I feel kind of sorry for those Infected who are just wandering around minding their own business. Not all of your enemies in Left 4 Dead 2 come right for you; some chill under stairs, in bathrooms, or behind trees. Some are even leaning against fences with their heads against their arms as though counting for a game of hide and seek. But where would the fun be if you were to show mercy? Like Ellis says in the blood-curdling opening cutscene - "Kill all sons of b*tches."
Sweeter for the fact the Australians are dealing with their censored version, Left 4 Dead 2 has arrived to deliver Kiwi audiences genuine, uncut brilliance. Gory as hell, high-adrenaline and madcap in its near constant action, L4D2 is going to be one of those games that keeps shooter and survivor horror nuts locked in for the whole summer and into the seasons beyond. Optimised for the multiplayer experience, L4D2 spreads several game modes across five terrifying environments, peppers them with myriad weapons and playable Infected, and basically gives you one helluva scary sandbox.
Someone asked me after I played the demo if one would buy this game solely for multiplayer: I said no. I said that there was no merit in buying it solely for multi- or only for the single player campaigns, and that both were good in their own way. Now, having spent some quality time with the full version, I have to revise that stance: you could in fact buy this just for the multi-player aspect. The single player campaign is a lot of fun, and certainly a lot scarier, but the fact is that as a social experience L4D2 just sings.
Multiplayer modes are Campaign, Versus (either as survivors or playable Infected), Survival (ditto) and Scavenge. Campaign is the only single player option, and the developer's apparent disbelief that anyone would buy this game to play alone shows here also, by allowing you to play single-console split screen co-op. Anyway, all of this adds up to an incredibly rich vein of gaming goodness. Just quickly - because we don't want to go into a bunch of rubbish you could learn from the instruction booklet - the Campaign is getting from point A to B with all the world's zombies trying to stop you. Versus allows you to play as either a Survivor questing for rescue or playable Infected trying to kill them off. Survival is similar to Versus, but with no hope of rescue; instead, you just have to hold your own against the never ending horde. In Scavenge, four players need to collect fuel, while a team of Infected controlled by another foursome try to stop them.
That's quite a few options, right? Add to this the ability to toggle Realism on and off, meaning that the identifying halos of your teammates vanish, as do the halos of pickups like weapons and first aid, and you've got a game that challenges you on many, many fronts. Valve have really gone for value for money here.
Is some background story necessary at this point? It's fairly simple: four strangers are left behind by those supposed to carry them to safety after a virus sweeps through most of the population. Those Infected are angry, speedy, in some cases mutated and in all cases bitterly opposed to anyone escaping alive. Suave city boy Nick, tough female lead Rochelle, the gentle giant Coach and trigger happy hillbilly Ellis need to collect as many weapons and as much ammo as they can before getting out into the thick of it and finding a way to survive. On each level, safehouses provide waypoints for the four as they adventure through, and the routes they can take are littered with cast off shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, grenade launchers, pipe bombs, Molotovs, samurai swords, crowbars, cricket bats, baseball bats, guitars and frying pans. Each of these items can be used to blast, cut or bash the heads, arms and legs of zombies. And there are heaps of zombies.
The game includes a number of "Special Infected," each providing their own unique challenges. Boomers will spew on you if they get a chance, attracting the horde in huge, unmanageable waves. Jockeys will latch on to your head and steer you away from your friends. Spitters will fire gobs of green acid at your feet. There's a whole range of Specials in the game and none of them make your progress any easier. These are also the Infected you have the ability to control in several of the game modes, taking advantage of their unique abilities. The Special Infected really help lift the difficulty up a notch, even on the easiest level.
L4D2 has four difficulty levels. Easy, in which the Infected can be compared to the zombies in Shaun of the Dead. Normal, in which they're more like the more purposeful horde in 28 Days Later. Hard, where they're getting to the dexterity and intelligence levels of the vampire-zombies in I Am Legend. And finally Expert, where they're faster than All Blacks, even smarter than Wellingtonians and as surprising as the All Whites.
Regardless of difficulty, the AI in this game really is something special. L4D2 includes an in-built "Director" that controls and updates the action as you progress. Standing in one spot where you happen to have just cleared out big army of Infected won't do you much good, because more will be along shortly. The way the enemies react to their surroundings is also highly entertaining: a car alarm will get their attention, as will a stray bullet or tossed pipe bomb. Smokers - big, scary Infected with the ability to capture Survivors in their tentacles and constrict them - will usually strike from behind fences or other obstacles, so shooting them is often quite difficult. This just scratches the surface of the varied ways in which L4D2 will shock you: I challenge anyone not to be at least a little unsettled by the unpredictable Infected.
Unsettling doesn't even begin to describe the environments. I thought The Parish was pretty creepy when I played the demo, but at least that takes place in something approximating daylight. With dusk coming on as you walk the Dark Carnival, or in a storm ravaged swamp, the horror aesthetic truly takes charge. With a group of mates around you or even linked up online, there's something convivial at work; an easy gamer's bonhomie which keeps you from getting to freaked out (or at least prevents you from showing that you're freaked out). Alone, at home in the dark, with the sound boosted up and your two sweaty hands and greasy Xbox controller your only weapons, things seem a lot more sinister. Atmosphere, baby!
The music and sound is just superb. While some of the Survivor's voiceovers can get a bit mangled amongst the screech, growl, cackle or crying of Infected, their limited soundbites don't seem too overdone. They do get somewhat repetitive, but I'd rather listen to the same, well-acted joke over and over than different, poorly delivered ones. The weapons all sound fantastic, from muzzle-flash to bolt-action, and the music is beautifully eerie. At one point the music was setting such a brilliant scene that I started to concentrate on it too much, and had to turn it down so it wouldn't distract me from the telltale sounds of the Infected. Knowing where the next Hunter is coming from will always serve you well.
My main complaints about L4D2 are on a graphical level. Some of the healing looks a bit hammy, because your teammates simply run their hands over you/each other before the health bar fills back up. Was I expecting to see iodine and cotton buds? No, but even the appearance of a bandage would have been cool. Often, following a successful heal, pain-pill necking or adrenaline shot, the weapon they were carrying just pops back into their hands as if by magic. Infected shot from high places will sometimes slide along invisible plains before dropping to the ground, and the interaction with the environment isn't always as realistic as it could be. I have a shotgun that can cut a sprinting zombie's arm off, but it can't shoot a decent hole through a plastic chair? Weird.
L4D2 has earned a rightful place among its zombie-blasting peers. Throughout the game's many modes, myriad weapons, playable Infected and apocalyptic environments, shooter fans will find plenty to soothe their itchy trigger fingers. It's bloody, frantic and ought to deliver everything breath-holding gamers have been waiting for. It may be similar to the first game in several ways (the basic premise, after all, hasn't moved on much) but the addition of so many new weapons - especially the melee set - is just one example of how the developers have enriched the whole experience.
I am going to have to point out that the guts of the action is really quite basic: see zombie, kill zombie. But this game was always meant to be more of the "see zombie, make pithy remark to friend via Xbox live, kill zombie" type.