A few months ago, I reviewed Left 4 Dead 1 and promised to review Left 4 Dead 2 (2009) when it came out. After playing the game for about two months, I decided to share my thoughts on it. Left 4 Dead 2 contains the same basic concept as its predecessor: a team of four people, known as Survivors, must travel from one safe place to another in a designated map; the problem is that there are numerous zombies blocking your progress. The world, in the realm of Left 4 Dead, has been overtaken by a zombie plague, leaving four survivors alone to battle through hordes of the undead. At your disposal are weapons, ranging from rifles to molotov cocktails, that assist you in your journey. You control one of 4 characters, Coach, Rochelle, Ellis, and Nick in this survival horror game.
There are a number of modes to choose from, some of which are carried over from L4D1 and others that are completely new. Single player pairs you with 3 AI teammates, but it is merely a way to prepare for the multplayer modes. Co-op mode requires 4 human players to progress through the different maps (5 campaigns with 4-5 maps each are available) and reach the end with as many or as few surviving members left. Survival mode contains modified maps from these campaigns and is essentially a round where you must battle against unlimited zombies; the map ends when you die, and you are timed for your efforts to see how skilled you are. Versus is similar to Co-op mode except there is a total of 8 players instead of 4. 4 of the players do not participate as the human Survivors and are instead Special Infected, or zombies that are stronger and have different skills than regular zombies. For example, a person playing as a Special Infected can be a Hunter, a zombie that can leap long distances and attack his enemies by pouncing on them. Playing in Versus can be a greater challenge than the other modes because you are playing against human opponents that have varying tactics.
The modes unique to L4D2 are Realism and Scavenge. Realism mode is essentially like co-op mode except certain changes have been made to make the game even harder. For example, the zombies are much tougher to kill, items are not highlighted when you walk near them, a character that dies must be revived with a defibrillator, etc.
Scavenge mode is another type of Versus except rounds generally occur on one stage and in a shorter timeframe. The objective is for the survivors to collect a number of gas cans littered throughout a single level and bring them to a designated checkpoint, while the Infected must stop them from doing so. The round ends when all the gas cans have been collected, when the Infected have defeated the survivors, or if time runs out. Most games are played when a team has won the best out of a number of rounds (i.e best 2 out of 3 rounds total, 3 out of 5 rounds total). Scavenge rounds have been a lot shorter in my experience, and they are good primers for full Versus matches.
Improvements to the game are not limited to the number of modes. The voicework is as exceptional and voluminous as the first game's, with each Survivor having their personality show through their various quips and commands that you can activate through a menu. The graphics have been slightly reworked to add variety to the zombies' appearances, though the added gore can be excessive for some players; it is very possible to shoot a zombie in the stomach and reveal his innards. I do not mind it personally, but for some, it can be a bit much. Left 4 Dead 2 definitely earns its ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) rating of M for Mature, and it is not a game tailored for children.
Melee weapons, such as a chainsaw, have been introduced for a new dimension of killing your opponents, and the option of carrying a defibrillator or medical pack, one that revives a dead player or one that heals a hurt but alive one, modifies the familiar formula of the gameplay a bit. Left 4 Dead 2 contains many new aesthetic changes, such as new weapons and daytime environments, that are welcome but not as important as the multiplayer aspect. Thankfully, Left 4 Dead 2 seeks to correct some difficulties encountered in Left 4 Dead 1 and succeeds in some areas.
To combat survivors "camping, " or staying in one place to limit the points of attack and making it easier to eliminate their adversaries, the developers created new Special Infected from ideas from the gaming community. The Charger and the Spitter are the result of these concerns. The Charger is basically a zombie that performs his namesake; he can run at extremely fast speeds for a brief period of time. If he hits a survivor during his speed burst, he can literally carry them over a great distance and proceed hitting them into the ground until killed. If any other survivors happen to be in his proximity when he attacks, they are generally knocked down and stunned from the impact. This allows the Charger more time to incapacitate his prey while the other survivors try to recover. The Spitter was made to specifically get rid of the survivors' ability to huddle in one spot indefinitely, which was a considerable problem in L4D2's predecessor. This Infected shoots a liquid projectile that can land on virtually any surface. The puddle that ensues from this attack does continuous damage to any player caught in it, forcing them to move to another location. These two Infected have changed the dynamics of Versus mode a great deal and for the better.
