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Written by Jason Nawara, @JasonNawara
Valve is notorious for letting their games marinate like a chunk of boomer flesh in some fine acid-spit dressing for years, so there was not a single person who wasn’t completely shocked when they announced a sequel to Left 4 Dead a little less than a year after it released. “My god, does this mean Half Life Episode 3 is right around the corner?” I remember thinking in 2009, a thought that’s hilarious in retrospect. The Orange Box came out two years earlier, so I thought maybe we would get something, anything Half Life soon. Man.
The game has incubated over the last four years into something that has evolved — mutated, even — into something very different from what Valve released four years ago. It’s a far cry from the original’s relative sloth-like pace compared to what we have here. Before we jump into this review, we have to take one more step somewhat off course into the days before L4D, when the basis for the game was a Counter Strike mod.
Let me throw on my snow shoes for a trip up hill both ways in order for me to tell you about the time when the mods that blazed the path to what would eventually become the Left 4 Dead series had to deal with more with teamwork and finding a set of tall boxes to crouch on than running past everything as fast as you can and damn your teammates. I think you get what I’m saying. Is there a place for me to set my hipster hat?
The zombie mods featuring Half Life zeds and scientists with head crabs riding their dome, swiping at your Counter-Terrorist perched along a ledge, evolved into hoards of zombies exploding in glorious 4-player action in L4D. Then, about 360 days later Valve perfected the formula; specifically the Versus formula in L4D 2. The original launched with only two campaigns featuring the Versus mode, which pitted 4 infected players against the 4 human roles in a back and forth battle to the safe room.
It took the release of the sequel, and it’s far deeper multiplayer suite, to finally bring the the remaining campaigns in L4D. In the years since L4D 2’s release, it has absorbed the original game, and now the campaigns and expansion packs are all featured in L4D 2, on Steam at least. On Xbox, the games and their content remain archaically separated in a manner one would expect from games released in 2009.
That’s a lot of words to set up the basic premise of the game: shoot zombies, splatter guts against a wall, get safe.
But still, this review is looking at a game that continues to innovate, and not just in areas you would normally expect of a shooter. Where we usually look at static releases in this column, this series is constantly changing and evolving, despite its decidedly ‘Valve’ mechanics that we all know and love. You know, the ones that include not being able to look down your sights.
In the last year or two, Left 4 Dead 2 has become a ‘hardcore’ game, by my estimation. I have over 100 hours logged in the original and the sequel, but in a frame of time where most games are corpses, this one lives up to Valve’s standard of living on for years beyond other, mortal, single releases in franchises. It’s this passionate community and super-competitive multiplayer and mod scene that’s keeping the game alive and well. The Steam Workshop helps. To stick with the whole undead theme, let’s call the Steam Workshop Frankenstein’s lab, where just about anything can and will transform the four-year-old game into an endless source of entertainment.
Do you want to have a Batman Beyond skin for Coach while making the Boomer look like the Stay Puft Marhmallow man? That’s an easy thing to do in the Steam Workshop. There are thousands of mods that add to Left 4 Dead 2. Some of the best I’ve experienced have ranged from full on custom campaigns that rival Valve’s level design, to ‘Better blood’ effects and enhanced CPU AI. Combine the user mods with the ‘Mutations’ section of the game, where the game adopts user and dev-made challenges to add spice to the game’s formula is almost endless. I get it: zombies aren’t for everyone, but for some people, this is truly the Counter Strike of zombie games.
The extra multiplayer modes presented in Left 4 Dead 2, such as Survival, Realism, Scavenge and Versus being available in every single campaign, including the expansions which bridge the original crew of survivors and those in the sequel, really made this game as deep as a pool of blood after a shotgun melted a few torsos. But, when you add in mutation, well… If you are new to its other multiplayer modes, Survival and Scavenge feature survivors gathering supplies or simply holding out in a section of the campaign where the players can appropriately dig in. Since release, the number of modes has grown to include Versus Survival, Versus Scavenge and endless variations of all the game types.
Mutation variations even allow you to go through the game solo, without the aid of friends or AI, and many, many other ways to play. The game is near-limitless in its variety.
For a game approaching half a decade since its release, it plays well, but anything based on Counter Strike will. In fact, you could hop from Valve’s latest iteration of CS, CS: GO to Left 4 Dead 2 and barely skip a beat. Sure, certain little annoyances pop up, like the aforementioned lack of looking down your iron sights, to the dated graphics and environments, but a lot of those gripes can be taken care of with mods.
The gameplay is still tight as hell, and in the hands of a skilled player, a Jockey or a shotgun are deadly and satisfying — either with a gamepad in hand or with the mouse and keyboard. The PC version’s controller support is a bit stiff, and not as fluid as the 360 version. Framerates remain high and the game certainly still looks great on current PCs (mods help, I will mention again) but on 360, even though this was visually superior to its predecessor, there’s no denying it looks pretty muddy today.
The sound is awesome, and the chunky splats of meat against a wall sound appropriate, for all I know. In general it’s a Valve game, and it sounds like one. The music is as tense as ever and the screams and grunts of the walking dead sound great. The audio won’t change the world, but in no way does it hurt the game. Mods, once again make the game even crazier. It has to be mentioned that I have a mod that has turned all common zombies into absolutely fantastic skins of Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise. I can even find a pulse rifle and hear the beeping of my motion sensor in key moments. The mods for the title are ridiculous; nothing is safe, especially the audio. The hisses of the Aliens are in place of the grunts of the zombies, and it sounds perfect.
The game is fairly rage-inducing, and the community hasn’t really developed into a kind and forgiving one, but that doesn’t take too much away from the game for me like it does for others. Just don’t ask this community member how he feels about the player base. So with all the good the community has produced, the toxic players are still debasing the fun of many, so it’s worth mentioning that just like 4-5 years ago, this is best enjoyed with four friends that have mics.
Even with some nasty players, if you’re coming into the Left 4 Dead 2 experience wanting to blast zombies and don’t want to try out the mods or the mutations — that’s fine — it’s still going to deliver hours upon hours of fun for a tiny price (it’s always on sale). Even at $20, it’s an absolute steal. Whether it’s 2009 or 2014, only the soulless will find no fun in Left 4 Dead 2. Valve and Turtle Rock Studios has made a game that has many, many years ahead of it even today.
The Final Word: Most games in this retrospective column need to be judged subjectively, with lots of ‘when it first came out’s’ getting thrown around. Not Left 4 Dead 2. It was a great game in 2009 and it’s a great game now. There’s a reason why this continues to live strong, like a Tank dodging a molotov thrown by a survivor.
Left 4 Dead 2 is available on Xbox 360 and PC (reviewed).