Review: Left 4 Dead 2

by Warren L. December 30, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

It takes merely a glance at the history of releases in the entertainment industry to discern what element is key to a higher chance of success: braaaiiins or, well, zombies anyway. Just take a look at all the titles that have something to do with zombies and the numbers they rack up:

28 Days later: $45,064,000
28 Weeks later: $54,146,747
Dawn of the Dead (2007): $102,356,381
Dead Rising: $1,220,000
Resident Evil: 6.43 million units sold

Despite the theme being over-done and something we should all be tired of, it’s still going strong and is as popular and enjoyable as ever. Why else would Gearbox decide to go that direction with their DLC for one of their flagship products: Borderlands? I don’t know what it is about zombies or the appeal of a zombie apocalypse, but it appears to be something we really enjoy being a part of.

Although using the popular zombie theme does seem to increase your chances of success, you need much more to produce an entertaining, immersive game that will keep people coming back for more and more. Is what Left 4 Dead 2 offers enough? Join me as we investigate what Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) brings to the table in order to develop The Last Word on Left 4 Dead 2.

If a solid story and well-developed characters is what you look for in games, then Left 4 Dead 2 might not be right for you. Even though there is definitely a story to be found within the game, it is mainly communicated through dialogue and graffiti – both of which you’ll likely find yourself glazing over to get right to the action. Very little is known about our four Survivors: Coach, Nick, Ellis and Rochelle and we’re barely treated to any development of their characters throughout the game.

In fact, much – if not all – of the information we know about the four new Survivors can be found on the Left 4 Dead 2 website and not in-game. As with L4D1, the four Survivors each represent a stereotype in the area the game takes place in: the Southern United States. Coach is the voice of authority and reason in the team mostly owing to his position and experience as a Health teacher. Nick is a con man and gambler who reluctantly has to join forces with the other Survivors in order to survive. Ellis is a na├»ve and young mechanic who treats any challenge as a dare that he has to do to impress his friends. Rochelle is, most likely, the character most of us can relate to: a typical hardworking individual struggling with a low-level job and waiting for her big break.

Although Valve did include an introduction dialogue sequence in the first campaign and the Survivors aren’t initially aware of what to call each of the Special Infected, they somehow magically all learn what the names of each Special Infected are in later campaigns without any explanation as to how. This is just one example of the many plot holes present in L4D2. Whilst this is a definite improvement over L4D1, the plot is often communicated too subtly for most people to notice.

Still, the story isn’t where L4D2 shines: it’s the gameplay that keeps 19,000+ players coming back for more. While the game lacks in providing the player with a cohesive and well-developed plot, story isn’t what Left 4 Dead 2 is about. Even with the original game, Valve opted to not concern themselves with story at all and it turned out a successful product as a result. When it comes to whether or not you should focus on the story, several factors should be considered: the genre of the title and whether there is a balance between the quality of the story and the quality of the gameplay – or if you just want to focus on the gameplay completely and throw in a story on the side since a good game can go without a well-developed and well communicated story without having the experience suffer.
When it comes to Left 4 Dead 2 that’s exactly what happens – to a degree. One could argue that this would result in more focus being put on gameplay and result in a better experience overall, and they’d be right. L4D2 not only expands upon the original, it goes beyond. Where the original L4D had 3 Special Infected: the Boomer, Smoker and the Hunter, Left 4 Dead 2 adds 3 more: the Charger, Spitter and the Jockey each offering a whole new level of gameplay and frustration. Gameplay because, as is the tradition with Left 4 Dead, each Special Infected comes with their own unique abilities to aid them in chasing after the Survivors and frustration because some of the Special Infected are too weak in order to achieve balance.

