Thursday, December 02, 2010

Game Review: Left 4 Dead 2

Never has a zombie apocalypse been so much fun!

Left 4 Dead 2 (in future I’ll call it L4D2) was released around a year ago, following its highly successful debut (L4D) a year before. Valve had consistently produced great games, usually in the First-Person Shooter genre, however had never released a game based on a zombie-infected world. When L4D was released two years ago, it was met with extremely positive reviews across the board, praising its fantastic multiplayer gameplay and innovative special infected. The main flaws were the lack of content, and the frustrating AI.

So what have L4D2 done in the year since its debut? Quite a lot actually. We have new infected, we have new characters, different maps, two new game modes and new weapons. On the basis that sounds like a heck of a lot content added from the original, so they already crossed off one of the two main flaws in the original. Let me go through each topic.

I mentioned the fantastic special infected from the first game, these special infected have superpowers that make them much more deadly than your standard zombie. You could play as these special infected when playing Versus mode, going against another team playing as the survivors. Just to recap, in the original you had the Hunter, who dived at their prey and rips them to shreds, the Smoker, who had a very long tongue used to pull their victim and attack them, and the absolutely brilliant looking Boomer, a very fat infected who spreads his bile across the survivors which attracts a horde of zombies to attack them. Those three special infected would appear much more often than the next two. Other than that you had the Witch, an uncontrollable infected, who would be quiet and only attack, to deadly consequences, if bothered in any way, and the Tank, an enormous infected that bullies and pounds the survivors to submission.

So what have L4D2 done to the special infected? Well they’ve added 3 more actually. Now we also have the Charger. Who, well, charges into the survivors and pummels them to the ground. We have the Spitter, who, well, spits acid at the ground where the survivors are, burning their feet and forcing them to try and move out of the way. Finally, we have the Jockey, a tiny special infected, who climbs and, well, jockeys the survivor into hazardous situations, namely away from everyone else, or into acid or a Boomer. Also, witches can move around now, rather than stay in one location, which makes them potentially even more dangerous.

One of the main things I liked about the original three main special infected is that they were so balanced. You would have moments, when playing one where it would suck to be one of them, based on the map environment, however for the most part they were fantastically balanced. The problem I have with the new three that add to make six main special infected is that they make the balance, well, a bit off. The Charger for instance, is quite often much more useful than the Hunter, they can both be used to cripple a survivor, yet the Charger deals much more damage. I also, for the most part, find the Spitter to be pretty useless, it can be quite easy to miss and they have very little health. The Jockey however, man, this guy is fantastic, I find a lot of pleasure getting a survivor when the other three aren’t looking, and dragging the poor bugger back far so the others are little too late to get back in time. So the new special infected make the options vary, but the balance can be a little off.

Now onto the new characters. I welcome the new characters, they have much more personality than the original bunch; the best definitely being Ellis, who plays a talkative, zany, young Southern US mechanic and his ramblings make good entertainment when you have a breather, usually at the start of levels. We have Coach, who is, a coach, who plays the stereotypical black man you see in films nowadays (many parodies on the web have him eat chicken). You have Rochelle, who sounds very dumb and irritating, but is a caring and young woman, and Nick, a conman, who gives you the feeling that there’s more to him that meets the eye. The characters interact more, and show more personality, which makes the experience better.

These characters will travel through different maps than those of the original game, all based in the South of the US. These maps have a much more “theme” feel to it than the original, which felt much more “you are going through a location”, by default, emphasis on this being “Dark Carnival”, which, naturally, takes place in a Carny, as well as “Swamp Fever”, which takes place in a swamp environment, with particular infected wandering here named mudmen. It’s debatable whether or not the theme-esque campaigns make them better levels, however I personally don’t prefer these levels to the originals from L4D. Sure, they look prettier and the themes make an interesting twist to the game, but I just think that the level design on the L4D2 maps are a step backwards from the original game’s. That being said, the final campaign, “The Parish”, is a fantastic campaign that has a very L4D1 feel to it, and the finale level is a fantastic one to play through.
In the original L4D, you had your general campaigns, your Versus mode and your Survival mode. Versus mode, as touched on earlier, pits you and other people online against another team online. You take turns being the infected and the survivors, and it is a point-based system to determine what team was better. In Survival mode, you had to last as long as possible against horde after horde of infected. You can compare your times with other members online. Those two modes are also in L4D2, with only a subtle change to the Versus mode, being how the points are tallied up at the end of each level. There are two more modes added onto the list of game modes, those being Realism, and Scavenge. Realism is basically your campaign mode, but without all the visual aids the game gives you, like silhouettes of the other characters you are playing with, if you shoot a fellow survivor it will damage them much more, and makes the zombies more difficult to kill. You don’t quite realise how much you depend on these aids until you have them removed! And lastly, you have the Scavenge mode. This mode is a quick and fun game where you have to fill an engine of some kind with oilcans scattered across a terrain. Similar to verses mode, you are either the survivors filling the engine, or the infected trying to stop them. Scavenge mode is definitely a charming little addition to L4D2.

