More of a re-do than a true sequel.
When Left 4 Dead 2 was announced at E3 this past summer, it was greeted by a buzz of disbelief. Valve is typically slow to churn out expansions and sequels (see Half-Life 2's resume), how is it that they're already all-systems-go with a sequel to a game that was released hardly a year ago? Furthermore, can we be assured that it's decisively better than the first game, which suffered from shortness and a limited amount of replay value? The original Left 4 Dead was plagued by shortness and a feeling of staleness that reared itself after finishing the game just a few times through. In many ways I felt swindled after purchasing the first one and traded it in soon after.
Left 4 Dead 2 certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel. This game is far more of a do-over than an actual sequel. The same quick and responsive control is there and this game plays just as good as the first one did. There are numerous improvements and expansions made over the first game, but this is quite the sequel that you'd expect to be developed and released only a year after the game that preceded it. The core gameplay is the same, and no new strides have been made here. There are improvements that have been made, such as the addition of new playable characters, weapons, special infected, and an entirely new campaign stage.
The new cast of playable characters is more different than improved. Players seem to have flocked immediately toward Ellis, his quirky stories, and his southern drawl. I personally found Coach to be far more entertaining and felt Ellis to be a little bit forced. He's well acted, but his dialogue seems to be getting laughs simply because he's meant as comic relief rather than the fact that he's actually funny. The other two characters aren't very entertaining at all, and they're more empty vessels than anything else. The new melee weapons are incredibly enjoyable, especially the chainsaw that's been featured in various commercials and publications. Zombie-killing melee weapons, made popular by Dead Rising, were sadly missing from the first game and it's nice to see them done here and executed well. The new special infected are good as well. The jockey and spitter are both interesting additions to the fray that give you a bit more to look forward to, but the charger feels a little bit too much like a mini-tank. The addition of uncommon infected characters such as the clown works out well as these characters serve to up the fresh factor while playing through certain levels again. The graphical qualities of the game seem also to have been improved upon as the look has progressed further away from downloadable game toward full-blown current generation console quality.
Added to the game are two features, scavenge and realism. Scavenge is a new playable mode featuring four-on-four gameplay, and is basically a shorter version of a versus match pitting four players as survivors against four infected players. The survivors attempt to collect cans of gasoline in order to add additional time onto a clock while infected members will attempt to stop them or otherwise run out the clock. Most scavenge games will only last a short amount of time, making this a welcome addition due to the inherent length of the versus modes of the original game. It fits perfectly into Left 4 Dead 2 and fills a void present in the first game. Scavenge is perhaps the most important addition to the game. Realism is an add-on designed to increase the difficulty. You'll no longer see the blue outlines of other players around the map, and simply helping somebody up no longer works when they've been KO'd -- Only the defibrillator will revive them. It's a nice step to take after you've completed a few of the campaigns on expert and are yearning for more of a challenge.
As with the first game, you'll feel horribly alone in this game if you're playing it by yourself. This game really requires that you play online to fully enjoy. Though you'll be provided with bots to assist you through the game if you play alone, it's nowhere near the same as shouting to your comrades online for help through your headset when you become pinned by a hunter or overtaken by a jockey. This works as a double-edged sword, however. If you're playing online with three of your buddies, this game couldn't be more enjoyable. If you're stuck with somebody without a mic, a poor player, an overly-chatty preteen, or somebody joining up just to sabotage your game? Let's just say that playing an offline campaign becomes far more preferable. The fact that trolls and poorly-skilled players can so adversely affect your team's performance makes it so that playing with a sub par team can really damage the experience. This is both the pro and con of games that all but require you to play online. I had a ton of fun and experienced a boat-load of memorable moments whenever I was playing with genuinely intelligent and enjoyable company, but throwing even one bad apple into the mix horribly soured the experience for me.
The addition of a fifth campaign level is definitely welcome, but I still couldn't shake the feeling of staleness that I had after running through the game a few times. I still feel that this game makes for a far better rental than purchase, despite the additions that Valve has been putting their effort into. In total, this game is one that is only really worth buying if you know three friends who will be habitually playing it as well. And even then, it will eventually get stale. If you thoroughly enjoyed the first Left 4 Dead, chances are you'll love this one even more. If you weren't sold by the first game or didn't like it, there won't be very much here to change your mind. Left 4 Dead 2 has its worth but I definitely wouldn't consider it among the best games of the year.
The Good:Fast, furious, and well-designed gameplay. Various improvements in the form of an additional campaign, more weapons, and more baddies. Improved graphics. Some great co-operative play to be had. Scavenge mode is a welcome addition and a lot of fun.
The Bad:Still feels a bit too much like a rental. "Personality" feels too forcefully injected. New playable characters are hit-and-miss. Saboteurs, children, and poor players can really do a lot to damage the experience.
Final Verdict: The game's personality feels too forced, and it still gets too stale. Left 4 Dead 2 houses the same drawbacks as the first for me, but definitely makes marked improvements in several aspects. If the first Left 4 Dead was your thing, don't hesitate to purchase this one. You'll love it.