Thursday, 26 November 2009

First impressions: Left 4 Dead 2

Aside from That Evil Game With The Level In The Airport©, Left 4 Dead 2 is probably one of the most controversial PC releases of the year, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

The fans revolted, you see, because Valve decided to develop a sequel to the original only a year after release, while promising to still release DLC for the first Left 4 Dead game. How dare they develop a bigger, better and more violent game? The insolence!

But anyway, that’s of little importance now that said sequel has been released and said protest has fizzled out. What is important, however, is that Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) is superb.

I myself am a newcomer to the game, not having played the original, but I’ve been told by more experienced colleagues that this game is a bigger, better and badder version of the still-popular first game.

Explaining L4D2’s concept is easy: four people have survived the zombie apocalypse, and they must fight their way through unrelenting hordes of the undead to get to a safe evacuation point.

L4D2’s genius lies in how Valve has expanded and perfected this concept. Weapons, for instance; all of the game’s standard guns are comically exaggerated, packing explosive recoil, huge amounts of power and a superb, kinetic feel, but a host of melee weapons add spice to the game.

The katana, for instance, slices zombies into slivers, and the crowbars and guitars and frying pans come complete with meaty and satisfying sound effects. The chainsaw, though, is the undisputed king of melee: its whir like a maniacal laugh and its cutting and grinding power unmatched. I can’t think of any other game that prevents you from seeing enemies directly in front of you simply because there’s too much blood in the way.

Even the chainsaw runs out of fuel, though, which contributes to one of L4D2’s other vital ingredients: suspense. The threat of death by zombie is ever-present, even though you’ll always have a weapon: melee items are normally available, and the pistol never runs out of ammo. Neither of these, however, are enough to fight off an ever-increasing group of zombies without help from your fellow survivors.

You’ll have to work in a team to succeed, especially when L4D2’s roster of “special” zombies has been expanded. Now there’s the Jockey, who leaps on survivors and walks them to grisly deaths, the Charger who, well, charges people, and the Spitter, who propels balls of acidic phlegm across the map.

Valve’s other masterstroke was to make most of the game playable online, with only one mode – the imaginatively named single-player mode – not requiring internet access.

Playing with other people, whether you know them or not, adds layers of both unpredictability and trust: you won’t be bothered when your AI team-mates die, but you’ll certainly work harder to protect and heal real people, just as they’ll instinctively do the same for you. Even if you don’t know them, the “us vs them” mentality that’s prevalent when you enter a server is genuinely galvanising.

The only other mode I’ve played so far, aside from the campaign levels, is Versus – and it’s great. One team of four plays as survivors, and another team of four takes its place among the infected, occupying all of the “special” roles. Playing as a survivor is fine – it’s just regular L4D2 but against slightly cannier human opponents – but it’s unfortunate that playing as the infected seems to be slightly broken.

In concept, it’s a fine idea, but the idea of an unrelenting horde is harmed by having to wait twenty seconds to respawn. The infected aren’t particularly powerful, either – maybe I’m just not very good, but I’m lucky to get one attack in before I’m killed. It’s the nature of playing amid a side that’s been designed to be easy to mow down.

Removing the respawn time would perhaps balance things up a little and make it more fun playing as infected, allowing you to wade back into battle far quicker. This, however, is a tiny, minor complaint – and one that’s perhaps borne out of me just not being very good at the game.

In every other respect – the level design, the game modes, the sound, the graphics, the weapons – L4D2 is superb. I can’t help but recommend a game where I laugh uncontrollably as I gun down hundreds of zombies and stand, triumphant, amid their infected entrails and spilled blood.

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