I'll make no apologies: I was a fan of the original Left 4 Dead. By the time my interest waned and my friends and I stopped playing, I had clocked in somewhere around 100 hours of gameplay. Probably more. Much of that time was spent in the game's Versus mode, which pits four survivors against four player-controlled "super-infected" zombies with different powers. I talked a little bit about that mode about a year ago, but suffice it to say the thrill of orchestrating attacks on survivors and then having to survive the other team's onslaughts kept me hooked. Playing with Internet pals only made the experience better.
Valve released Left 4 Dead 2 on November 17, and Steam tells me I've already sunk just shy of 40 hours into it since launch day.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a strange animal for a Valve game. L4D2 came out exactly one year after the original, first of all, which seems like a preposterously quick release cycle by Valve standards. We're talking about a company that took six years to make Half-Life 2 and has yet to announce a launch schedule for Half-Life 2: Episode Three two years after releasing Episode Two, after all. This new multiplayer zombie shooter debuted so quickly after the original that some accused Valve of peddling a glorified expansion pack as a full game. A boycott movement was born, demanding that Left 4 Dead 2 come out as downloadable content for Left 4 Dead. I had some reservations myself about whether L4D2 would really be worth the $49.99 (or, in my case, €49.99) asking price. I mean, how much more content could they really put in?
As lukewarm as I was about the price, I was still eager to give the game a shot. Valve was promising a fresh round of monsters, characters, and weapons, plus some fresh locations with daytime segments. Everything looked like it would be bigger, meaner, and more intense, sort of like last night's leftovers cooked up Cajun style with plenty of hot sauce. I could hardly turn that down.
40 hours of playtime later, I'm hooked again. Valve may have kept the basic mechanics the same, but just about everything else has changed—sometimes subtly, sometimes not. The Louisiana locations give the game a fresh coat of paint, as do the new characters, zombies, weapons, graphical effects (you can shoot chunks of flesh off zombies now), and sounds (even certain weapons from the first game sound different now). The game certainly looks and feels more like a sequel than an expansion, so that's a start.
Altogether, the gameplay changes almost forced me to re-learn how to play, especially in the Versus mode. Ever huddle up in a corner with teammates to face a sudden influx of zombies? In the original, a team that did that was practically untouchable. In Left 4 Dead 2, that strategy is no good: all it takes is to spoil things is one attack from the Spitter super-infected, which hocks up a pool of acid goo from a distance, causing heaps of damage to survivors. Ever stick together tightly while walking down a long corridor? Good L4D strategy, bad in L4D2. Here, the Charger super-infected can run down the entire team, grabbing one of the survivors in the process, carrying him a few dozen feet away, and subsequently pummeling him mercilessly into the ground as his teammates recover.
Valve has added a third super-infected zombie. The Jockey has the ability to hop on the back of a survivor and steer him away, which often proves pointless and makes the character frustrating to use. However, this ability can be a godsend when one needs to split up the survivors or make one of them stumble over a ledge, which can either kill him or leave him hanging for his life as teammates try to fight off the zombie horde. In Versus mode, those playing as the Infected will have to learn how to use the Spitter, Charger, and Jockey effectively and coordinate them with the original Boomer, Hunter, Smoker, and Tank. That's harder than it sounds, trust me.
The survivors also have new tools in their toolbox, of course, not least of all the melee weapons. Those help tremendously with large swarms of zombies and when you need to save ammo. Good thing, too, because ammo has become much scarcer in the sequel. Besides, nothing's more fun than running down zombies with a chainsaw, a katana sword, or a baseball bat. Players will also find additional firearms. I'm glad Valve mixed things up a little here; the lack of variety in L4D1's guns made things dreary for me toward the end, since there were basically two good weapons: the assault rifle and the shotgun. L4D2's arsenal includes two extra shotguns, another sniper rifle, two more assault rifles, and a grenade launcher, all of which complement the original weapons.
L4D2's revised scoring system also doesn't factor in how many health packs you have left at the end of a round, so if you've made a habit out of not healing until you're almost dead, you'll want to re-train yourself. You can also pick up a defibrillator instead of a health kit; this tool will let you revive a dead comrade, but you won't be able to use it to heal when your life bar gets into the red. Decisions, decisions.
Survivors will have to reshape their play style to fit the Louisiana campaigns. In Swamp Fever, they'll face lots of open areas with trees and zombies that can crawl out of the bayou. No crocodiles, though. The Hard Rain campaign is my current favorite: in the first half, players navigate through a small town, some industrial areas, and a cane field toward a gas station. The survivors must then bring the gas back to their boat, which involves backtracking through the same levels—only now, a thunderstorm is raging. Some areas are flooded, and the storm rages more or less fiercely depending on how well the survivors are doing. At the storm's most intense, players have next to no visibility and can barely hear other players over the voice chat, forcing everyone to yell commands and pleas for help.
I should also throw in an honorable mention for the Dark Carnival campaign, which has zombie clowns. Zombie clowns, man!
I'm still coming to grips with some of the updated gameplay mechanics, but in almost every way, L4D2 feels more intense and tougher than the original—great for players like me who know L4D like the back of their hands and are looking for a fresh challenge. Valve hasn't altered any of the fundamentals, though, so if you liked the first game, you'll almost definitely like the sequel.
On the flip side, if the original didn't enthuse you, then you'll want to stay far, far away from Left 4 Dead 2. This advice goes especially for folks who were miffed by the first game's bugs and oddities. Valve's latest title feels generally polished, but some quirks can cause a generous dose of frustration. For example, the Charger's, er, charge can be stopped dead in its tracks by an obstacle. Makes sense, right? Only sometimes, that obstacle happens to be a tiny piece of wood sticking out of a wall or a small object on the ground that was barely visible from a distance. Such quirks are less apparent in the co-op and survival modes, but if you're playing Versus or the new Scavenge mode, things like that can get on your nerves.
In my experience, the best way to have fun playing Left 4 Dead 2 is to play with friends. As long as you know at least three other people who share your taste for the game, you should be able to have a good time. If you find seven others, then Versus games will have you relishing the moment and reminiscing about (or debating) the events of the campaign for hours afterward. Just like with the original, though, playing on public servers gets old quickly—especially because you're not familiar with your team and their play style, which makes coordinating effectively more difficult.