By John Walker on November 17th, 2009 at 5:01 am.
Having had a chance to sit down with L4D2 on PC for a couple of days, playing all five campaigns, the new Realism and Scavenge modes, and a good chunk of Versus, I think it’s about time I told you wot I think.
I’d almost forgotten those moments. There’s only three of you still alive, the rescue helicopter is right there, in view, and you can’t move. One companion is pinned to the ground by a frenzied Hunter, another is barely alive, fallen from the path, trying to negotiate a route back, and you – you simply can’t move. There’s so many of the Infected surrounding you, pouring from over fences and climbing from a hole in the ground, swamping you, and no matter how many you kill more take their place. And the rescue boat is just there, you can almost touch it, and you can’t move.
It’s those moments that made Left 4 Dead so much more than just a four-player zombie shooter. It was the stories, the individual tales of terror and derring-do. Left 4 Dead 2 is not just a bigger, better, more involved sequel to the original game. It’s an opportunity for more of those shouted celebrations of success, or cries of betrayal on defeat. It’s what a sequel should be: the ideas from the original game rethought, reimagined, and enormously improved upon, in a new setting, with new characters, new weapons, new enemies, new tactics and new ways to play. And significantly longer than the original.
Four Survivors, living in a world where zombie-like Infected humans and monsters massively populate the cities and countryside, are desperately trying to reach potential rescue. As a team of four, working together or failing, they fight to stay alive and constantly progress. This time in campaigns that take place during the day, dusk, night and dawn, shedding new light on the original concept (sorry).
While I don’t doubt that Dark Carnival will prove to be the most celebrated campaign, so amusingly set in a fairground with hidden gnome-based extras, rollercoasters to run around, and a finale involving pyrotechnics and rawk, for me Hard Rain was the most outstanding part of the game. The four new Survivors have to make a return trip on an errand, eventually making their way back to the boat that brought them there. It means the level is traversed twice (which rather than meaning they halve the effort by using each location twice, it’s instead just enormous, and played differently on the return leg), which also means you might not want to collect every item you find on your way out there, whether in safe rooms or scattered around levels. You’ll need to save stuff for your way back – which is frightening. But what makes Hard Rain quite so thrilling is not only the dusky open areas and brilliantly smart layout, but the weather.
It rains throughout, and in a novel twist for gaming it looks like rain. And it’s a rain that gets worse at the behest of the AI Director – Left 4 Dead’s omnipotent controller of everything from the position of ammo to the spawning of enemies – and in this new game, occasionally the layout of the levels themselves. And the weather. Whenever the Director feels it might cause you the most terror, a storm rolls in. The rain picks up, becomes louder, and you hear that first crack of thunder. Remember when you played the first game and you encountered a Witch? The terror that induced? You’ve probably got over that now – you know what will trigger her, how closely you can sneak around her, what her limits are. Thunderstorms bring that horror back. The noise of thunder attracts the hordes, and attracts them in huge numbers. But with the rain crashing down and visibility poor, getting caught in the open means doom. You have to rush for shelter, the nearest building, the closest thing with a roof. The sound of thunder evokes shouts from all playing, “Get to cover! In there! In that house!” And the four of you sprint for the door, defending all entrances, and attempt to stay alive until the storm passes. It’s absolutely enthralling – a sensation that no game has offered me before – the crazed desire for shelter and protection amongst the safety of your friends.
On that return journey through Hard Rain the storms have caused the towns to flood. You’re now wading through feet of water, completely changing how you can approach the levels, forcing you to trace routes across rooftops. And very significantly, both here and in the marshes of the fantastic Swamp Fever, the water is superb, and makes an importance difference to how you play. Brand new water effects have been introduced to a hugely improved Source engine, which look remarkably convincing. Which brings me to the trees.
Trees in games are traditionally terrible. Even as recently as Half-Life 2: Episode Two the trees were interlaced flat panels. Here they are trees. Real, individual, trees. I realise I may sound like a lunatic obsessive here, but it’s remarkable the difference it makes. The haunting mists of Swamp Fever are so much more effective thanks to the twisting branches and thick trunks, that don’t look like a cheap 3D trick on close inspection. It’s indicative of what a beautiful game this is.