Left 4 Dead 2: ChargerThe Charger could be described as a mini-tank, with the ability to bowl right through Survivors (and sometimes send them flying) while grabbing onto the first Survivor he makes contact with to use as a shield. Upon hitting a wall (or running out of his range) he pummels the poor Survivor into the ground. Despite his tank-like ability and massive arm, if you ever find yourself hitting a mere pixel on a wall or a lawn chair (that a Survivor’s pathetic shove can move), you’ll understand my frustration when you suddenly hit it and stop. Still, with the ability to kill people instantly in multiple campaigns, I think the Charger is still fun to play and makes up for its strange aversion to objects that aren’t human. Unfortunately, no matter how much care you take into making sure that there are no objects around you, you’ll often find yourself hitting an invisible wall if you choose to begin your charge too close to a Survivor. This is incredibly annoying because of how loud and easy to avoid you are. Charge from too far away and they’ll be able to easily avoid you, resulting in your certain death. Charge too close and the Survivors become a wall. Try and find a happy medium and you’ll be spending too much time setting up your attack, resulting in the Survivors just running past you.

Left 4 Dead 2: SpitterThe Spitter is the answer to campers: with the ability to spit a deadly puddle of acid which deals large amounts of damage to those standing in it, you can be sure those nasty campers will think twice about setting up house in their favourite spot. In the new game mode, Scavenge, and one of the campaigns, the Spitter really stands out with its ability to light dropped gas cans after a few seconds by covering them with her acid. In general, the Spitter is a deadly Special capable of downing the entire team in a matter of seconds – if they don’t decide to get out of her spit in time. As with all the Specials, though, the Spitter has its cons: she has really low health and, obviously, has a limit to the range of her spit. While spitting you will often hit things you didn’t even know were there, causing you to fail what could have been the game winning spit. Also, the Spitter doesn’t always spit from the same side: sometimes she spits from the left, or the right or even the center. As far as I can see, the direction you were travelling in before you spat matters. Still, whenever the Spitter is killed, she leaves a pool of acid, smaller than the one she’s capable of spitting but still just as deadly, resulting in what I like to call: suicide spitters. Just run up to a downed Survivor and wait for them or their teammates to kill you and you’ll explode into a burning puddle of acidy goodness, dealing massive damage to the poor incapacitated Survivor and anyone stupid enough to stand near your puddle of death.

Left 4 Dead 2: JockeyThe Jockey is similar to the Smoker in that he is able to control where a Survivor is going, although he has more freedom. Where the Smoker grabs onto a hapless Survivor and pulls him/her towards itself (while being completely unable to move), ultimately hoping to choke the Survivor to death, a Jockey jumps on to a Survivor’s back and, true to its name, starts riding the Survivor like a pony. While riding a Survivor, the jockey has a considerable amount of control over their movement. However, the Survivor is able to struggle and get the jockey stuck in a door or on a corner of a wall. Nonetheless, it often isn’t enough to prevent the jockey from riding you out of a window or off the top floor, causing an instant incapacitation or even your death.

While the new Special Infected are, generally, quite deadly on their own, their special abilities really shine when teaming up with other Special Infected, making Versus (a 4v4 game of Survivors vs. Special Infected) all that more exciting and enjoyable. Although there are 3 new Special Infected in L4D2, each of the original Special Infected have gone through a makeover (or, rather, been subjected to more mutations from the infection) and the boomer has a random chance of being female, too. While the Witch (a unique Infected you’ll quickly learn to avoid due to her ability to incapacitate you in one hit) has been given the ability to wander in the daylight and is attracted to sugar. This results in the player having to deal with multiple witches (most I’ve seen is 10) in one of the campaigns that takes place within a sugar mill. While it generally works fine, the spawn system could be improved. Sometimes you can find yourself unable to spawn despite there being absolutely no way a Survivor can see you or within a long-grass field where visibility is surely reduced.

