This week's announcement of a Left 4 Dead sequel is something that easily falls in the "surprise" category. After all, Valve is a developer with a track record of taking its sweet time between major releases. But as with so much of what the company has given us over the years, it's every bit a pleasant surprise. Left 4 Dead proved to be a thrilling take on the first-person shooter genre with its focus on co-op play, hilarious characters, and swarms upon swarms of the ravenous undead. With the upcoming sequel Left 4 Dead 2, you can expect a familiar experience that doesn't alter the gameplay so much as dramatically expand it.
Let's go ahead and start with the overall package. Left 4 Dead 2 will offer five new campaigns, which is obviously just one more than the original game. But unlike the original, every one of these campaigns will support Versus and Survival modes (plus a new mode that Valve remains silent about). The campaigns will take four new survivors across the Deep South in a trek from Savannah, Georgia to New Orleans, Louisiana. Much like in the original game, each of the characters--Coach, Nick, Ellis, and Rochelle--has his or her own distinct personality, from Ellis' hillbilly drawl to Coach's gruff surliness and penchant for the vulgar.
In terms of gameplay, Left 4 Dead 2's primary changes come from the new weapons. The big difference is the addition of melee weapons. The ones that we got to try included a fire axe and a frying pan (there's also a chainsaw, but we didn't see that one). The fire axe is good for hacking off limbs and having a good time with the expanded zombie deformation, whereas the frying pan is good for knocking them back several feet at a time. Your primary weapons still fall into the same four categories as the original, but now you'll find a silenced Uzi, a new combat shotgun and an assault rifle, and special ammo such as incendiary rounds that light the zombies on fire.
The zombies themselves have been given a few upgrades as well. You'll find three new special infected to go along with your old friends boomer, tank, hunter, smoker, and witch. Only one was revealed in our hands-on time, and that was the charger, a giant one-armed monster in overalls who can knock down the entire team and keep hold of one until his last breath. A new class of zombie has been introduced called the uncommon common, a halfway point between the common and special infected. There's one type per campaign, and on the campaign we played, they were former members of a disaster-fighting agency equipped in hazmat suits. In practical terms, this means special zombies who are immune to fire, so those molotovs and gas tanks become utterly useless against them.
We had the chance to play the fifth and final campaign from the game, which is called "The Parish" and features a tagline that reads "Welcome to the Big Uneasy." The team starts out on the docks of a river, with a giant bridge towering in the far-off distance. This campaign takes players on a trek through the streets of New Orleans, through a city park with hedgerow mazes, and into some industrial shipping yards. Our portion ended with a point-to-point finale in which the survivors triggered an alarm at one end of the chapter and had to move across the majority of it before cutting off the alarm and stopping the horde--sort of a nonstationary version of the final stands from the first game.
We managed to play both versions of Left 4 Dead 2: PC and Xbox 360. The same graphical disparity that existed with the first game is once again on display, which is to say that the PC looks a bit better but not substantially so. The graphics don't seem noticeably better than the original Left 4 Dead, but as we mentioned before, there is quite a bit more zombie deformation in the way that undead body parts get ravaged by your weaponry (you can even go overkill and hack away at dead zombies with the fire axe). The voice acting still sounds great, and the creepy howl of an approaching horde is just as intimidating as ever.
No one is going to mistake Left 4 Dead 2 for a completely different game compared to its predecessor, but the overall package ought to be much larger and offer more potential for lasting entertainment. Considering how great the first one was, we'll take that in a heartbeat. You can expect to see more on Left 4 Dead 2's other campaigns and new gameplay mode leading up to its November 17 release.