There's no doubt that zombies are the hot ticket right now. While pirates and ninjas may have had their time in the sun, these days mark the rule of the undead as they feast on all the brains they can find and absentmindedly shuffle around to find more yummy brains. The original Left 4 Dead took the zombie apocalypse and made it rather enjoyable by allowing up to four players to band together and survive the tireless horde. Also, if you ever tired of playing the good guys, the game's versus mode let you take the horrid abominations for a spin, killing those good-for-nothing "normals" in all sorts of grotesque ways. Less than a year later, Valve is going back to the zombie well with Left 4 Dead 2, and it's even better than the original masterpiece in every way.
One of the most fundamental differences between this game and its predecessor is the fact that the campaign mode actually has a coherent and continuous plot. While the last game just kind of threw the characters into a series of levels and tasked them with getting from one end of the map to the other without any further exposition, we get a bit more of a story this time around. It seems that the infection from the last game has spread south, and the new group of Survivors (Coach, Rochelle, Nick and Ellis) is trying to make its way through the backwaters of Louisiana to reach New Orleans and, hopefully, military evacuation. Thus, the ending of each campaign bleeds into the intro to the next, and players can feel a genuine sense of relief and accomplishment once they finally manage to push past the zombie horde and board that last helicopter that will save them from their own personal hell.
When Left 4 Dead 2 was announced, there was near-instant backlash from some members of the community who claimed that because it had only been a year since the first game was released, Valve couldn't possibly have enough new content to justify a full-priced game. These naysayers are completely wrong, as Left 4 Dead 2 is packed to the gills with brand-spanking-new weapons, enemies and more. Just check out the following features and try and tell me this game isn't worth the price of admission.
First off, in a move that is overdue but brilliant, Left 4 Dead 2 now features melee weapons, allowing you to make your zombie slaughter a little more up close and personal. Some of the weapons are traditional horror movie fare, like chainsaws and machetes, but there are plenty of more creative options that are just as effective and good for a hearty laugh. Tired of those zombies showing up late with your dinner? Why not whack them with a frying pan? We all know the only thing cooler than being a rock star is being a rock star who fends off wave after wave of starving undead with his custom-painted guitar. These are but a couple of the goofy, yet effective, weapons you'll find, and it's often well worth the damage you'll take to simply wade into the fray and start busting zombie heads with some random appliance.
The game also throws in some new varieties of the standard weapons, as well as a couple of new support items to make your life a bit easier. Most of these are fairly decent additions, but one, the vial of Boomer bile, is mostly useless. The idea is you throw the bile on a Tank or other special Infected and then watch as the common zombies tear their ally to shreds. Unfortunately, the tactic rarely works, and most times you're better off simply dispatching the bad guys the old-fashioned way — with a shotgun blast to the noggin. Thankfully, there are plenty of other options available so you'll never have to use the bile if you don't want to, but in a game with otherwise supremely balanced weapons and items, the bile seems to be a rare misstep on Valve's part.
The Survivors aren't the only ones getting upgrades, though, as there are also three brand new special Infected characters to greatly spice things up. The Spitter is capable of hawking a pool of toxic acid, burning Survivors and forcing the group to scatter, thus making them easier targets for other zombies. Jockeys can jump on a Survivor's head and steer him or her away from the group and into danger, often right to the waiting arms of another special Infected just waiting for some fun. Finally, the Charger also makes his debut and can best be categorized as a half-Tank. This bruiser can bowl over the Survivors, snatch one up, carry him or her off and then mercilessly beat the straggler against the hard ground until he's nothing more than a bloody smear on the ground.
Further complementing the new special Infected are the "uncommon" common Infected, which are unique to each level. These characters are not as powerful as the special zombies and don't appear in multiplayer, but they spice up the game just the same. Each of them has a special attribute that make them a bit tougher to bring down and cause them to become immediate priority targets. For instance, the Hazmat zombies are immune to fire, while the police Infected are wearing body armor and thus take a lot more bullets to bring down. The best of the bunch might be the clown zombies, as their squeaky shoes attract the horde, so you'd best gun them down before they get close to the group.
If all that wasn't enough to convince you, then you should know that Valve also took the multiplayer portion of the game and made it bigger and better. Survivor mode, which was an add-on to the original game, is a standard feature this time around, and a brand-new Scavenger mode proves to be a great option when you're looking for a quick match and don't have the time to play out a full Versus match. In Scavenger, the team of Survivors must hunt down gas cans scattered around the stage and bring them back to fuel a generator. Obviously, the Infected want to prevent this at all costs, and thus the stage is set. Each round starts off with a 90-second timer, and each time a can of fuel makes it into the generator, 20 seconds are added to the clock. Whichever team recovers the most fuel during its turn wins the round, and the best out of three wins the match. Scavenger matches are fast and frantic, often culminating in ambushes and all-out wars around the generator as time ticks down. While this mode is the one most likely to find you frantically screaming at your television, it's also easily a ton of fun.
It's clear that there's plenty of new stuff to see in Left 4 Dead 2, and nearly all of it is amazing. You'll want to make sure you play the game with friends, though, as the AI partners are pretty inconsistent. While they may sometimes nail a Smoker from across the map without you even seeing it, they also often stand idly by as your team is attacked, only jumping in to help when circumstances are at their most dire. Also, the graphics engine is really starting to show its age, so this is one of the more visually underwhelming games out there. Actually, it's kind of hard to be afraid of the zombies as they close in around you, mainly because most of them just don't look very scary.
In spite of its few faults, Left 4 Dead 2 is a very worthwhile sequel, and any fears you may have about this game merely being an overpriced expansion will melt away as soon as you start playing. Besides, seeing Valve release two games from the same franchise in the span of a year gives me hope that I may actually see Half Life 2: Episode 3 released in my lifetime, and you wouldn't want to steal away my hope, would you? Even if you don't love zombies, play this game anyway. You'll feel much better prepared when the real zombie apocalypse comes and the only thing standing between you and certain death is a shotgun, a med kit and three of your closest friends ready to help you clear a path through the horror.
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