Left 4 Dead 2: Explosive AmmoLeft 4 Dead 2: Fire AmmoLeft 4 Dead 2: Bile BombWith L4D2 comes the Tank’s new best friends: Incendiary and Explosive Ammunition and the dreaded Bile Bomb (throwable boomer vomit that blinds and attracts the horde to anything it is thrown on). There is nothing worse when you’re the Tank than being set on fire and bile bombed. Your health is then steadily and quickly diminishing while being blinded by the boomer bile and bombarded by the horde it spawns. Of course, these new items aren’t limited to just the tank. Incendiary Ammo does what you’d expect: sets anything you shoot on fire for a few minutes and the Explosive Ammo staggers Special Infected, making it utterly impossible to get an attack on a Survivor team that can remotely aim well. The last new item added to Left 4 Dead 2 proves to add frustration for the Infected side in Versus. Despite killing a Survivor, if their team mates have a Defibrillator, they’ll be up and moving again with half health and all your hard work will have gone to waste.

Left 4 Dead 2: KatanaWith the introduction of 20 new weapons (including a whole new set of melee weapons), Valve has added just enough variety to the game to make L4D2 Single Player bearable for an extended period of time. Couple this with the AI Director 2.0 and you have varying and dynamically changing environments and item placement. Thus resulting in a new experience every time, depending on your performance in-game – or if the director feels like sending horde after horde at you or placing a witch right in your only pathway through.

Although a ton of work has clearly gone into the AI Director 2.0, the same cannot be said of the Survivor AI in Left 4 Dead 2. Which ultimately seems non-existent compared to the Survivor AI found in the original game. While the AI in most games isn’t all that great, Left 4 Dead 2 definitely takes the cake, especially since this lack of attention to the Survivor AI utterly breaks the game. Survivors no longer listen to your voice commands and try to do things you’d expect from humans, like trying to shove the Charger (who is completely immune to shoves) or completely forgetting about you. It is this oversight on Valve’s part that makes the Single Player in Left 4 Dead 2 annoying at times and lowers the replayability lest you be subjected to hours of frustration. Despite the Survivor AI being non-existent, it’s clear that Valve spent a considerable amount of time getting the Infected AI to work well with each other, as you’ll see when you find yourself face to face with a Hunter and covered with Spitter goo soon after – maximizing the amount of damage they do to you while you’re trudging through a campaign.

Still, luckily for us, there are still 5 other game modes we can enjoy. Along with the good ol’ Single Player (where you play as one of the Survivors and have bots for team mates) and Co-op (which is similar to Single Player, except you are now able to play with other players online). Valve has included several other game modes – two of which you’ll be familiar with if you’ve played the original: Versus (a mode where you are able take turns playing as the Infected and the Survivors against a team of 4, alongside 3 other players), Realism, Survival (a game mode that pits you against an endless horde of both common and Special Infected, including a big, dangerous Infected called the Tank where the time you survive earns you medals) and Scavenge. With the introduction of a few new Special Infected, Versus comes with a whole new level of play, while Survival forces Survivors to find multiple places to defend from, thanks to the Spitter’s acid.

The two completely new modes provide a nice, refreshing way to look at the Left 4 Dead franchise. Scavenge is a 4v4 Infected vs. Survivor game mode with a twist: instead of trying to stop the Survivors getting to salvation, you need to stop them filling a generator/car or fill it yourself. This is where the new Special Infected, the Spitter, really shines, as she can spit on dropped gas cans and cause them to light on fire after a few seconds. The last new mode is for the hardcore gamers out there that can get through Expert without a scratch. Realism mode offers a few new challenges: the Witch instant kills anyone who startles her, there is no respawning or “rescuing” to be had and there are no glows to indicate where your team mates or items are. So if you get pulled away from your team mates by a Smoker, Jockey or Charger you best have a mic or they’ll have absolutely no idea where you are.

