammate, players seem to naturally help each other out to the point that I think the Left 4 Dead franchise may be some elaborate social experiment in altruism. However, one complain that can be leveled is the AI bots. They have the best AI since Skynet, and this can get frustrating as they are simply too good in campaign modes. Their ability to take out enemies pouncing on you is absurdly good. However, in different game modes they can make some noticeably boneheaded moves. However, bots are more of a necessary evil to fill in the blank spots until another player joins the game.
Credit has to be given to Valve for some bold design decisions. Having players move through a post-Katrina Delta is bound to raise some eyebrows. Most companies would steer clear of any controversy but Valve embraces it. Some levels are a bit more over the top than others, for example Hard Rain has players navigating past Witches and infected through a heavy storm and flooding just off the Delta. In a number of safe rooms there are messages scrawled on the walls and many make reference to CEDA not coming to save anyone, which should remind players of another inept four lettered agency (maybe Brownie isn't doing a heck of a job with the zombies either).
All in all, Left 4 Dead 2 is a fantastic game worthy of your money. With a more polished feel, more robust levels, and more interesting game modes, this game will give hardcore gamers, devotees of the first L4D, and horror movie fans alike what they want: more. At the very least it will further an important national dialogue about a touchy subject that has plagued our great nation: are they still zombies if they move that fast?