[21 February 2010]
If you like first-person shooters, and you hate zombies, you should buy Left 4 Dead 2. You don’t even have to hate zombies. You just have to hate getting eaten by them, and bam, this is the game for you.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a one to four-player co-operative shooter for the PC and XBox 360 set in the American South. It can also be played single-player with AI companions or in a versus mode where teams of four take turns as zombies and humans. While it is technically a sequel, having missed the original game will not impact how much fun you have playing this one. Like its predecessor, Left 4 Dead 2 is about teamwork. If the group that you’re playing with listens to each other and covers each other’s backs, you feel like a zombie slaughterhouse on wheels. When the group isn’t working together as well, it becomes a poignant study in the frailties of man.
Each of the game’s campaigns has a series of levels in which you and three companions run, walk, shoot, and hack your way from a start point to an end point. Whereas the original game had you stand your ground for a period of time at the last level of each campaign, this one mixes it up a little. There are stand your ground moments. Sometimes you have to retrieve objects. There are areas where you have to run gauntlets of chainlink as fast as you can lest you be overwhelmed. There’s one panic-inducing area in which you are surrounded by abandoned cars whose sadistic owners have set the alarms. At this point, everyone switches to melee weapons and watches their steps to avoid summoning the horde.
Each campaign comes with its own environments, music, and styles of infected. The swamps have creepy mud-men. Some areas have zombie policemen in riot-gear which that fall unless shot in the back. Some have hazmat zombies that drop helpful canisters when killed.
Due to the volume of campaigns, the game is a huge and dependable amount of fun to share with friends and strangers that also happens to be just a little bit scary. The game follows all the tropes of zombie horror, but it follows them the way that you want it to. It makes use of all the familiar devices of a zombie movie, but it doesn’t LINGER on them by making you sit through cut-scenes. Instead, it focuses on being a game about zombies rather than a movie about them.
You know that scene in a zombie movie where the pilot turns into a zombie and the vehicle runs wild? That happens here, but you don’t have to watch it because this isn’t a movie. And you don’t play through it because that would be a crummy game device. Instead, the characters hop in a helicopter at the end of one campaign and talk about the horrible helicopter crash at the beginning of the next one. It feels totally natural. And you hear them chatter at each other because they do it in a resupply room. The conversation is timed to run in the background while you pick out guns and health kits.
And then there are little touches in there for everyone. Have a friend over? The 360 version split-screens nicely. Have a group of hardcore friends? Hard mode is hard. The “realism” mode makes close cooperation more necessary. And there are a zillion achievements. Want to play a while on your own? You can practice offline with AI buddies. Want to be the bad guy? Play versus and spawn as a spitter zombie. EVERYBODY hates those guys.
One of the other touches that I like best is the jukeboxes. Sure they summon the horde, but they also play such appropriate songs like Jonathan Coulton’s “Re: Your Brains.”
In addition to these little details, Left 4 Dead 2 retains the AI “director” that spawns regular and «special» zombies based on how well or how poorly your group is doing at that moment as well as the difficulty setting. Flush with guns and ammo? Expect to hear the scary music and see the hordes. Hemmoraging health and down to your last set of pills? Expect the danger to thin a little.
The special zombies of the last game are also here again, and they’ve brought some friends. Most of them are designed to pull your team apart, literally. The charger can knock one or more teammates a long distance before it begins pummeling you to death. The jockey rides a player into danger. The spitter shoots dangerous acid at you, usually dividing or scattering your team. Witches now are mobile, extending the ingenious device of making players limit their actions. A witch will weep while sitting or wandering. If you get around her quietly, she’ll leave you alone. If you make too much noise or shine a flashlight at her, she will attack. She deals damage insanely quickly and is tough as nails. Most teams opt to go around her but wandering witches make this harder, and multiple witches on a single level can make your nerves stand on end.
Left 4 Dead continues to contain the standard gun types in the genre: pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, and machine guns. The sequel adds melee weapons: kitchen pans, axes, chainsaws, guitars, machetes, ninja swords, and a few more. There are also weapon mod boxes that you can pick up and deploy for your team, including laser-sights, exploding bullets, and incendiary ammo. Adrenaline shots temporarily boost your health like pill boxes do, but they also allow you to run faster and brush past zombies more easily. The molotov cocktails and beeping zombie-attracting grenades are joined by canisters of “boomer-bile”. These cause infected to attack each other the same way that a boomer zombie spitting on a player causes them to swarm the player.
Given the game’s well crafted mechanics, I can only advise you to buy the game. It’s great, uncomplicated fun. The difficulty rises with your style of play and chopping limbs off zombies with a samurai sword is the perfect antidote to a rough day at work.