(This review is for the PC version of the game. Nick has provided commentary on the 360 version at the end of the review.)
Coming a mere year after its predecessor, swathed in a dodgy boycott, you'd be certain to think that the sequel to last year's Co-Op Game of the Year would be a tough sell. Luckily, you'd be wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, Left 4 Dead 2 is so much better than the original, you might as well forget it existed.
You still grab three of your closest friends and fight your way through levels controlled by a sadistic "AI Director" using whatever weapons and items you can scrounge up to survive, but though the formula may be the same, Valve has delivered in three major ways:
While the original game had its fair share of "holy crap" moments, every single "movie" in L4D2's campaign has several moments that are so intense, you'd not be far off thinking they came from a Call of Duty title. Whether you're fighting through a burning building, monsoon-level rains that make it impossible to see more than a few yards in any direction, or scrambling to retrieve fuel for your escape vehicle, each scenario has something new and different to offer, which brings us to...
Unlike the original game, the crescendo moments and finales are almost entirely unique to the level they're contained in. The goal of each scenario is still the same, navigate the area, reach safehouses, then somehow signal or acquire an escape vehicle, but the ways in which this occur are very different. Instead of having you hole up and defend a location each time you alert the horde, you might have to quickly ascend three floors of a shopping mall to find the security office, or run along roller coaster tracks.
The Jockey HATES Depeche Mode!
Speaking of which, each campaign "movie" is a unique setting, which stands in stark contrast to the original game. Whereas in the original you had alleyways of a nameless city, a generic airport, and a trek through some wood/farmlands, Left 4 Dead 2 uses its settings to great effect, finally bringing us to...
Though only two of the four new survivors (Ellis is probably my new favorite survivor out of the whole bunch) are anywhere near as entertaining as the original cast, Left 4 Dead 2's personality is reflected in the new levels and enemies. When you find yourself in a carnival, you'll be attacked by insane clowns whose noses you can honk, or with some curious exploration you can find games in the midway that you can play (damn you, Mustachio!). The new "uncommon" infected add a lot of flavor, whether they're the aforementioned clowns or CEDA personnel in HAZMAT suits. The infected are designed to look like they fit in the levels you find them in, and it really helps immerse you in each locale.
The challenge level has been increased significantly. Between the new special infected (the acid-spewing, thong-wearing Spitter, the Jockey, who rides survivors off into the sunset, and the Charger, who can shove his target long distances away from the group and bash them savagely) and the upgraded AI Director, things can get unpredictable very fast. The AI is much more evil, often using multiple special infected in tandem to split up your group. Expect to see whoever tries to help a Jockeyed survivor get nabbed by a Smoker, or a Charger come sprinting in while you're dealing with Boomer bile.
Unfortunately, with this challenge comes the realization that any bot players will become a liability. While in the first game, you could reasonably expect to succeed with a few AI partners, that aspect has not been brought into the sequel. More often than not, especially in a certain campaign level, your teammates will trigger the witch. They'll also run off in random directions, or in extreme cases, stare at a wall blankly. Solution? Bring friends! There appear to be a few lingering crash bugs affecting certain players (*glares at Jason*), and there's a rather odd bug that causes your Steam achievements to reset as soon as you exit the game. Whether that's a Steam bug or not is unknown to me.
Meet Ellis, the best character in the L4D series.
I would be remiss to not speak of the new melee weapons and what they add to the game. From your Valve-standard crowbar to frying pans (I hope this is another nod to Dead Rising) and the mighty chainsaw, you can choose to equip yourself however you see fit. When you're backed into a corner, there's nothing finer than revving up the chainsaw and lopping off limbs, heads and torsos in a sea of ropy gore. Did you think the blood splatter over your UI in Modern Warfare 2 was bad? Wait until you see the aftermath of a fire axe rampage.
For those of you who refuse to play on anything but Expert difficulty, Valve has added "Realism" mode, which only makes small changes to the game, but exponentially ramps up the difficulty. You will no longer see your teammates' names over their head, nor will they be highlighted when they go around a corner. You don't get notifications when they are attacked by a special Infected, and no items in the world are highlighted, and you will not see any arrows directing you to them. You buddy just get head-humped by a jockey? Better hope he's using voice chat, or you might not be able to tell he's in trouble. It's incredibly difficult and casual L4D players need not apply.
Scavenge mode adds a new twist to the standard Versus game.
The Versus and Survival modes make a comeback and are just as entertaining as you remember them, and L4D2 adds a new "Scavenge" mode, where the survivors must gather fuel for a generator while the Infected do their best to try and stop them. Support for mods and custom campaigns is included out of the box this time, so hopefully there will be a steady stream of new content.
Nick's Take on the 360 Version:
Left 4 Dead on the 360 did incredibly well, and I think eventually we'll see the sequel do the same, but as of now it's fighting for online time with a myriad of other releases this year. While the 360 version plays decent enough, I think it finally starts to show it's weakness compared to the PC counterpart. The new special infected combined with the Director 2.0 might just give the computer too much of an edge, and the controller might not be enough of a weapon to deal with it. The game's controls are still adequate, as not much as changed with them since Left 4 Dead 1, but there were times our group couldn't help but curse as we got overwhelmed, feeling helpless to overcome the challenge.
The game is a visual step up from it's predecessor, with fancy new effects all around; Hard Rain is particularly impressive during the monsoon. It's amazing how far Valve is able to push the Source Engine on both platforms.
The co-op experience is still second to none, and despite moments of frustration, everyone I played with agreed the moments of awesome outweigh the frustration. I think the best way to describe the difference this year is simple: Left 4 Dead 2 is a PC game on a console, and it's just not as balanced for it as the first one.
General Score: 4 out of 5
With loads of new weapons, items and infected to fight, the massive number of improvements to gameplay that was already great and a core package that contains more content than its predecessor, Left 4 Dead 2 is not only an easy recommendation for any co-op gamer, it will again be a likely contender for our Co-Op Game of the Year.