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Review: Left 4 Dead 2

Zombie nation: Valve at the top of its craft
By MITCH KRPATA  |  December 1, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars


Left 4 Dead 2 | For Xbox 360 and PC | Rated M for Mature | Developed and Published by Valve
When Valve announced a full-priced sequel to Left 4 Dead only one year after the original, 40,000 frustrated gamers joined an on-line boycott. Their grievance was that Valve had promised to support the first game with frequent downloadable content — yet by the time Left 4 Dead 2 came out, only one minor update had been released for the original. (A couple of months later, a new campaign finally did appear.) The boycotters had a point, but they'll miss out if they stand on principle. Had Valve offered this much content in the original game with DLC, it surely could have charged more than the $60 retail price.

The core concept remains the same. You play as one of four survivors of a zombie holocaust, trying to complete several grueling campaigns. As before, computer-controlled allies are almost worthless. Playing with three friends is optimal; you can share resources, devise strategies, and, of course, bust one another's balls. Playing with strangers can be vexing but dramatic; with random individuals, you're more likely to reveal your base nature — taking charge, hanging back, hoarding resources, sacrificing yourself.

Either way, teamwork is necessary to defeat your enemies, especially the "special infected," who pin characters or drag them away from the group. For as much as the first game encouraged sticking together, the sequel demands it. The difficulty has been amped up — it's not insurmountable, but you will be severely punished every time you stray, instead of most of the time.

The biggest change is the more ambitious level design. In the first game, the maps were nondescript, and your objective was rarely more than to reach the finish line with your limbs attached. Left 4 Dead 2 asks more. The environments are trickier, with burning buildings and muddy swamps, and paths may change from one play-through to the next. Several mid-level objectives require a change in tactics, such as when a non-player character will open a path for you only if you bring him a six-pack of soda. Whoever carries the bottles is unable to use a weapon.

When it works, it's thrilling. The high point is the "Hard Rain" campaign, a there-and-back quest to get fuel for your boat. As soon as you reach the gas station, a hurricane blows through, flooding the level and altering the return route. The environmental effects are terrific, with limited visibility thanks to oppressive rain, thunder, and lightning. In addition, the finales are no longer as simple as holding out against an onslaught. Especially noteworthy is the climactic dash across a crumbling bridge at the end of the "Parish" campaign.

Sometimes L4D2 is too clever for its own good. The finale of "Dead Center" — set largely in a shopping mall, and easily the weakest campaign — charges your party with gathering 13 gas canisters to fuel a getaway car. Uh, why the hell are there gas canisters scattered all around the mall? And though the "Dark Carnival" campaign is a hoot, fighting zombie clowns in the Tunnel of Love adds a level of silliness that the original game did fine without.

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