Last week's launch of a certain game may have eclipsed the first-person shooter landscape for some time, but there are other gripping, visceral shooting experiences to be had at the tail end of 2009. Last year's Left 4 Dead found Valve adapting its skill at multiplayer online gaming to a co-op grindhouse-style horror genre, one in which cooperation played more of a factor than lone-dog competitiveness. While the original Left 4 Dead had only four campaigns and was a chiefly online experience, it sustained some criticism for being too short and for not having more multiplayer modes.
The new Left 4 Dead (we played the Xbox 360 version) has only five campaigns--one more than the original--but they proceed through much larger, far more interesting zones, all set in the deep South. Heavy thunderstorms, a bizarre carnival, and lots of swampy backwaters add great environments. On top of that the game features additional infected zombie types, weapons, and items to acquire, all of which make the game more unpredictable and diverse--our one complaint with the original was that it started to get a little repetitive over time. Shoulder-riding Jockeys are the best of the new, while fast and cruel Chargers seem to pummel too quickly. The new Infected can also be controlled in Versus mode, adding new playable characters.
Also new are a collection of chainsaws, frying pans, and other hard-core bludgeoning weapons. They aren't always the most efficient tools, but they feel great to use and can cut through Left 4 Dead 2's zombie swarms better than rifle-butting. There are also new items like the adrenaline boost to speed up play.
We had as much fun, or more, playing the sequel than we did the original, although the graphics and general feel don't fall far from the zombie tree. Some of the levels this time around are so tremendous we'd wander around like idiots looking for a way forward (a little arrow would have been nice for the direction-challenged). Added multiplayer modes and the ability to play all five campaigns in any mode desired adds a huge of amount of replay, and we have to admit we appreciate Left 4 Dead's welcoming co-op style as opposed to the insanely harsh (and somewhat more cruel) Modern Warfare 2.
L4D2 is, in a sense, a kinder, gentler free-for-all. But this is a multiplayer-must game: unlike Modern Warfare 2, which has a great if short single-player mode, Left 4 Dead 2's single-player continues to use the AI-controlled ally system, and compared to real human companions, they're dumb as dirt.
Of course, the biggest challenge Left 4 Dead 2 has to face is the flocks of humanity already buying up Modern Warfare 2. MW2 is undoubtedly the superior online experience overall and the graphically superior game, but for anyone who likes online multiplayer enough to play MW2 all day long, Left 4 Dead 2 is a no-regret purchase--especially for those who can't get enough of co-op play. And, of course, it has zombies.
We do, however, sympathize with those who feel that the sequel came too soon and offers too little for a premium price. With just five campaigns, it would have been nice to see L4D2 be packaged as a series of DLC packs instead of a whole new game, but on the other hand, the total cost may not have been much different when factoring in the number of weapons and modes that have been included here. Of course, if you're playing on a PC via Steam, updates that cost 360 owners tend to be free, so it's a different story.
Left 4 Dead 2 is available now for the Xbox 360 and PC (sorry, PS3 users), for $59.99 and $49.99, respectively.