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The Games Of Christmas: December 17th

Games cannot die, they can only find themselves transitioned to the plane of abandonware, from which they haunt the internet and the wider world beyond. Some games, however, rise again and become undead, and can even tear through the thing membrane of reality that we call the seasonally festive advent-o-calendar then attack us from the other side. But what game could be capable of such reincarnation? Guided by the ever-wise digits of the one true leader of the Autobots, let us travel through the 17th window to discover...

Left 4 Dead 2!

Kieron: As I may have mentioned before, I'm a neophile. I like new things. A sightly improved version of an old thing doesn't often interest me, because the majority of its traits - the source of the appeal - were already there. Some people get annoyed by the missing 5% to the point where they can't consume it. I suck the other 95% dry, and move on like a gaming Nosfaratu. There's always more virgins to prey upon.

As such, I don't tend to play sequels, as a matter of course. Unless I'm reviewing them - which can be a joyous surprise finding a kick in something I probably wouldn't have played if left to my own devices - I don't tend to go near them. As such, in this year when I've been skirting away from the games-press dollar, I've played less sequels than ever.

This was one of the exceptions. Perhaps appropriate, because it's exceptional. I haven't played it much - just enough to get a taste of the deep south and the low violence, but it's a joy. It's very much an old-skool sequel, of the sort which gave us things like Thief II. As in, despite resting on close-to-identical tech, it applies all the lessons the team learned in the first game to create something which improves in almost every area. Perhaps the tone shifts a little - Thief II is less atmospheric, less of a statement than the first, after all - but it focuses in and does some stuff with real style. Left 4 Dead goes gonzoid mental like few things else, and its set-pieces - which are wonderful situations rather than anything else - are plain glorious.

I admit, when Left 4 Dead was announced, I raised an eyebrow. Is there really going to be a market for this? Will I give a damn? Left 4 Dead 2 proves me wrong all over again.

John: As I might have mentioned, I don't like playing games with other people. I can't cope with the weight of responsibility, nor the way how I'm playing affects everyone else - I might not play TF2 how you want me to, and now suddenly I'm the bad guy. And yet. It's as if Left 4 Dead goes so far in that direction, makes the responsibility so crucial, that it goes through some sort of barrier and back into a place I want to be again. I think it's because you genuinely are dependent upon each other. You're forced to work together, all equally reliant on the others. If you've got a good team, a team you trust, it's about simply staying alive, not being the big winner.

What Left 4 Dead 2 does better than anything else is make you feel stranded. It's such a huge improvement over the original in so many ways - not least the how-could-they-have-not-thought-of-it-before melee weapons - but what it I think it manages most remarkably is that sense of desperation, of the need to huddle together, and cling onto life. This is fun when you're trying to make it to the end of the level, in a last ditch scrabble. But it's better when you're simply in the middle of a flooded rural town, and you hear a storm rolling in, and you have to find shelter or you're all dead. That moment, the first crack of thunder, and someone screaming, "Quickly! That building there!" And you all pile in, take out any Infected that might have been hiding out, and attempt some sort of defence of the place. It's about finding safety in horror, being alive because you're together. It's not competing for a kill count, or aiming for the top of a leaderboard. It's trying not to die.

Which explains why I don't find Versus my preferred way to play. Oddly I far more enjoy being the Infected in this case. Especially with the new collection of Specials to play as. Once I'm a Survivor suddenly it's about beating the other team, being best, competing, and the fun ebbs away. So just explain for me, if you could, why I absolutely bloody love Scavenge? Suddenly I'm enjoying competitive arena team death match multiplayer. I like how flippant it is. How fast, and how it's brilliant fun to bugger up the opposing team's attempts to fill the tank. Again, I far prefer playing Infected, but what a mad amount of precisely created fun that new mode is.

Alec: I suspect I was the least excited Hivemind node about this, both before and after I played it - but I at least partially attribute that to being very much in RPG mode when L4D2 rolled around. Shooting things didn't seem anywhere near as fun as trying to sleep with Alistair or taking guerrilla baths in Risen. That said, what did pull me into L4D2, and in keeping with the kind of mindset I was in in November, was its storytelling - a rightfully cocky step up from the backgrounded, hinted narrative of L4D1 and, to reference the thing that Kieron sneered at me for saying too often the other day, incredibly good at creating a sense of world. It's much more of a journey than L4D1, and it's laden with tiny fruits of a meta-narrative - the Midnight Riders, snippets of news from elsewhere in America, the true fate of Jimmy Gibbs Jr...

It's the same kind of rumour-mongering and fan-teasing Valve are up to with Team Fortress 2 of late, and it's very clever way of keeping interest in a game alive, and of making it seem much bigger than the handful of cycled maps it really is. People are talking, and they'll keep talking until Valve decides they don't want them to anymore. Scary, in a way, but I'll take that kind of marketing effort over the gluttonous, mindless hype machine of a Modern Warfare 2 or Halo 3 any day.

Yeah, Left 4 Dead 1 does seem more abandoned than we'd hoped- but it's pretty clear Valve aren't going to do that with L4D2. It is a shame they went for a full retail sequel as soon as they did, but I'm convinced they've made themselves a better platform to perform their usual merry trickery from this time. They're going somewhere with this one...

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