Format: 360, PC
Release: Out now (PC and US 360) November 20 (Euro 360)
Publisher: Valve (Steam), EA (Retail)
As back-of-the-box promises go, Left 4 Dead 2’s offers a pretty good précis: ‘New friends. More zombies. Better apocalypse’. It’s certainly a bigger apocalypse – and a more varied, deeper experience too, as you and three chums guide a new band of wisecracking survivors to safety through the zombie-ravaged Deep South. Though Valve’s preceding co-op horror shooter was crafted for extensive replay, and has since been visited with free expansions, Left 4 Dead emerged with little meat on the bone. Its sequel is a fleshier thing altogether. There are more campaigns, there are more modes, there are more guns, tools and types of zombie. Perhaps none of this would immediately merit sequel status were there not something more fundamental going on as well. But such is the additional variety and increased sense of purpose in L4D2 that it manages to make the earlier game feel a little mechanical and inorganic, revealing its almost exclusive reliance on the AI director to orchestrate drama from the ebbs and flows of the zombie horde.
That drama is still evident here, of course, with the director allowing split-second rescues when all looks lost, or ruthlessly cutting down would-be survivors just when safety seems moments away. But whereas the first game relied on the director alone to create interest in its environments, punctuating a point-to-point slog with a smattering of special events, the sequel introduces more frequent and richer setpieces. Players of L4D will be familiar with those moments when you would battle against an increasingly aggressive horde during the tortuous wait for an elevator door to open, or a gangway to descend. Now, such adrenaline-boosting beats are so common that they blur into the game at large rather than feeling like diversions from it. The player nearly always has a purpose, a new challenge that adds to the difficulty of surviving the director’s sadistic machinations, stumbling straight from one trick into another. There are mazes of graves and public gardens that reconfigure themselves on every playthrough, alarms which must be deactivated with distant controls, gauntlets to be run and vital resources to be scavenged which prove the key to your escape.
While some challenges are more contrived than others, the possibilities here are clearly far greater than in L4D, and the dramatic ambitions for each level have scaled to match. The Hard Rain campaign is one of the best examples, seeing players battle their way in one direction only to return in the other with the environment now submerged, landmarks only just visible through the driving rain. The locations themselves are also more sumptuously rendered than L4D’s recreations of prosaic zombie fiction: Valve has proven it can do genre with its dark woods, hospitals and sewers – now it brings its own creativity to bear, recasting the familiar zombie horror with sallow southern light, misty dawns and jangling bluegrass music. Familiar instrumental stings and spooky synths are now given a Cajun twist, and campaigns have distinct flavours themselves, an early favourite being the trip to Dark Carnival’s amusement park, complete with red-nosed clown zombies, big dipper and a tunnel of love. The Parish, too, is beautifully constructed, the race through its pastel-coloured streets as aircraft attempt to purge the plague from on high proving no less intense because of its occurrence during daylight hours. Not all the campaigns hit the same highs, however – Swamp Fever’s trudge through the bayou is in places a little too disorienting, while elsewhere Valve shows a frustrating tendency to fall back on dull industrial architecture. But even as the Source engine creaks towards retirement, evocative lighting and a little bit of southern flavour still put its modest polygon count to good use.