Left 4 Dead 2
This One's Got legs this one, I'll give it that. After neglecting it on its release, influenced by all the brouhaha about Left 4 Dead2 being a shameless cash-in and murmurs of the game going quickly to the great forgotten game chest in the sky, I've found myself picking up Nick, Rochelle, Coach and Ellis. And now has Left 4 Dead 2 truly got its claws into me.
"That must be 'The Passing'?" I hear you say. But to be honest I'd be having head-smashing melee fun without Valve recently tossing us a new campaign, a couple of new weapons and some interesting weekly game changing mutations.
The L4D diehards may still be griping, but L4D2 is an immensely better game in every way. I'm kicking myself that I didn't check to see what the reason was for the Hard Rain campaign getting the breathless praise during last year. (If you are yet to fight off Infected during a tropical storm, then you are all the poorer.)
The new mutations that Valve have been delivering on weekly basis for a couple of months has already had me clamouring for more 'Realism Versus' games, where the Survivors have to do without neon outlines showing exactly where their teammates are, and a harrowing/hilarious time can indeed be had for both humans and infected.
Luckily Valve has listened and made it a permanent addition.
Download Left 4 Dead 2
When I inevitably succumb to this though (and when I "turn" I would ask, of course, that you put aside your feelings and shoot me in the head in a heartbeat) I'll be doing the game a great disservice. What with the swift appearance and internet controversy it is very easy to make L4D2 appear to be a simple roll-call of upgrades. It could sound like some sort of zombie equivalent of the annual FIFA updates: a Redneck Rampage expansion pack where the characters have a greater propensity for saying like "yee-hah" and "darn tootin!". To do so though would be utterly unfair. What could be interpreted as a raft of fun, and potentially unnecessary, gameplay additions meld together into a fabric that strengthens the L4D experience to an astonishing degree.
For a start, the new creatures deepen co-op tactics, and make the game's Versus modes far more vibrant and surprising. On top of this the new settings brilliantly evoke the sensation of real-life national emergencies and a panicking populace. Then the expanded mix of weapons hits home a feeling of personalised tactics and combat.
Meanwhile, throughout the game's five campaigns there's the sensation that Valve have become far more comfortable with themselves and their game. The strict format and familiar patterns of repeated build-up and climax have been smoothed over, replaced with free-flowing, organic levels where Valve begin to loosen their ties - suddenly more able to harness the feelings of surprise and delight that we're more accustomed to seeing in their Half-Life games. Yes, L4D2 really is its own game. And a bloody good one at that.
You do, however, know the drill. So let's not bog ourselves down in discussions on who is a Boomer, and what does he/she do. First things first: there's no doubt that your first moments in L4D2 will by and large comprise of racing up to zombies, taking their legs off with an axe and running around giggling. Whether you're slashing with katana, cricket bat, frying pan, or have smoke trailing behind you from a blood-stained chainsaw - you just can't help but chortle as neck stumps squirt scarlet arterial spray, femurs jut out of elbow lacerations and bloody amputations are doled out to the enraged horde.
Melee weapons live in the same slot as pistols (you can't carry both, even though all players are magically presented with firearms when incapacitated) and each has a different slash speed, arc of impending zombie doom, and utterly brilliant board of crash, bang, wallop sound effects attached.
The ultra-violence doesn't stop with this new brand of up-close and personal weaponry. Midriffs are blasted open with shotguns leaving nothing but fresh air and an exposed spine; businessmen's intestines are lovingly draped over the environment, spilling out behind them as they chase after you; explosive ammo sears off huge chunks of pallid flesh from a zombie's posterior... it's wonderful.
There are also a lot more zombies around; episodes average over 2,500 of the screaming buggers running towards you with mischief in mind - about 1,000 more than you'd come across in L4D -which goes to underline both Valve's successful engine tinkering and the added intensity.
As for the new special infected, well they're marvellous creations, all built to mess with co-op tactics that you've been carefully honing over the past year. The Spitter - a sag-mouthed lady who trails a glowing green strand of drool - gobs buckets of corrosive mucus all over the place, meaning that it's far trickier for you and your team to bunch up and hold out in the game's various public conveniences and outhouses.
