January 2010 Archives

When Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2 last year, I was not particularly happy to hear it.  Being a fan of TF2, I had purchased the original at the full price largely on the expectation that it would receive the same sort of content updates that Team Fortress 2 was getting (and is still getting).  While I wasn't quite ready to jump on the boycott wagon, I was happy enough with the original Left 4 Dead for all my zombie-killing needs that I wasn't going to pay full price for L4D2 when I could just wait 6-12 months and get it for half price.

My brother, however, purchased it right away and was overjoyed -- and despite my lukewarm feelings about the title, he bought it for me for Christmas.  I admit that at the time I wasn't rushing to play the game -- I had just finished Dragon Age, I was picking up things right and left from the Steam holiday sale (Rome and Medieval 2: Total War have eaten up far too much of my time over the last couple weeks) and I figured L4D2 was pretty much going to be more of the same with regard to zombie-killing.

Reaching the point of burnout with Total Warring for the moment, late last week I picked up the game and tried it out for the first time, and I have to admit that my preconceptions were pretty wrong.  Far from simply feeling like an attempt to cash in by selling a half-baked sequel to a successful game, Left 4 Dead 2 actually goes back and makes the original Left 4 Dead feel like a half-baked pilot project rushed out before its time.  I'm not sure if that is better or worse, but I think the ire would have been a lot less pronounced if Valve had treated it that way, selling the original game at a much lower price point (25 bucks or so) to start, and marketing Left 4 Dead 2 as "the real game," though the 50 dollar pricetag still seems out of whack -- the $33 price during the holiday sale would have been about perfect though.

What makes me say this?  In the original L4D, the various campaigns were well-made but seemed very workmanlike.  Everything was very straightforward; each stage generally progressed in the same way, the finale events were all very similar, and even the environments were not particularly all that different.  L4D2 shows evidence that the team behind the game had become comfortable with the tools -- instead of just making levels in the way of the previous game, they are using the various building blocks of the game to change the way the game is played in a very significant way.  Each of the four campaigns in L4D2 feels very distinct from the others, and generally plays at least somewhat differently as well.

The Hard Rain campaign probably exemplifies this best; it has several new gameplay elements that make it stand out as a significant departure from the original L4D formula:

  • Instead of progressing through the stages in a linear fashion, you go from start to finish and back again, with the items and such remaining persistent -- if you take all the health kits on the way to the gas station you're going to, they won't be there when you have to go back from the gas station to the boat.  This adds a lot of economizing to the gameplay and forces people to make some difficult choices, especially on the harder game settings.
  • While the above might seem like a cop out, as a way to only design half the levels in order to get a full campaign, on the way back to the boat from the gas station you're in the middle of a hellish storm, and much of the terrain you went through before is flooded.  Walking through the water slows you down, so you need to stick to the higher ground -- walking on catwalks, roofs, and other stuff.  The storm picks up into a furious, pelting rain at random points as well, usually accompanied by a slavering horde of zombies; having been in some really bad storms myself, Valve did a good job making the atmosphere during this part really evoke that feeling.
  • The second part of the campaign takes place in an abandoned sugar mill heavily populated with Witches, including the new type that wanders around.  This definitely forces you to play in a very different fashion in order to avoid setting off one or more of them.  There definitely seem to be fewer of them on the return trip, but the added problems with visibility (and hearing) in the storm make those that remain all the more dangerous.  This new arrangement of familiar gameplay elements happens in the other campaigns as well, and really raises the bar for the level design from where it was in the original game.
Hard Rain has a similar ending to the finales of the original L4D campaigns, where you have to hold out for your ride after signaling for the boat to come pick you up, but it is different (as the designers pointed out in an interview I saw) because there's really no place for you to bunker down and hold off the horde, whereas that was generally the plan in the original, to the point where one of the main tactics for the endgame finales there was to hunker down in a closet, at least prior to some patches that made that more difficult.  Other campaigns have different crescendo events that depart from the "hold off the horde" formula as well, though it does still fall back on that to some extent.  Still, if you think you've been there, done that after the original game, L4D2 will creep up on you with some new twists and turns.

On top of those deeper differences, Valve has added a layer of creamy frosting.  L4D2 adds new weapons, including melee weapons and variations of the guns that were in the original, as well as new types of special Infected.  While I don't think these add as much to the game as the new campaigns, you definitely need to do some readjustment when you start playing.  Melee weapons are necessary in some places like the mill in Hard Rain or one part of the Parish campaign where you emerge in a giant lot of alarmed cars, where one misplaced shot can bury you in neverending hordes of zombies.

The new special Infected add some gameplay wrinkles too.  In the first one you could get situations where a Smoker might drag you into a Witch or Boomer, making your life a bit difficult.  L4D2 adds the Spitter, which belches persistent acid at the players, which can be a real pain in constrained spaces or when you get attacked by the Jockey, another new Infected which jumps on your head and forces you to move in whatever direction it feels like -- often into a pool of the aforementioned acid.  There are also Chargers, which barrel into you, knocking you across the map like a Tank, and then pick you up and pummel you similar to a Hunter.  While I haven't played any Versus games (I tend to prefer the campaign missions, I admit), I suspect a good Infected team can play merry havoc with the Survivors with the right combination.

As far as the rest of the game goes, everything I liked from the original is back in the new one; the cinematic tones, the fun character interaction, and the excellent set dressing are all still very much present, and the fact that the scenarios are a little more varied allows them to show more of the game's setting and flesh it out a little more.  The campaigns now have a clear progression, whereas the campaigns in the original were largely separate; in L4D2, the survivors are making their way from Savannah, GA to New Orleans, each campaign being another step along that path.  If you play them in order, this adds a bit to the verisimilitude, if that's your thing (not everyone plays their FPSes for story though, let's face it).  The characters are all at least as fleshed out as the protagonists of the original game, and they are all very different from their L4D counterparts.

So yes, I am overwhelmingly positive on L4D2; if L4D wasn't just a year old and L4D2's price point was lower, I would tell you to run out and buy this title right away if the premise sounded at all appealing.  As it is, I can't really say that -- if you're happy with L4D, you can wait for L4D2 to go on sale in order to pick it up.  I have no doubt that there will be another sale at least as good as the holiday sale on the game in the next six months.  On the other hand, if you don't own L4D, L4D2 is worth getting if you enjoy cooperative shooters and probably worth paying full price, especially if it does get more DLC in the future; the first add-on for L4D2 has already been announced (a campaign involving the survivors from both games), and Valve has released the SDK for player-made content (which is also good for making L4D add-ons, if I understand correctly).  You're pretty much guaranteed to have a good time if you can find a good group of players, and it shouldn't be that difficult if you use the Steam community features.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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