When the first Left 4 Dead came out in 2008, it was a very fun and successful title that went ahead and raised the bar for co-op gaming. It was a bit short, but the clever AI Director system and Valve’s support to the community made it a game with quite a lot of replay value. When Left 4 Dead 2 was announced less than a year later, fans cried foul for the series having a numbered sequel so soon. After all, if it takes them years just to even mention a Half-Life sequel, how is this going to amount to anything more than an overpriced expansion? Well, while Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t shake the foundations of the first game, Turtle Rock Studios has created something far too big to be a simple expansion, with a full campaign, changes to certain mechanics and modes, and a game worthy of any co-op fanatic’s time or money.


With one complaint of the first game being the lack of a cohesive and important narrative, Left 4 Dead 2 makes an effort to give a focused story this time around. It’s not terribly unique and it does force you to play the campaigns in order the first time to avoid confusion at events, but the new characters are fantastically written and just as memorable as the old cast. The new cast includes a dimwitted southern mechanic, a suit wearing ex-mobster, an old football coach and a news producer all looking for a way to get to safety. Unlike the old crew (who had been together for a small while before the events of the first game), the protagonists here don’t even know each other’s names at the start of the game and don’t even fully trust or like each other at the beginning. This gives the game a great opportunity to add in some character development, and as you go through the game you’ll notice some changes in certain characters that adds a nice sense of chemistry between them.


The gameplay isn’t vastly changed, and anyone who has spent any amount of time with the first game can pick this one up and have no trouble, but the game does add in a few mechanics to shake things up. The defibrillator replaces the health pack and allows you to revive a character (which is especially useful in the hardcore and competitive modes), boomer bile works a bit like a pipe bomb and allows you to turn the zombies on each other or on a particularly tough Tank zombie, while melee weapons make the biggest difference and some weapons (like the chainsaw and katana) are so useful that it makes me wonder how the first game existed without them. Another issue the first game had was the lack of variety in weaponry, with the same assault rifles and shotguns being used throughout, so Left 4 Dead 2 also adds in a healthy dose of new guns, from several different assault rifle variants, to a grenade launcher, semi-automatic sniper rifle, a magnum pistol and a light machine gun, all of which do a great job of shaking up the gameplay and allowing different team members to have different roles within their team.


The new zombies are also a big change from the originals and force teammates to stick together and communicate much more. Jockeys ride players into hazards while whittling away their health (and forcing teammates to take careful aim), chargers ram players into walls and knock over nearby players like bowling pins, and the spitter spits an acidic bile that can separate teams and inflict huge amounts of damage. Aside from forcing a change in tactics, they work well in the competitive modes to give more options to opposing players. The nicest change in the infected has to be the Uncommon Infected, who vary in every level. From armored riot police zombies in New Orleans, to fireproof hazard suit wearing zombies in Georgia, noisy clown zombies in a carnival, and deaf construction workers near a sugar mill, these infected mix in well with the common infected and remove the repetition and similarities between levels. These creatures of course are only additions to the older zombies, not replacements, so the horrors of coming across a tank or a witch (with a new, wandering variant during the daytime) are still ever present.


Even the levels themselves have put in an effort to be a huge change from each other and be different with every playthrough, thanks to the improved AI Director that now changes the layout of the levels themselves, along with an effort in moving away from the environments of the first game. Levels include a hotel on fire in a small Georgia town, a murky swampland, a carnival, a rainy and witch infested sugar mill, and the heavily infested town of New Orleans in the aftermath of a riot. They all carry a different theme and all end with a fantastic standoff, with different ways of holding off the horde in each one, though much like the first game each campaign is only about an hour long which makes the whole campaign about 4-5 hours for a single playthrough. Of course this is a game that was meant to be replayed, and the various modes do a good job of giving a reason for that.

Aside from the basic difficulty levels and competitive modes, a fantastic new addition is the realism mode, which prevents respawning, does not let you see the location of others and forces communication. It’s a much deadlier mode that works well with any of the difficulty settings, so players turned off by the insane difficulty on the hardest mode can simply play Realism Normal if they wish, or even go for easy if they aren’t too good but want to experience realism mode.


Polish wise, it is a Valve game, and it is on the Source engine so at this point there isn’t too much to write home about. It’s optimized well for different computers, and runs very smoothly on the Xbox 360 (with split screen support), and while it’s not a technical marvel, the effects are fun to watch and there isn’t anything bad, with textures and edges that are smooth and no visual bugs here. Explosions and fire effects are actually pretty marvelous and the ability to explode zombies into meaty chunks of gore is a satisfying way to end the lives of those antagonistic ghouls.


Overall, it’s not the simple overpriced expansion some gamers were expecting, but it’s far from a revolutionary change to the formula. There’s enough new content and upgrades here that even if you disliked the first game (as I did) you could end up loving this one, but if you don’t expect too much to change from the first game, and you have a few friends willing to jump in with you, then you’ll have a blast.