I thoroughly enjoyed Left 4 Dead with my brother and his friends back in the
late aughts. We spent hours protecting each other from zombies, pausing only to
shoot each other with Nerf guns. You know, for balance.
That game was more like an arcade than any FPS I’ve played. For all of its
inherent strengths, it was the comradery (and occasional vindictiveness) that
made the experience. When the group dispersed, my interest likewise dried
up–even though Left 4 Dead 2 has just been released.
Surprisingly, my mind has sometimes wandered back to the game over the past ten
years. I guess it’s like a slick blockbuster title in any medium; it doesn’t
have to be deep to capture your imagination. Candy tastes good. That curiosity,
coupled with the game’s unrivaled approachability and short play time,
convinced me to make it the next in my slow, purposeful return to gaming.
The gameplay is fairly uniform: you’re fighting your way through chaotic
environments, trying to get your group to the next “safe room.” There are some
exceptions, but they generally take the form of fetching items or trying to
hold a fixed position for a while. Despite this, the gameplay doesn’t get old.
This is in large part due to solid level design. The maps have enough variation
and offshoots to feel more like real places and less like pretty corridors.
Another word for “offshoot” is “dead end,” but they avoid becoming annoyances
thanks to the guidance built in to the environment itself. Lighting, motion,
and comments from the non-player characters all help you orient yourself as you
rush through the confusion. It’s strong enough so that you’re nearly always
aware of your destination, and it’s subtle enough to avoid pandering.
And you will rush. The infected attack you in endless waves, so if you try to
explore or even just rest, you’ll be overwhelmed. You also can’t plan every
detail of your route because the game mixes up the environment for every
session. This might turn you off if, like me, you tend toward perfectionism.
Give it some time, and you’ll start to feel some catharsis in the wisdom of
“run and gun.”
Left 4 Dead 2 forces you into a frenzy, but any clumsy “tower defense” game
can inundate you with enemies. L4D2’s most impressive achievement is the sense
of agency it gives you. Even though the carnage sometimes escalates beyond
comprehension, your decisions and your performance still feel like they matter.
None of this is new to the sequel. By continuing with the same formula (even
when that formula is so polished), Left 4 Dead 2 risks coming across as an
expansion pack for the original rather than a standalone installment. As a sort
of Rip Van Winkle of amateur video game critics, I’m not a good judge of this.
It’s possible that if I were playing back in 2009, having just paid full price,
I’d be calling L4D2 a cash grab. “Wait 12 years,” I might have written, “and
buy it when it’s cheap and your memory of the first has faded a bit.” Will do.
Still, I suspect this game offers enough enhancements to have satisfied 2009
Mike. One obvious addition is new “special” infected. The Spitter and the
Jockey have unique abilities that can disrupt your progress in distinctive
ways, increasing the novelty of the dangers you’re trying to escape. (In this
sense, the Charger is a bit underwhelming; its main threat is in direct
physical damage, so fighting it feels a lot like fighting Tank introduced in
L4D.) The game also adds a few more items, but I didn’t find much use for them.
Contrast that with the new melee weapons. It’s hard to understand how Valve
released a zombie game without hand-to-hand combat, but melee weapons are
abundant and varied in Left 4 Dead 2.
More subtly, two of the campaigns feature rain as a central element, and I
can’t recall those effects in any other Source engine game. There’s also a new
tier of infected, named “uncommon,” complimenting the “common” and “special”
infected from the original. These are just unique enough to warrant your
attention when fighting through hordes, and because they’re tied to the
campaign, they further differentiate gameplay across settings.
The game has a surprising amount of character for a multiplayer arcade-style
first-person shooter. The locations (New Orleans in particular) feel lived in.
The survivors are chatty, and although they’re almost exclusively one-liners,
they’re exactly the kind of witty hysterics you’d expect from a zombie movie.
Make no mistake, though: this is an action game, through-and-through. You’re
not going to learn anything, and you can leave your sense of empathy at the
Left 4 Dead 2 is at least as thrilling as the best Hollywood has to offer. My
play through was a little lonely, though. For the best results, bring a few
friends along. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for some adrenaline,
particularly following a year spent holed up indoors.