The four new characters have a more specific arc, but in all honesty I didn’t follow it too closely. Much like the original game, the story of Nick, Ellis, Rochelle and Coach is really the one you shout to each other as you play. Their comments, when heard, add splendid colour to a tale you’re telling yourself. And they really are often splendid. My favourite came right at the start, when in the parking lot outside the mall of Dead Center, when Nick – a smart-mouthed and not immediately likable guy – sees a Witch hunched up in a corner, sobbing her terrifying wail. “Maybe she’s upset because the mall’s closed?” It punctured the mood so well, his sexist and stupid remark inappropriate and incredibly funny. And of course it’s a comment that wouldn’t feature were there not to have been a Witch in the carpark outside the mall, which next time there likely wouldn’t be. Their personalities change as you progress, their experiences and bonding affecting their responses to the situation. It’s a nice touch, and one you’ll only occasionally notice if you’re not screaming instruction or begging for help.
Joining the crew of monstrous Special Infected, alongside the pouncing Hunter, tongue-lassoing Smoker, vomiting grotesque Boomer, and all pummeling Tank, are three new beasts. There’s the Jockey, a giggling scrawny freak who leaps on a Survivor’s shoulders and then rides them into danger. You have some ability to resist, attempting to steer against his influence, but if not helped by your buddies for too long will definitely get in trouble. He’ll run you toward a Witch, or take you into fire, or very often direct you into a pool of green noxious spit, The spit comes from the appropriately named Spitter, a tall, unpleasant creature who gobs up pools of extremely harmful toxic sludge, which if stood in will cripple your health. Perhaps you’ll get stuck in it thanks to a Charger. These hulking monsters with one enormous arm will plough into the four of you, sending as many of you flying as he can with one straight charge, and grab one of you as he passes. Then slam you repeatedly into the ground until someone comes along to help. Also joining the cast is a female Boomer (nicknamed by Valve as the “Boomette”), just for kicks, and the horror of the Wandering Witch, who staggers around areas, preventing you from simply sneaking around her hunched form.
The Spitter prevents the awful cheating of players who like to huddle in corners. Get spat upon and that tactic’s useless. She’s also smart enough to split you up, spitting pools onto stairs or pathways between your group, punishing you for not staying as a four. The Charger and Jockey similarly work to break you up, the Charger stunning and pinning, while the Jockey will smartly run you into the nearest available danger. It all weakens your teamwork, which in combination with the familiar Specials is deathly. Especially in Realism Mode.
This is a master stroke. Play in Realism and you lose all the hand-holding the game offers. The changes aren’t about a new nightmare setting – in fact Realism can be played at any difficulty, including Easy. It instead changes specific aspects of the game. Glows around Survivors are gone, so if you’re no longer in each other’s line of sight you can’t see your buddies. Items also don’t glow, so spotting the ammo pile or hidden health pack means coming face to face with it. Common Infected are slightly harder to kill, with headshots counting for much more damage than emptying rounds into their bodies. Significantly for a Witch-fanatic like me, the sobbing, singing dreads now kill you with one hit. Not incapacitate, but kill, no getting back up without a defib. It gives her back her power, makes her an object of fear once more. Startling her is not an option, and when it accidentally occurs becomes sheer, lunatic panic. But most importantly, it refocuses you on teamwork. While L4D1 required you to stick together to survive, it allowed dalliances. With Realism switched on, you have no choice but to huddle together, and focus on each other as much as yourself. Or you’ll be in big trouble.
Any death in Realism is a death – there’s no three strikes before you’re out. Unless you have a defib pack. These new objects allow you to resuscitate a fallen ally, carried at the expense of a health kit. Also amongst the new items are laser sights for weapons and incendiary ammo, either explosive or fire rounds that will boost a weapon for around fifty shots, but also making the battlefield a more dangerous place – zombies on fire will die much more quickly, but, you know, they’re also running around on fire. There’s a huge number of new weapons, with a variety of shotguns, pistols, and automatic rifles. You’ll find a favourite, and then crave its appearance. There’s adrenaline shots that boost your speed, health and speed at reviving fellow Survivors. There’s vials of Boomer bile to throw at enemies, causing the horde to pile upon them. And, of course, there’s melee weapons.