There are many new weapons in this game in comparison to the original where you only a choice of two shotguns, two machine guns and an assault rifle, and the handgun. In this game you have a multitude of shotguns, rifles and machine guns. You also can pick up a magnum instead of the handgun. There is also a grenade launcher available, which has limited ammo but can inflict mass damage over an area of the map. That, however, isn’t the major improvement in this department. That, my friend, is the many melee weapons you can now use to replace said handgun. You can have a frying pan, an axe, a baseball bat, a machete, or most impressively, the chainsaw. These weapons bring you closer to the infected, which could be a bigger risk, but it also notches up the gore a drastic amount.

Which brings me to that point, the graphics, and more particularly, the graphic content. This game is graphic. It’s much more graphic than the original, I’ve never seen a game put so much emphasis on the human anatomy as this game. If you shoot an infected in the stomach, his intestines will fall to the floor. Shoot them in the back; you will see their spine. Shoot them in the leg, you get the picture. It’s fantastic to look at, albeit slightly concerning with regards to the detail, and makes the experience that much more prominent. The graphics are a big step forward from the original in general as well; it just looks smoother, crisper. Fire looks much more realistic, so does smoke, you have to hand Valve a lot of credit for boosting the graphics for this game.

The sound in the game has also improved, most particularly the soundtrack. The general themes now sound much more old school rock and roll, and really works with the game. The sounds in the game were originally great anyway, and they have made subtle improvements to an already great sound engine, you can hear the special infected with their very unique vocals, you can hear fantastic rushed drumbeats when you hear a horde coming, and the Tank music is still the same, which is as great as ever. The only problem with the sound? They changed the Boomer’s noises slightly. He was much more horrendous to hear in the original!

There is a lot of Downloadable Content (DLC) also for this game, stuff I’m not going to review, partly because I’ve not played it, but also because you don’t get it with your game by default. From what I’ve heard the DLC has been very well received and if you have the spare cash, I’d definitely recommend you get it.
L4D2 is a game that is vastly improved when you are playing with friends. Playing Versus mode, or playing a campaign, it doesn’t matter. This game unfortunately does little to improve one of the main problems with the original, and that’s the AI. The AI in the L4D games get in your way often, resulting in you shooting them, they also point blank refuse to pickup Molotov’s and pipebombs and most frustrating of all, can see through trees and other obscuring areas, which makes “hiding” as a special infected in a game of Versus very frustrating. This however, really is the games only flaw, it’s top notch in every other area.

To conclude, L4D2 is a phenomenal game. Just in case you didn’t know, I actually for the most part, hate FPS games. But I can’t help but love L4D2, it’s so much fun, you can play Versus mode for hours and you still won’t be bored. The graphics and sound are fantastic, the infected, despite there being a slight imbalance this time round, are all great to see and play as. What is better? L4D2 or L4D1? I still prefer the first one though, sorry. I think technically this game is better, Valve have addressed the few criticisms from the first game and improved the game as an engine. But like a lot of game series’, the original just feels better, even though the game has been improved in many ways. If you have not played a L4D game, get this one first, you’ll probably appreciate it more, because it’s more than likely pure sentiment with regards to why I prefer the original. One thing I can guarantee. Is that never has a zombie apocalypse been so much fun!
Rating: ****1/4
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  1. Having played the second one first I have to say I do prefer number 2, but I generally agree with your review. You forgot to mention the varying normal zombie types. Whilst the first game suffered from repetitive zombie skins the new one has a much larger variety of regular zombies, ranging from SWAT Police, zombie clowns, infected CDC agents. Although, this is only really window dressing as with the levels it just makes the game feel a bit more complete than the first game.

  2. Good points Mike, it does make that slight bit of difference. I still think, sentimental reasons of course, L4D1 is better! =p