Left 4 Dead 2 not only outdoes its predecessor in every way possibly, but it also qualifies as among Valve's very best.
However, all apprehensions and all inhibitions should be cast aside- Left 4 Dead 2 is not only a complete game in and of itself, which justifies a $60 purchase to anybody who may still enjoy the first title, it also, in every way possible, outdoes the first game, and renders it completely obsolete. While those who disliked the first game will still not find anything here to their liking, to others, who found paradise in Valve's novel take on the otherwise flogged concept of a zombie apocalypse, will find Left 4 Dead 2 to be indisputably the best game this year.
Assuming you are unfamiliar with what it is that sets Valve's foray into the survival horror genre different from all the other games that came before it, the Left 4 Dead games are, primarily, co-op multi player games. It still is possible to play solo, but the experience is considerably curtailed, and the fun dramatically lessened, whilst the difficulty too climbs unless you play with others. The games allow us to play as both, human survivors who are desperately trying to outlast the disaster, as well as the super powered zombies, who aim to overrun the humans once and for all.
The game becomes an exercise in tactical planning and execution, when it places all players on a map, with helpful items scattered throughout. All players must individually work their way through the zombie infested terrain, and yet, working with others in tandem is a must. If you spot a zombie in the distance, it is imperative to inform all the other players about it, so that they may be on their guard. If you find a helpful item, again, communicating it to the others is a must. If you're hurt, inform your teammates, so that they may come and heal you.
It's this kind of co-operative gameplay that makes Left 4 Dead 2 stand out. Sure, Resident Evil 5 had a shot at it earlier this year, with its own included co-op mode, but frankly, it resulted in the tension and the drama of the game being considerably reduced, so it was an unwelcome trade-off. Left 4 Dead 2, however, manages to retain the tension that must accompany a lone band of human survivors, heavily outnumbered, and sparely equipped to deal with the hostilities of the environment, even while they attempt all the while to evade an enemy that they know terribly outpowers them.
It is precisely this feeling that Left 4 Dead 2 conveys, and more so from its gameplay than anything else. Sure, you have your teammates with you, on the same map, at all times, but they're usually off on their own, trudging for a route out by themselves. Actually, sticking around with the others at all times is not such a good idea... the 'infected,' which is the game's rather politically correct nomenclature for what are clearly zombies, are wily foes, and they'll attack what seems to be a large group of people immediately. It is in your best interests for each of you to choose separate paths, and attempt to still work in tandem to outmanoeuvre your quarries.
It is this feeling of knowing that you have help nearby, and at hand, and yet being separated from them, that heightens the game's sense of surreal tension. What if they're all already dead, and you're all alone? How can you possibly know if, for some reason, they couldn't inform you of their fate? What if you're under attack, and they know it, but are so far off that they can't possibly come and help you in time? Or what if they're nearby, but they're hindered by some unexpected obstacle? There are a thousand such factors to consider, and that is why it is so necessary to ensure you're always in touch with your teammates: you always NEED to know what's going on with them, and then chart out your moves accordingly.
So yes, Left 4 Dead 2 delivers an incredibly compelling experience with a terrific atmosphere to boot, but its great gameplay is only one side of the coin. As we all know, there are other factors equally important in building the right kind of atmosphere for a game such as this, and Valve has them all nailed.
For instance, Left 4 Dead 2 boasts of great graphics: the environments are convincing, the zombies grotesquely terrifying, the weapons all look distinct, and the blood and the gore and the dismembered limbs, all just add to the sense of immersion. It is when you shoot a zombie, and see its limbs blasted off into the distance that you simulatneously feel a sense of horror and elation and disgust, and all because it has been so accurately conveyed that it harkens to reality so much. If such careful, and seemingly needless, attention hadn't been paid to ensuring that all explosions, decapicitations, dismemberings et al look authentic, then I think you can be very sure that Left 4 Dead 2 wouldn't have been half the game that it is.
The environments look terrific too: the desolate marshes, the abandoned cities, the rugged terrain that surrounds us, it all looks so real that you almost feel as if you are in a world that has been overrun by zombies, a hostile environment in which you're all alone, out for survival, the chances of which seem increasingly remote and extremely unlikely. Really, Valve has outdone itself this time and Left 4 Dead 2 certainly is its most polished game- ever.
The tension and the immersion that I keep returning to are further accentuated by the game's great sound design. You can hear the wind rustling through the trees, you can hear eerie strains in the distance, you can the emotions of the survivors conveyed via perfect intonations and inflections, it's all here. In the distance, you'll hear a slight disturbance, and you'll instantly be on your guard. The sound design heightens the feeling of silent terror that is so prevalent throughout the game, and it ends up being heavily taxing on your nerves.
What makes it all the more real is the fact that this time around, you actually care for your characters. Each character in the game has been endowed a specific and very life like personality, and they all respond accordingly to changes in their surroundings. When they talk, you can hear uniquely characteristic strains in their voices. And while the story of the game isn't much, and there hasn't been any effort made to mask the fact that it all is just to set the stage for you to play out in the depicted zombie apocalypse, the characters and their dialogues will leave you intrigued as to the various possibilities that might have all eventually led to the point at which things stand presently.
Earlier in the review, I mentioned that Left 4 Dead 2 does a very thorough job of besting its predecessor. To elaborate, Left 4 Dead 2 does everything that the original game didn't, and what it did do, L4D 2 does better. For instance, if you didn't have the Survivor Pack, then there were only two out of the four campaigns of the original that permitted Versus play. Not so the case this time, though. Left 4 Dead 2 features five full, robust and interesting campaigns, a plethora of modes, some fantastic set pieces and more to do overall. In fact, you almost wish that the original had never been released, and that this had been the first Left 4 Dead title to hit the market- this is the game the original should always have been, but because we've already experienced the kind of co-op gameplay that L4D has to offer once before, the impact of this game is somewhat dampened. You can't help but feel that if this game had been released first, then it would have got higher scores across the board.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a great game. It is, quite possibly, Valve's best effort yet, and considering the rich heritage of that company, that's saying something. It features great graphics, terrific sound design, astounding atmosphere, authentic tension and emotion, and the kind of addictive tactical gameplay that has not only come to be a staple of the L4D games by now, but is also Valve's unique trademark. It is a game that everybody should try out at least once. And while there is a chance it won't really appeal to you, there's an even greater chance that you'll love it. Left 4 Dead 2 should be the blueprint for all future sequels- it rights the wrongs of the first, and it evolves and refines the gameplay design to perfection. If ever there was a case of a sequel totally rendering the existence of the first game useless, then this is it. If you're yet to dabble in Valve's rather fresh take on the zombie apocalypse, then by all means, go ahead and get the sequel. Not only is it better than the original, but it is an excellent game in its own right.