"Rolling crescendos, " or events in the game which require players to deliberately advance through the level or face an unending horde of zombies, also prevent survivors from staying in one place indefinitely. It allows the people playing as Special Infected greater opportunities to attack and disable their enemies than the previous iteration did.
A couple problems, however, exist in Left 4 Dead 2. Like the first game, Versus mode can be extremely unbalanced. Because each team is limited to 4 players, a single player with average or below average skill can undermine their entire team's progress. I still witness many players quitting mid game after losing only one round. Although it is possible for others to join and fill in that vacant spot when this happens, the overall multiplayer experience still suffers from this unfortunate pattern. Scavenge mode partially remedies this problem since it generally has shorter rounds and not as many people abort the game, but there are community problems with Left 4 Dead that cannot seem to be resolved.
Replayability is somewhat the same as Left 4 Dead 1. So far, the five campaigns that were installed with the game are the only ones currently available to play, although some custom maps have already been started or made for the sequel. Valve has announced at least two DLC (downloadable content) packages in the future that possesses new content. Hopefully, this means that new campaigns or other additions will extend the life of this game. And like the first game, I have seen 8v8 servers that add more players beyond the traditional 4v4; to clarify, 8v8 refers to a server where there are 16 players total, 8 playing as Survivors and the other 8 as Special Infected. It adds some chaotic fun to an already fun product.
There have also been some connection problems to servers in my personal experience. To be fair, not everyone has or will experience this, but I am writing about this potential problem regardless. Sometimes when I try to connect to a server, I am disconnected about two or three times. I have to exit my game and reenter it and attempt to connect again for it to work; this happens about every other time I try to play. In the first Left 4 Dead 1, I did not usually have this occur to me. I still have not found the source of this problem, though there are one or two possibilities that I have considered. Others that have posted on forums are unable to start or play their game at all in extreme cases, so it is not uncommon for problems such as mine to present themselves. The frequency of such cases will vary among different users and their computers.
As for Left 4 Dead 2's impact on Left 4 Dead 1, I would say that the amount of people playing L4D1 has diminished somewhat. This may not be due to the players abandoning the first as it is the number of servers that have been converted to host the second game. A friend of mine that used to own a server for Left 4 Dead 1 changed his to accommodate the sequel; the fewer third party servers hosting games for Left 4 Dead 1 will subsequently reduce the ability, not necessarily the desire of players, to be able to engage in multiplayer. Left 4 Dead 1 has been on sale for as low as $7.49 on Steam, a digital distribution device for games, which might have helped boost the number of its participants to compensate for those that switched to playing the newer version.
If one were to ask whether to buy the first or second Left 4 Dead, I would have to advise purchasing the second. I bought the game for $32.21 ($29.99 with sales tax) from Gamestop on November 27, 2009. I have not seen it for a cheaper price yet, but I expect it to drop to $24.99 at some point this year. Though it has its own share of deficiencies and bugs, such as the Charger missing its target for no apparent reason, I find that Left 4 Dead 2 is more accessible to players in its mechanics than the first. The new Special Infected are easier to handle, the learning curve is difficult but not as steep, and the number of players will likely remain high and healthy for the time being. Left 4 Dead 1 possesses its own unique merits though, so I would not advise against obtaining it as well if you allow yourself the possibility of getting both games.
Update On Jul 18, 2010: An official DLC campaign was released on April 22, 2010 called "The Passing, " a three map campaign. The campaign is a short one, much like Left 4 Dead 1's first DLC campaign, "Crash Course." The Passing does not offer a huge number of innovations, but the second map as a whole and a wedding reception sequence in the first map were notable.
A new official game mode, Realism Versus, has also been implemented. This mode is more difficult than the normal version of Versus in some ways and assists the Infected player side's chances of winning, although it does not heavily sway favor in either direction. Reception has been generally positive. Personally, I think it is a good move in providing a challenge for experienced players, though a number of gameplay problems still remain in Versus as a whole.
"Mutations, " or weekly game modes, have been introduced and are ongoing. Each week, a new, creative way to play is implemented. For example, one mode reduced the players to utilizing chainsaws only; rifles and other high tier weapons were barred from use. Another one required headshots on zombies in order to kill them, much like the way zombies that appear throughout print and film-based media are dispatched. It should be noted that mutations, like the DLC campaign, are free.