Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2: Left Deader

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

When Valve announced that Left 4 Dead 2 was coming within a year of the release of Left 4 Dead, I felt cheated and confused. Not only is that a quick turnaround time for any franchise, this is Valve we’re talking about: these are the same people who decided to do episodic content to make their Half-Life 2 releases come more quickly, and we’re still waiting for Episode 3, over two years after the last release in the series. This is a company known for taking their time to make sure the quality is up to their incredibly high reputation. Many people complained that Left 4 Dead 2 should be an expansion pack, and not a standalone game. But Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t seem like an expansion pack at all. In fact, it makes the original look like a beta test.

Personally, I don’t imagine I’ll go back to the original Left 4 Dead after playing the sequel. Some of these additions are so obvious that they feel like they should have been in the first title: after the first time you run out of ammunition and switch to your samurai sword or fireman’s axe to fend off the zombie hordes, you’ll always want to have a melee weapon in hand. In Left 4 Dead, you would have been stuck with a pistol. The new massive zombie attack events that require you to run through an area to reach a goal are considerably more frantic and exciting than the numerous stand-in-place sections of the original. The AI director, which determines how many zombies attack and what types (and now even how parts of the levels are laid out), has been improved to the point that every safe house feels like it was hard won. This is surviving a zombie apocalypse done right. They even included an option called “Realism” mode, which removes some of the less immersive qualities of the game, like the outlines that appear to draw your attention to guns, ammunition, and your allies if they aren’t in your line of sight.

There are very few things to complain about. There is this incredibly irritating beeping noise which occurs whenever the game has some information it wishes to relay to you. I couldn’t find a way to shut this off on the Xbox 360 version. The only other concern I have is one of tone.

The first three levels of the game take place in very campy horror situations. The first is based around a mall, the second an amusement park, and the third a swamp. This makes for some fantastic set pieces and level design, but it feels out of sync with the last two scenarios, which both focus on much more relevant, socially significant settings. In “Hard Rain,” the players are in a rural town near New Orleans, walking through ruined streets and scavenging the contents of broken down homes. As the level progresses, the torrential rain becomes just as much an obstacle to progress as the zombies themselves. The streets become flooded, often blocking the means of escape. This leads directly into the final level, “The Parish,” where the survivors make it to New Orleans itself, where in the wake of devastating tragedy, a governmental organization (“CEDA”) is bombing the streets instead of working to rescue survivors. The early levels of Left 4 Dead 2 are a lot of fun, but “Hard Rain” and “The Parish” manage something considerably more impressive: they imbue a frantic action game with social relevance. They have something to say.

I wrote some time ago about how unrealistic and un-modern Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was, but this lack of social significance has not stopped the sequel from becoming the highest grossing entertainment launch of all time. It’s a strange day indeed when a zombie survival game brings more realism and relevance to the table than a series about supposedly realistic war.

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