The Charger, a lumbering mini-Tank, pelts at you like a bull at a matador -grabbing the first survivor he comes across and carrying them off through the level with the firm intention of repeatedly slamming them into the ground, while anyone else in his way is hurled away like fleshy skittles.
Finally, the Jockey is designed to pick off waifs and strays that wander away from the party, or perhaps those survivors who relentlessly charge off ahead. Leaping on their backs, Jockeys take control of characters and ride them mercilessly into harm's way - whether that harm comes in the form of a deadly drop, a pit of fire or the clutches of a nearby Witch.
On top of these every campaign has its own brand of zombie built to force you into ever more panicked situations. The carnival Clown's squeaking shoes lead parades of animated flesh around the level; SWAT zombies are shielded and can only be shot from behind; infected in Hazmat suits can't be set on fire; construction worker deadheads wear ear-mufflers and as such are immune to the charms of a lobbed beep-grenade. All of this messes with the established "If X happens, then throw Y" rules that have grown around L4D.
Even the most hallowed of L4D rules, the one that simply states "Set the Tank on fire. Set the Tank on fire right now", has been subtly messed with by the sheer number of water-centric levels. In this case a glob of waterproof Boomer bile is far more likely to do the trick - turning the assembled zombies against their muscled Goliath.
Finally, and best of all, all the Witch avoidance schemes you've built up have now been rendered null and void. Newly unanchored, the wandering crone is now as terrifying as the first time you met her - all the time. The sudden and unexpected moments of danger as you turn a corner and see her spindly form sidling directly towards you are on a whole new level of excitable terror -herding your happy band of survivalists away from her and into various cowering positions around the level.
Despite the variety of locations on show in the original L4D, it can't be denied that it il was also heavy on the nocturnal concrete. Well, no more: the environments in which you'll fight are now vividly different in appearance and design.
On a surface level, no end of gloss is provided by the game's Deep South themes - whether you're fighting poverty-struck shirtless hick zombies in 'gator country, or fending off rabid pedestrians amidst the bright curving architecture of New Orleans. On a similar note the way that the chronological episodes track day through into night (and back out again) gives each one a markedly different ambience, alongside moments of visually-scripted beauty -like charging zombies silhouetted against the bright rays of the setting sun.
The variations in environments aren't purely cosmetic though. Some areas, such as graveyards or hedge-filled parks, change their layouts each time you play, while most levels are not only peppered with far more nooks and crannies to explore, but also provide alternate routes you could follow - whether over rooftops, through side-corridors or around the sides of buildings.
Also certain locations have been earmarked by Valve to showcase a specialised forms of danger. A scrap-yard full of cars becomes a hazard run of potential alarms that can be set off by stray bullets. While a run-down Sugar Mill in Hard Rain has become a magnet for Witches. Here, a gaggle of the wandering death-bringers could be anywhere, and are generally everywhere.
Most impressive of all though are the brilliantly envisioned environmental effects that merge seamlessly with the gameplay - whether you're choking in the smoke of a burning hotel in the earliest episode, or trying to make out friend and foe through the torrential rain that thunders around you in the Hard Rain. Indeed, even this goes beyond the role of an occasional scripted effect -tying into the level by having weather monkey around with the entire structure of the episode it perforates. A town you've already pushed through (and probably used up all of the health packs in) has to be navigated again on a return journey - but is now waist-deep in rising water and entirely more thrilling to navigate.
Don't Look Back
Alongside some immaculately designed mini-boss and finale areas - notably a colonial mansion and an arena decked out for a pyrotechnic rock gig - there's also a fresh emphasis on areas in which you simply have to leg it. These gauntlets cover anything from racing through a shopping mall to turn off an alarm to haring over a car-strewn bridge in New Orleans to a helicopter pick-up, pursued by enough Infected to populate Brighton.
This play style creates some brilliant moments of selfish self-preservation, 'No man gets left behind!' sacrifice and simple nightmarish pursuit-terror.
