Left 4 Dead 2
There’s been a recent plague of things in our culture that want to bite us. You can’t wander through your local town without feeling uneasy at the sheer number of imaginary werewolves and vampires staring down from posters, eyeing our more edible bits. ‘What can be done about this? I don’t want to feel my precious, delicious brains are under imminent threat.’ you cry, silently. Luckily for us, Valve have answered the call, and offered humanity a chance to fight back against the bitegeist by releasing _Left 4 Dead 2_, the sequel to their zombicidal hit of 2008.
Valve HQ over the last year seems to have painstakingly dismantled the original, taking out every single nut, bolt, pipebomb, zombie limb and piercing scream, then laid it out on a big ol’ blanket and asked themselves, ‘How can we improve this?’ And we have been blessed with their response. The new game not only improves upon the standards set by its forerunner, but surpasses them in every way. It was easy to get very emotionally attached to the wisecracking and long-suffering Survivors of the original series, and finding out that the sequel would not be a continuation of their zombie-slaughtering antics disappointed many fans, eager to hear both what happened to them next, and hoping for an expansion of the narrative threads of the original _Left 4 Dead_ universe.
Notoriously economical with their storytelling, plot-points and exposition, Valve games are akin to losing your virginity at a porn-star orgy: you may have to wait a while, but it’s worth the wait. Piecing together the jigsaw, the big picture sets the new game as the bigger, badder brother of the original, transposing the setting from Anywhere, America to a New Orleans ravaged by infection, converting ninety five percent of the populace into Ragin’ Cajuns of an entirely different kind. Taking the role of one of four immune Survivors, the game spins the story through five deeply cinematic campaigns, beginning with the strained remnants of the Army airlifting the last of the uninfected out, our Survivors arriving a moment too late for rescue. From here on it’s a desperate four-man blitzkrieg to New Orleans and the last bastion of the Army and the infection containing CEDA forces, in hope of final escape. It’s literally a journey through hell, without the ‘and back’ part.
‘Cinematic’ and ‘Blockbuster’ are new buzzwords being thrown at the new high concept games seeing release, but in this case they stick. Outnumbered literally ten thousand to four, the game will force you and your fantastically written and voiced new best friends through abandoned malls, hellish theme parks, swamps, storms, and finally a New Orleans on its knees. Keen to encourage an ethos of teamwork, any absence of such will be met with a swift and undignified death as you fight your way to safety.
Valve have also amusingly reacted to criticism that the game was more unforgiving than Satan by making the game harder. The new and utterly fiendish A.I. Director has reduced even the most hardened ‘One-more-time-I’ll-beat-this’ gamers to openly weeping in front of their loved ones, through a vicious combination of assaulting the survivors with constant waves of the numberless regular Infected (lovingly dubbed the Horde) with guest appearances from old favourite Special Infected, alongside new, horribly mutated faces.
Your fate can spin on a moment’s notice, as me and my friends discovered all too quickly. There is a moment in an early level where, close to the oh so holy Safe Room, the Survivors pen themselves in an armoured van. Between them and the safe room is a maze of wire walls, erected by a long departed Army to slow the flow of Infected. Upon leaving the van, the Survivors will breach the defence, sounding a loud alarm, signalling dinner time for everything within a mile. The only way to deactivate it is to get to a tower in the centre of the maze, flipping a switch and stopping the flow of the undead. This is a new form of the old ‘crescendo’ events; a set-piece where the price of progressing was to call down an army of infected on your own head; only now you have to keep moving.
We thought we had this down, we had a plan, ammo, even had the lingo. Someone said ‘I’ll provide suppressing fire on your flank’, without any sense of irony. We popped the door, took a step out, and there was the alarm, followed by the sound of the city screaming for our blood. Or brains. Whatever. We rushed forward, mowing down the first wave of infected screaming after us (enjoying the new, upgraded levels of gore. Nobody requested more gore. Valve did it anyway), getting within the maze and making good progress. Turning a corner, beneath the constant concert of growling and swearing of the horde, was a sound. ‘Grrrugh. Urg.’ it said. A flash of ugly later, and my best friend is thirty metres away, the victim of the new Charger infected; this thing which was essentially an arm with a zombie attached had run down my friend and was now beating him into a friend-shaped pulp against the floor, half a level away. My friend politely requested my aid at the nearest convenient moment. Halfway on my heroic rescue mission, a gimp-like Jockey infected jumped on my back, removing my control of my character and guiding him into a pool of acid which the Spitter infected had guffawed over my now hilariously injured team. My friend survived, somehow, and managed to turn off the alarm. Alone, injured and traumatised, he continued the short distance to the safe room and victory, turning the final corner and seeing it there like the pearly gates. A newly mobile Wandering Witch then strolled into his path, and in less than four seconds, diced him.
Valve have nevertheless evened the odds, equipping the Survivors with shiny new melee weapons, including the oft-requested katana and chainsaw, to childlike squeals of glee from the fans – a response Valve are unused to from their community. ‘Valve time’ has become a mythological term associated with their games, their release dates being pushed back to claims of ‘It will be done when it is done’. Uncharacteristically, less than a year after the original _Left 4 Dead_ was released Valve announced the sequel was in the final stages of completion, ready for release soon. A confused rabble responded, most pleased at the prospect of a larger universe in the sequel, some modders angry that their content for the original would never see popular use, and those patient for the promised downloadable new levels yelling accusations of lies, lies, lies. These issues have been calmed by the simple overwhelming quality of _Left 4 Dead 2_, introducing a world of deeply endearing characters imbued with Valve’s now iconic sense of humour. Promises of expansion have been answered in new game modes such as Scavenge and the nihilistic Survival, alongside Versus and the central Campaign.
Getting to New Orleans, dragging yourself through a brain-hungry population and finally, at last, limping your way onto the final rescue chopper (At this point my girlfriend screamed ‘Get to the chopper!’ without any sarcasm either) is a deeply rewarding experience. You may have left your best friend for dead, but it was worth it.
4,750 zombies were harmed in the making of this review.