Left 4 Dead 2 Review

By Patrick Klepek - Posted Nov 16, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2 is a worthy sequel and at no point comes across as a game that should have been released as a downloadable expansion to the original. You are getting a true sequel here. Valve may have produced Left 4 Dead 2 in a single year, but it's a game intelligently engineered for fans of the original and meant to frustrate you in the most entertaining way possible while you bleed out on the floor screaming for help.

The Pros
  • Melee completely changes how you play the game
  • Uses the environment to screw with the player over and over again
  • Just enough additions to make it feel like a worthy sequel
The Cons
  • Campaign quality is uneven, some look and feel generic
  • Source engine is starting to show its age
  • Like the first one, always play with friends

There’s one rule to survival in Left 4 Dead 2: never, ever stop moving. Unfortunately (for you), everything in Left 4 Dead 2 was made with the sole purpose of stopping you from advancing. The designers at Valve studied what you, me and everyone else were doing while playing the original Left 4 Dead and specifically engineered new enemies and hazards to make our collective lives a living hell…as if the endless walking dead weren't enough of a headache.

Left 4 Dead 2

The Rumors Are True

Let me address the elephant in the room: Left 4 Dead 2 is a worthy sequel and at no point comes across as a game that should have been released as a downloadable expansion for the original. You are getting a true sequel here. Valve may have produced Left 4 Dead 2 in a single year, but it's a game intelligently engineered for fans of the original and meant to frustrate you in the most entertaining way possible while you bleed out on the floor screaming for help.

Many players' first instinct will be to have two firearms at their side, but melee isn't just an option in Left 4 Dead 2, it's a necessity to wade through the sheer army of enemies. The most pleasant surprise comes from how much the addition of melee weapons fundamentally changes the game. Melee weapons are powerful enough that I often wound up using a katana, axe or blade as my primary means of attacking the zombies, flipping the dynamics of play from Left 4 Dead. It's an extension of the push back button from the original Left 4 Dead, which advanced players would use for crowd control with hordes. The push back option still exists in Left 4 Dead 2 but comes enhanced with the available melee weaponry. Suddenly, not only are you pushing back, but you're slashing up arms, legs and heads in the process, providing plenty of opportunities to rush through zombie crowds and take dozens of them out at the same time (not to mention the amount of precious ammunition that's saved from missed shots in the process).

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More Ways To Make You Suffer

The significance of firearms hasn't been reduced, however, only altered. Melee weapons won't help much against the special infected, especially the new ones. In addition to constantly moving forward, staying together in a group is crucial to Left 4 Dead strategy, which is why each of the new special infected was created to destroy that basic tactic. The Jockey hops on a character and steers them in the direction of bad things, the Spitter creates a living pool of acid to scatter everywhere and the Charger can knock over an entire team at once. These new special infected join the rest of the largely unchanged existing lineup; however, the Witch has seen some welcome modifications. She no longer sits motionless around corners but will often be a walking, screaming terror. The addition of movement though means smart teams can avoid dangerous encounters. Well, until a well-placed Charger knocks you into her path.

Though the A.I. Director was the star of Left 4 Dead, the five campaigns in Left 4 Dead 2 showcase a conscious decision by Valve's level designers to mask its role in the game. The levels aren't really any more open-ended than the original campaign slate, but they've been widened just enough to give players the impression of more directional choice. The presence of numerous daylight stages, letting you better see the world around you, goes a long way toward making this effective. These tricks allow you to focus more on exploring the environment, rather than wondering which funnel the A.I. Director will send the next horde wave from.

Left 4 Dead 2

Sometimes Being Too Good Is A Problem


The campaigns themselves, however, are sometimes uneven in quality, each having moments of brilliance but only two proving to be standout experiences from start to finish. “Dead Center,” Left 4 Dead 2's opening campaign and an obvious riff on George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, begins as a wonderful introduction to Valve's new attempts to confuse the player. Players start in a burning apartment complex, constantly worrying about falling to death while window hopping and squinting through layers of pluming smoke from seemingly every direction. Then, you enter a yawn-worthy generic suburban mall encompassing endless hallways for killing time until the campaign's exciting conclusion, which puts a spin on the "press the button and fight the horde until help arrives" stage ender with a frantic race to dump a series of gas cans into an escape car (also a clever mini-training session for the excellent multiplayer mode Scavenge). Similar issues plague “Dark Carnival” and “The Parish”: both are campaigns with a handful of great moments that simply pale in comparison to Valve's achievements in “Hard Rain” and “Swamp Fever.”

Despite being built on the clearly aging Source engine (which is put to impressive work here, but could use a refresh before the next game), Left 4 Dead 2's highlight campaign, “Hard Rain,” is one of the most impressive environmental set pieces programmed for a video game. You will feel like you're in the middle of a hurricane in “Hard Rain.” The campaign's gimmick drops a storm, which floats in and out of control at random. When the rain, lightning and wind kick up, it's a mad dash to the nearest nearly-submerged house for cover from the impending horde, as the storm creates a terrifying fog of war that covers zombies in a thick green mist. My heart started racing on more than one occasion, a tremendous triumph for a game I was playing with three other people online. That doesn't usually happen to me in multiplayer.

Left 4 Dead 2

A Little Help (And Hurt) From My Friends

The new Scavenge gameplay mode almost makes Versus irrelevant. Each mode retains individual strengths, but the greatest satisfaction of survivor-versus-infected multiplayer comes from taking control of the zombies. Scavenge's gas guzzling scenario is faster paced than any other comparable mode in Left 4 Dead 2, giving each side ample opportunities to scramble for just a few more seconds of life and hop into the twisted minds of the special infected and terrorize their friends. Valve has wisely kept multiplayer mostly untouched, focusing on enhancing proven formulas to accentuate the experience for players on each side.

Valve should also be commended for continued support of split-screen. Even though Left 4 Dead 2's visuals take a serious hit when played over split-screen, the ability to play with friends in the same room is something many games have sadly abandoned in the age of online connectivity.

The emphasis on atmosphere and melee will go a long way in reminding gamers why they loved Valve's zombie apocalypse in the first place, but a little more time in the oven for the inevitable sequel should hopefully produce a campaign with more balanced highs and lows than what’s on display here. Despite the initial skepticism when it was unveiled, Left 4 Dead 2 makes a good case for Valve pulling off annual iterations of the series. Such a comment comes as the result of several smart, game-changing additions to the sequel, which should reinforce the philosophy of trust many instilled in Valve's decision making process before Left 2 Dead 2's quick announcement. In Valve we trust...again.

 

Want to hear more about Left 4 Dead 2? Check out this video of reviewer Patrick Klepek talking about the game with X-Play's Adam Sessler!