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As a zombie purist I prefer my undead to shamble slowly as they struggle to animate their rotting corpses but the genre has seen the development of rabid, fast moving zombies as popularised by 28 Days Later. In game terms the choice to go with infection and throw an overwhelming tide of snarling zombies intent on clawing and gouging you to death is the right decision. It creates an immediacy and tension which makes for a more engaging game. Throw some mutated nightmares into the mix, super zombies with specific techniques for converting you to their ranks, and you have the perfect set up for an addictive co-op FPS.
Left 4 Dead 2 picks up events in the aftermath of the original game but thanks to some refinement, new features, characters, enemies and weaponry this surpasses the first release by a distance. This really gets your blood pumping and the masterful level design can be enjoyed in five separate modes. This is definitely going to be the game that has me glued to the PC over the Christmas holidays and probably beyond.
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The premise of the game is simple. You are one of four human survivors and your aim is to survive a zombie apocalypse which has left the vast majority of the population infected with something a lot worse than swine flu. The co-operative gameplay is excellent and you really do have to work together if you want to survive. Communication with your team mates, caution and the determination to protect each other are vital for victory, especially on the higher difficulty levels or in the incredibly tough Realism mode.
There are five campaigns, all fully fleshed out and featuring some dramatic set-piece moments. The level design is superb and although you are progressing down linear corridors in each environment there are frequent route choices and the genuine illusion of a wider world. The most impressive thing about the level design is the intuitive nature of it, much like Half Life 2 given an apparent choice of two routes you’ll find yourself taking the right one immediately most of the time.
The basic gameplay is standard first-person shooter. You can carry two weapons, an explosive and some health boosting items. The first slot is reserved for the big guns and you can find a wide variety including all the FPS staples from sniper rifles to shotguns. Your second slot is a back-up pistol and you can wield dual pistols if you find another one although I’d recommend ditching it in favour of a melee weapon. There are nine melee weapons on offer from katanas to guitars, and you can also get your hands on the holy grail of zombie slaying – the chainsaw. This being a Valve game the crowbar makes an inevitable appearance.
The hordes of infected pouring in through every available opening are bolstered by some new additions to the super mutant line up. Added to the original Hunters, Tanks, Smokers and Boomers you’ll find Spitters, Chargers and Jockeys. Spitters create acid pools which you don’t want to get stuck in, Chargers predictably enough charge at you and pound you into the scenery and Jockeys jump on your back and take control. The mixture of challenges represented by these mutants make the gameplay varied and you need to react differently to each one, although you ultimately just want to shoot them all.
The various campaigns are overseen by an AI director who changes the action every time you play. Pick ups will change, zombie hordes will attack in different places and you’ll face a random array of the special mutants. This lack of predictability or standard scripting makes each play through a fresh experience and really boosts the replay value.
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The visual design of Left 4 Dead 2 is incredibly strong. The environments are far more interesting than the first game and they invite exploration. The central characters all have their individual charms. The scenarios are influenced by the zombie film genre and short of a genuine outbreak this is as close as you’ll get to facing down a zombie apocalypse.
When it comes to identifying enemies the super mutant gang have recognisable silhouettes and animations so you can pick them out of the crowd at a distance, which is vital. The range of animations is astounding and as you fire wildly into a crowd the animations blend seamlessly with the ragdoll effect so that every zombie seems to die in an individual way.
The whole package is wrapped up with neat menus and a clear HUD which always gives the information you need at a glance. The visual effects work brilliantly and the ability to see your mates through walls boosts the co-op gameplay no end. There are plenty of artistic cues for each situation and this helps to keep you immersed in and focused on the action.
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Much like the visuals, the sound serves a strong gameplay purpose by providing you with subtle cues about the unfolding action. The musical score heightens during moments of tension and individual nasties have their own sound cues which provide warnings about impending attacks. The attention to detail is excellent and the twang of the guitar as you pulp a wave of infected running at you always conjures a smile.
The overall quality and level of polish is excellent and this carries through to the voiceover work which adds real personality to the survivors.
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Left 4 Dead 2 is made to be played co-operatively. Even if you choose to play through the campaigns on your own you will be accompanied by three AI companions and you’ll need them. In addition to the Campaign, Versus and Survival modes there is the new Scavenge mode and you can choose to play with Realism turned on (which basically makes enemies harder to kill and removes the ability to see team mates through walls).
This is undoubtedly best enjoyed online with friends and playing against humans in the Versus mode makes for a unique challenge. The range of multiplayer content on offer here creates a fantastic amount of replay value and the co-op experience is very well designed and hugely enjoyable.
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This is a hardcore FPS game which provides enough of a challenge to tempt long time shooter fans in. The co-op is not just an option either, it really is effectively implemented here and no other game offers such a satisfying team experience. The action is relentless and can be breathtaking at times and there are precious few moments in the game where you’ll feel safe enough to take your hand off the mouse. In Left 4 Dead 2 a quick sip of beer is liable to get you killed. You have to keep up with your team mates and be ready to react quickly and with deadly force at any moment. Considering the release of this game comes just a year after the original it represents a surprising step up in quality and design. This is blood soaked carnage of the highest calibre so tool up and get ready for some chaotic fun.