With all that having been said, Left 4 Dead 2 is not without its problems. Along with the many bugs outlined above (or, perhaps, limitations), you’ll be forced to deal with the problem that plagues any game that employs the lobby system: impatience. There is not a day that goes by where I hop on to play L4D2 that I don’t have to spend a few minutes waiting for people to join the lobby, only to leave immediately after. To remedy this, you can say hi to everyone that joins if you’re the lobby leader to show them that you’re not AFK, but some people just love to join and leave immediately anyway. While some could argue that opting for the lobby system was a good choice, you can often find yourself matched to a game on a server hosted in some country on the other side of the world, resulting in a horrible ping and, consequentially, a horrible experience. As you should expect from any multiplayer game, Left 4 Dead 2 is unfortunately not immune to the immaturity and lack of respect that often plagues multiplayer games. That being said, most of these problems can be fixed by finding a group of friends with the game or getting involved in our regular M for Mature games hosted on our very own server, so it isn’t such a game breaking issue for some.

If you haven’t played any of the Left 4 Dead games, then prepare to be frustrated as you find yourself without any guidance as to how to properly play the game. While Single Player and Co-op provide you with enough practice playing the Survivors, the only way you are able to try out and learn about the Special Infected is to hop online and play a Versus game. Unfortunately, since you are now playing online, you’ll often find yourself kicked by more advanced players. Regardless, these problems run rampant throughout most multiplayer games, so you should not let this deter you from trying out Left 4 Dead 2. If you do decide to try out Left 4 Dead 2, I simply cannot recommend playing the demo as I strongly feel that it does not do the full game justice.
With the introduction of the AI Director 2.0, Valve has introduced a dynamic aspect to Left 4 Dead 2: based on your performance. The Director can decide to completely cut off different parts of the map and force you to go through a more dangerous path or choose to spawn pills instead of health packs – or absolutely nothing and make you suffer throughout the map. With 50 achievements and 6 game modes (Single Player, Co-op, Realism, Versus, Survival and Scavenge), you’ll be pouring a lot of hours into Left 4 Dead 2. If that isn’t enough, Valve has recently announced a new add-on for Left 4 Dead 2 coming Spring 2010 and, as with all Valve games, the community is already hard at work creating custom content for our enjoyment. Having said all that, I think it’s clear that you’ll be playing Left 4 Dead 2 for years to come.
Left 4 Dead 2 has been met with a lot of skepticism: people believe that Valve could have simply made Left 4 Dead 2 an add-on to Left 4 Dead 1, but I’m sure you will now see that this is simply not true. With 3 new Special Infected, 2 new game modes and a whole lot of extra weapons among other things, Left 4 Dead 2 delivers and it is really difficult to go back to Left 4 Dead 1 without being disappointed. Add on the AI Director 2.0 and we have the formula for success; The Last Word on Left 4 Dead 2 is that, regardless of the platform, it is well worth the purchase. If this article and a failed boycott isn’t enough to convince you, I don’t know what is.
What Impressed:

  • 3 new and unique Special Infected that add variety and a whole new level to the game.
  • Updated original Special Infected from Left 4 Dead 1 (e.g. Witch gaining the ability to wander during the day)
  • 2 new game modes along with those found in Left 4 Dead 1 add challenge and replay value.
  • 20 new weapons (including melee weapons) and 4 new items add variety to Survivor play.
  • AI Director 2.0 brings dynamic level design and Infected attacks to the game.
  • Well thought out Achievements entice gamers to try out all aspects of Left 4 Dead 2 and encourage players to work together.
  • Special Infected design is well thought out and balanced, encouraging players to work together in order to be successful.

What Didn’t:

  • Survivor AI appears to have been lost in the sequel. Survivor bots no longer respond to commands and sometimes don’t save you.
  • Buggy hitboxes, among many other noticeable bugs, can result in some game breakers.
  • Dealing with lobbies is frustrating as people absolutely love to join and leave immediately after.
  • Spawn system is too restrictive.
  • Lack of tutorial/single player for Infected play makes it difficult for new players to learn how to use the Special Infected. Thus resulting in them being vote kicked from games.

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