The hunt for pills and pump-action shotguns returns with Left 4 Dead 2. The original was a runaway hit, benefitting from the trend of zombie-mania that persists today. But the second is looking a little more controversial, following up its predecessor's 28 Weeks Later premise after a mere 12 months. The face of the zombie-shooter niche has certainly changed, but has it changed enough?
A virus causing zombie-like symptoms has spread like wildfire, and it's getting worse by the day. The ranks of infected are growing in strength and number, and word of the government's abandonment sure doesn't help either. Left 4 Dead 2 picks up right where the last one left off, with the epidemic spreading to the far reaches of the American South. With the human versus zombie situation not looking any better here than it did for Francis, Bill, Zoey, and A virus causing zombie-like symptoms has spread like wildfire, and it's getting worse by the day. The ranks of infected are growing in strength and number, and word of the government's abandonment sure doesn't help either. Left 4 Dead 2 picks up right where the last one left off, with the epidemic spreading to the far reaches of the American South. With the human versus zombie situation not looking any better here than it did for Francis, Bill, Zoey, and Louis, there's certainly some work to be done.
Left 4 Dead 2's campaign consists of five new scenarios, presented with a southern twist. Think zombie-infested swamps and sugar mills. The individual levels themselves are a little shorter in length, trading the winding urban gauntlets of the past for a more varied palette of scenery and sub-missions. Additional types of special infected, like the charger, provide new threats, and even the new breed of uncommon infected will keep you on your toes. After all, it isn't every day that you see a zombie decked out in bullet-resistant riot gear.
Just like the first, the general premise of the game is to brave the oncoming horde of undead in the hopes of making it to each level's safe house. How you'll make it to the end, as well as what measure of difficulty you'll contend with, is largely decided by the director: the game's all-powerful, all-knowing A.I. Depending on your performance, the director will affect certain factors like weapon placement, item spawns, and the much-dreaded crescendo events. All of this, and much more, factors into Left 4 Dead 2's brutal algorithms. Big parts of the level layouts and even weather conditions change every time you play through a level, resulting in a different experience each time.
Left 4 Dead 2 handles its tense finales in ways that deviate a good deal from the typical zombie swarm stand-offs of the first game. Without ruining the surprise, these revamped climaxes will place you in some truly perilous situations, resulting in complex, varied encounters that feel truly rewarding, especially on the higher difficulties.
If you're bored of the game's original three modes, you have two new ones to delve into. Realism mode brings an added emphasis on headshots and does away with useful HUD markers, while scavenge has teams taking turns against one another in an effort to see who can bring more gas tanks to a generator in the allotted time.
Left 4 Dead 2's new features carry weight, and the additional modes add even more substance to the game's already-strong online presence. The central campaign is great, if a bit familiar, though additions like the new infected and variable level paths keep things feeling unique. You'll invest a few good hours into clearing the entire campaign, with more sure to follow if you dig the addictive online play.
The sequel certainly switches up its famous cast of leads, but many of the fundamentals of zombie-slaying remain set in stone. Your standard load-out revolves around a primary firearm, a secondary weapon, and a small collection of tools like first aid kits and pipe bombs. What's new comes in sheer content: there's a silenced SMG to pepper up foes with, boomer bile to spray on moving targets, and a life-giving defibrillator kit, among other new gizmos and gadgets to deck out your personal arsenal.
In terms of mechanics, a new combat system gives you the option of wielding a melee weapon in place of a sidearm. Getting up close and personal with your prey comes at considerable risk, but there's definitely something special to be said about plunging In terms of mechanics, a new combat system gives you the option of wielding a melee weapon in place of a sidearm. Getting up close and personal with your prey comes at considerable risk, but there's definitely something special to be said about plunging a chainsaw into the meat of your adversaries.
Added bells and whistles aside, the Left 4 Dead 2's quirks will feel familiar. Guns run a myriad of classes and types, but typically don't feel all that distinct from one permutation to another. Bullets are equally undiscerning about accuracy, making spray-and-pray the de facto strategy in high-stress situations. With regards to both, a slightly more nuanced touch would have been welcome, but with most of the shooting focused on laying waste en masse, it isn't a bad compromise. Plus, with agile AI foes that tend to dance around the line of fire, combat continues to feel fast and frantic even if it's largely the same old bag.
Left 4 Dead 2's Source-powered graphics continue to churn out plenty of pretty pixels. Valve's vision of the decayed South is host to a number of visually interesting set pieces, as well as a crop of remodeled infected that look more gruesome than ever. Players on the PC will definitely get closer to its truer, grittier look, but the 360 version handles itself very well. Some of the newer tech, like dynamic weather and dismemberment physics, give the sequel a little bit of that extra polish. But it's still disappointing to see two zombies, side by side, reel with the same pre-canned animation.
In terms of sound, Left 4 Dead 2 sustains the reputation for greatness with its score of fine audio work. The longer, more varied speech interactions between the survivors feel fresh and real, and the way that the director contextually manipulates sound cues is still top notch.
Though not an astounding improvement over the original, Left 4 Dead 2 successfully rekindles that magical zombie-hunting feeling with great new content, and a cool competitive multiplayer mode to boot. It may take some convincing to draw you to its cause, but cooperative team-based shooting is rarely more fun, or hectic, than this.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.