Where were we? Sorry about the delay. I’ve been in France, making awful jokes about floating skulls to Chris Avellone. He didn’t punch me, miraculously, but I remain mortified.
The Passing, then. I’m going to keep away from spoiler stuff in this post, bar stating the pretty-much-obvious that you don’t get to control the L41 survivors in any way.
They’re strictly there to chat to, but nevertheless it’s great to see them again. They have a new confidence and cockiness, to the new survivors and to each other, which befits their elder statesman status. That said, the rockstar posing doesn't exactly gel with their situation - a little bit of desperation, sadness and paranoia would have gone a long way. I'd also say it's a misfire to be saving the explanation for their current situation in a yet-to-come L4D1 update.
As it is, getting this first and thus seeing the calm after this unwitnessed storm, the old cast seem a bit too casual about whatever they've just been though. And that there's not even the slightest discussion about teaming up or who's going where seems willfully absurd. Neither of these groups have seen any living people for who knows who long, but they all just head in seperate directions with barely a wave nonetheless. Clearly, Valve will have larger plans, but there is a disappointingly tokenistic element to the old team's cameos.
Neatly, though, they have a ton of dialogue despite the lack of real interaction. Whichever one of them you first encounter – right at the very start of the campaign, atop a raised bridge you can’t yet access – isn’t fixed. The game randomly picks one of two options, each of whom in turn have multiple shpiels. Over the course of, say, ten different plays you’ll hear at least five different sets of exposition and gags. And flirting. There is a lot of a flirting, in very much a giggling-at-slashfic way. There is also teasing about said flirting, and about how ludicrous it is. The writers are toying with the fans, and clearly enjoying themselves enormously in the process. The graffiti, too, remains splendid:
Further joy comes from the music - two multi-track jukeboxes appear, and amongst their discs is a Jonathan Coulton song. You can probably guess which one (hint: it's not that one), and it's ruddy brilliant to hear it. Fanservice write large. As is also the case with the escalated references to the Midnight Riders, most notably over the PA system at the wedding setpiece I mentioned in the last post.
There’s plenty of difference come your second and final chat with the original group too. First time I played, they offered almost no explanation as to their current situation, one of them didn’t speak at all, and I wound up feeling let down and frustrated by how brief this whole encounter had been. That’s it? Three more plays, though, and there was both a much clearer picture and a sense having had a meaningful encounter with these old chums.
On top of this, the final fight’s a tense and dynamic conflict, tasking you with collecting randomly-placed 10 fuel cans from across a large and open map, even as endless Infected spawn all around you. You’ve the choice of sticking together as a pack, taking it slowly and grabbing each can in relatively safety, or splitting up to get this deadly ordeal over and done with as quickly as possible. Splitting up is the worst possible thing you can do in L4D, of course, but the dynamics seem changed just enough to give it a chance, just this once. The original survivors are involved, in a way that's part-joyous, part-irritating and a whole lot I'm-not-spoiling-it.
Specials and Tanks crop up regularly, mostly impeding each of your ten desperate returns to the generator you’re supposed to fill. Try and push through the festering bastards, bashing wildly with the fuel can in your arms, or do you lob it over ‘em and shoot your way back to them? It’s the gnome challenge writ large, fast and thrillingly exhausting, basically, and while the Collect Ten Cans thing is a little too artificial, it’s a much more interesting climax than another defence setpiece. The Passing is perhaps brief and short on visual wow compared to L4D2 core, but certainly it’s one of the most replayable chunks of L4D we’ve ever had. It also pulls off the difficult trick of being both shameless (if admittedly slightly disappointing) fan service and an able campaign in its own right.
And we get it all for free, while the 360 crowd has to pay. Good value, that. Hopefully there's more to come - and hopefully involving four hoary old rockers...