It seems impossible to believe these weren’t in the original, so obvious an inclusion as they prove to be. It’s an immediate instinct when piled upon by frenzied horde to switch to your melee (should you be carrying on instead of pistols) and slash your way through them. And like the regular weapons, you’ll quickly find a favourite and hope to find it. There’s something superb about a good old baseball bat, clobbering the Infected in brutal thwacks. But the katana is fast and horrendously capable of slicing off limbs and heads. Or perhaps you’ll prefer the comedy of a frying pan, thwanging against the enemy. Then there’s cricket bats, machete, axes, and, well, electric guitars. Oh, and I seem to have forgotten to mention the chainsaw. With a limited amount of fuel, and a noise that attracts the horde, it’s a risky tool. But a deeply, harrowingly dangerous one. Each melee weapon does horrific damage, slicing, smashing and hacking at the thousands of infected creatures that you’ll encounter in a campaign. But hey, they’re only zombies, right? The brutality of it, the astonishing gore as entrails spill from sliced open bellies, trails of blood gush from chopped limbs, blood gurgles from mouths before heads explode – they’re zombies, so it’s fine. Right? Except, well, look at the graffiti that covers the walls.
The only significant mistake in L4D2 is the pacing of the opening campaign, Dead Center. Set around and inside a mall, is a perfectly decent Left 4 Dead campaign. But despite introducing the new characters (their dialogue for this campaign is unique – they don’t yet know each other’s names, nor indeed what to call the new Special Infected, and are feeling each other out), and new enemies, it’s the least inventive of the five. It’s slightly too familiar – too much reminded me of the airport level from the original – and it fails to evoke the thrill of zombie bashing in a real-world mall in the way that, say, Dead Rising so brilliantly achieved. It’s been looted to the point of being barren, and ends up feeling sparse and sterile. Its finale, a narrative-related version of the new Scavenge mode (see below), involves frantically filling a car with gas from canisters scattered around the centre of the mall, which makes for an excellent and novel climax, but ends with their simply driving through a wall and cutting to credits. Obviously being as good as an original Left 4 Dead campaign is not a very harsh criticism – it’s still good stuff. But compared to what’s to come it’s an inauspicious opening for what goes on to be a truly remarkable game.
Talking of Scavenge, this proves to be another fantastic new addition. Along with the regular Campaign, the truly brilliant Realism Mode (I can’t stress enough how much this adds to the experience, forcing teamwork and communication, and making the game much more terrifying), and Versus Mode letting you take turns to play as the Special Infected against another team of four in the regular campaign levels, is Scavenge, a new team-based multiplayer that approaches the game in a brand new way.
It turns the game into an arena-based multiplayer. Each of the six Scavenge maps (one from each campaign, and two from Hard Rain) takes place in a contained area from the level, requiring the Survivor team to collect sixteen gas cannisters and get them to a tank, car, generator and so on. The Infected have to stop them. The game starts with a minute and a half on the clock, with twenty seconds added for each successfully deposited cannister, but the game is only over once the clock has run down and no Survivor is carrying a can. This means that things become brilliantly frantic, players scrambling for a can as the clock gets near to zero, the Infected taking advantage of this by setting up traps, Spitters making the area around the filling point impossible to get near, Boomers vomiting at just the right moment to ensure anyone filling is failing thanks to Common Infected attacks, and so on. Jockeying someone away into a corner right at the last moment is hilariously mean, and a well-timed Hunter has never been so effective.
Because a Scavenge game takes place in a contained location, it means tactics can be repeated and refined, especially if you play best of three or five. It gives you a chance to specialise your skills in a way that Versus couldn’t without hours and hours of play. It makes grudge matches that bit more effective, even if it means losing out on the thrill of Versus mode’s desperate dashes to reach slightly farther than the previous team. Oh, and there’s also ten maps ready for Survival mode as well, of course, but I should say I didn’t get a chance to play these before writing this.
Left 4 Dead 2 takes an already good idea to the next stage. Every aspect of it is designed around how people play games, and indeed how people played Left 4 Dead 1. Sneaks and cheeky work-arounds are blocked with cunning new techniques, enemies and challenges. The storytelling that was admired before is increased, but without its impeding on your own ability to create narratives with friends. The crescendo events are ramped up, tougher, and often more explosive. And the new modes, Realism and Scavenge have immediately become my favourite ways to play. Alongside the perfectly adequate but comparatively underwhelming beginning with Dead Center, is the enormous smartness of chapters like Hard Rain and Swamp Fever, or the ridiculous inventiveness of Dark Carnival, and indeed the frenzied intensity of the final campaign, Parish, making for an absolutely exceptional time.