I'm not going to lie. Imiss the old cast. Well, specifically I miss Zoey. Lovely Zoey. I am, however, willing to accept that this is a side-effect of the tender familiarity I have with the old team, rather than any perceived deficit with the new. After all, with an additional 2,000 lines of amusing and contextually-guided dialogue on top of the amount catered for by the original L4D, there's little doubt that with repeated plays well grow to love Ellis, Coach, Rochelle and Nick as much we did the originals.
Ellis the Redneck, above all, is utterly hysterical - NASCAR-obsessed and uncultured, yet simultaneously eminently lovable and sharp-witted, he's the instant hit, while the others are slower-bum affairs that prove more complex and intricate than the black guy, old white guy, biker, woman archetypes provided last time round. Interestingly too, their dialogue changes as the episodes wear on - initially they're strangers introducing themselves in a flaming shopping mall who keep getting the names of the special infected wrong, by the time they reach New Orleans they're firm friends and experienced zombie murderers.
A Story Told
As such, when you first play co-op L4D2 you should certainly do it chronologically, and not for this reason alone. Whereas the previous game did a lot of its storytelling through the various scribbles on safehouse walls, the Deep South contingent make their way through locations and environments that tell their own tales. Fenced areas where survivors would queue up to wait to be assessed by a group called CEDA before evacuation, military-defined danger areas, motels in which dry swimming pools are full of charred bodies... there's a strong tang of Spielberg's War of the Worlds wherever you go.
What's more the knowledge of what happened in these areas before your arrival gives the incessant violence an added level of humanity and the occasional flash of guilt.
Finally, I firmly believe that with Scavenge any remaining kinks in L4Ds Versus mode have been firmly ironed out. Scavenge sits pretty in a fairly long list of modes (alongside 10 different Survival co-op maps and Versus play-throughs of all five campaign episodes) but is undoubtedly the stand-out highlight. Essentially a localised Versus bout, each team must collect as many petrol canisters as they can from set points around a level and pour them into a central gas tank, while the spawning Infected team do their utmost to guess their movements and take them out.
Once one team has been killed off, the next team must beat their total. As such, not only do both teams get equal playtime as human and Infected, but games feel tighter, fairer and less predictable. Meanwhile, climactic rage-quits are also generally avoided and the Infected team find it far easier to work as a collective killing unit rather than a collection of lone-wolf bile-spewers.
Speaking of which, there is no greater joy than playing as a Charger, lining up an attack and spear-tackling a human player off a cliff-top and into the great beyond. Or, indeed, stealing control as a Jockey and leading survivors into harm's way.
L4D2 is a triumph then, and one you can't help but feel will be far better supported with co-op content post-release than last year's offering. (Well, you'd hope so at least.) In any case this is a remarkable package of ultra-gore screams and giggles.
The only half-problem is that the sudden plethora of new weapons slightly robs the game of its former strict ammo counts and the purity of its former two-tier gun system. Any concern with this fact though, is ridden rough-shod over by the fun-factor of slice-and-dicing.
This could have been Saved by the Bell: The New Class - a bunch of new characters you cared nothing about in depressingly familiar situations. It actually turned out to be an entirely new and brilliant brand of Saved by the Bell, one in which Screech is a fat vomiting woman and you can cut off Mr Belding's head with an axe while he's on fire. For this reason alone, I love it.
How Real Is Too Real?
Making a tough game that much tougher
Many L4D acolytes are now dab-hands at zombie slaughter, and despite the various tactical re-jigs provided by this sequel will still find themselves expertly offing the Infected. For these guys, I cannot recommend Realism mode enough.
This isn't realism in the sense that a friendly fire bullet to the head will kill you, but instead the more videogamey parts of the format are disabled. As such, gunshots to the body are less effective, startle the Witch you'll suffer a one-hit kill, and you can't see your friends' outlines through walls. This means that should you be Smoker-ed or carried back through the level by a Jockey you've got to be fairly hot with your descriptive skills so your buddies can find you.
For the most thrilling experience L4D2 can provide, play through the Witch-packed Sugar Mill in Realism and the Advanced difficulty level. Well, play through as far as you can without dying at least...