Left 4 Dead 2 Xbox 360 Review
Developer Valve has always had an ahem...”relaxed” attitude toward game releases, so it's fairly shocking that merely a year after releasing the first Left 4 Dead, they're back with a sequel. Then again, once you've played Left 4 Dead 2 you'll see that the company's spent the last year augmenting a formula they knew already worked, rather than reinventing the wheel.
Left 4 Dead 2 improves on the original Left 4 Dead both visually and mechanically, while retaining the fast-paced action that made the first game so great. Of course, these improvements have nothing to do with what we might laughingly call the story. Left 4 Dead 2 unashamedly rehashes the zombie epidemic story of the first game (and that of nearly every other zombie-themed book, movie or game), pitting an unlikely four-person team of survivors against the ever-growing zombie horde. This time though, you have four new survivors to choose from: Coach, a (surprise!) high school football coach, Rochelle, a producer for a local news station, Ellis, a hillbilly mechanic, and Nick, a con man/drifter.
Also new are the five chapters of the single player campaign which are held loosely together by the story of the survivors' ongoing efforts to get to safety. The game continues to have its characteristic sense of humor, as seen in the witty chapter titles: Dead Center (a mall), Dark Carnival (an amusement park), Hard Rain (a stormy rural town), Swamp Fever (a shanty town) and The Parish (something like New Orleans' French Quarter). As in the first game, each chapter is presented as if it was a B-movie, with an appropriately schlocky tag line. Things like, “Dark Carnival—You must be this tall...to DIE.” Vocal exchanges among the characters also add a lot of much-needed comic relief. As the team enters the amusement park Coach exclaims happily, “Whispering Oaks! I used to come here as a kid!” to which Nick responds drily, “Great. Now we can die here as adults.”
These extremely entertaining single player chapters (which can also be played co-op splitscreen) are richer and more entertaining than those of the first game and the campaign as a whole is longer, with five chapters at roughly an hour a piece. All the chapters are fun and make incredibly clever use of a range of classic zombie movie settings. What makes the level design in Left 4 Dead 2 so great is that it has an uncontrived, organic feel to it you rarely, if ever see. Each level is believable as a place once inhabited by humans and the incidental debris of these now-destroyed locations makes for some really creative gameplay scenarios. Dark Carnival for instance, makes amazing use of the tracks of a defunct rollercoaster while Hard Rain uses a torrential rainstorm and a sugar cane field to create more suspense than you'd ever believe possible. Swamp Fever too does a superb job of playing on our deepest fears not only by limiting visibility through fog and dim lighting, but by making us wade waist-deep through dirty, zombie-infested waters.
Everything in Left 4 Dead 2—the level design, the graphics and the sound—works together to create an atmosphere of tension and fear. The music in particular adds a lot, from the creepy B-movie music of Dark Carnival to the zydeco of The Parish. Voice acting too is key, not only adding to the ambience, but working extremely well as a guidance tool, letting you know which way you should go.
All that's been mentioned until now will seem familiar to gamers who've played the first Left 4 Dead and it's true, much of the game is a conceptual repeat of the first. You still have health packs, ammo, weapons and safe houses. You still have to stand back-to-back blasting packs of “regular” zombies, smokers, boomers and witches. You'll still enjoy the benefit of Valve's AI-based “Director” system changing things up and keeping you constantly on your toes. What's different though, is the Director's new capacity to affect level layout, weather and lighting, the new level-specific zombies (like the—shudder—clown zombies in Dark Carnival) and the new melee weapons that let you become more intimate with your zombie pals than ever before. Now you can batter them down with things like a guitar, a katana, an axe or a crowbar but to me, the best option by far is the frying pan. There's just nothing like the metallic clang it makes as it bounces off a zombie's skull.
Also new to Left 4 Dead 2 are the additional multiplayer modes Scavenge and Realism. Scavenge has the four survivors trying to refill a generator by retrieving 16 gas cans without being killed or setting the cans on fire. Sounds easy until you realize the opposing team, playing the Infected, is doing everything they can to stop you. Realism mode is basically the usual zombie-killing jamboree, made as difficult and unforgiving as possible. With no player auras and even more difficulty reviving dead players, it's more or less only for those players with a serious pain fetish.
Left 4 Dead 2 is not trying to revolutionize the zombie-shooter genre. In many ways, it's a copy of the first Left 4 Dead although considering the strength of that title, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The game skillfully expands on an already-successful formula by adding more content, more weapon options and more personality. So if you're new to the Left 4 Dead franchise, and are wondering if you should buy the first one, I'd say skip it. Left 4 Dead 2 contains everything that made the first game great and so much more.