These may be credit-crunched times for most of us, but at least business is booming for zombies. With a veritable infestation of zombie-flicks in the cinemas, you can go a step further than watching your zombies getting splattered by doing the evisceration yourself – thanks to Left4Dead 2, the second iteration of the zombie-connoisseur’s favourite videogame.
It is, of course, only a year since the first Left4Dead, with the swiftness of the sequel’s arrival causing consternation in the game’s vocal online fan base. However, allegations of a cynical rush to market prove to be utterly unfounded. With a focus on online and co-operative play above storyline, the original was more of an online zombie-lovers’ playground compared to a balanced conventional game, and as such lent itself well to a swiftly conceived sequel from legendary developer Valve.
The first improvement you notice is that the graphics are much more detailed and considerably crisper – attention to detail which instantly makes Left4Dead 2 even more involving than its predecessor. A new dismemberment engine ups the level of detail: an assault rifle, for example, will gouge chunks of gore and entire limbs from advancing zombies, and you instantly feel more inclined to use whatever explosives come to hand once you’ve seen the limb-scattering mayhem they cause. Dovetailing with the dismemberment system are new melee weapons, including an axe and, that old zombie staple, chainsaw – although our favourite has to be the humble frying-pan, which not only makes an exaggerated clang straight out of Tom & Jerry, but also has the power to rearrange zombies’ facial features in a deeply satisfying manner.
This time around, Valve has worked more on the storyline although, fear not, you won’t have to sit through anything so tawdry as long cut-scenes, and the characters still don’t talk much except to warn each other that specific types of special zombies are incoming. The game has four new characters: Nick (who is a gambler), Ellis, Coach (a reassuringly grizzled type) and Rochelle (a TV producer). Set in the Deep South, the action starts in Savannah and ends in New Orleans. The game has five campaigns, playable co-operatively by up to four people, as well as in Versus and Survival modes; we’ve been told there’s a new game mode, too, but you’ll have to play it to find what it is.
Valve has made a number of gameplay tweaks, which may not be obvious the moment you sit down to play Left4Dead 2 but which make eminently good sense. For example, the days when you could ride out the campaigns’ finales by holing up in a bunker and firing through the windows are gone: the game encourages you to keep moving, especially when beset by seemingly endless zombie hordes. One finale involves crossing a long bridge; in another, you must make your way to a switch to kill a zombie-attracting alarm.
There are, of course, new forms of “boss” zombie, along with all the old favourites like Boomers, Witches, Tanks, Hunters and Smokers. Chargers have been added, which are designed to break up close-knit groups – they have giant arms for knocking people down, yet still move speedily. Jockeys will jump on your back and cause damage until a mate dispatches them. We’ll leave you to discover the other new additions.
Another unique feature which contributed massively to Left4Dead’s success is the AI Director, which made sure that weapon and ammo-drops were placed dynamically in different places every time you attempted a campaign. AI Director 2 will even rearrange the levels, shutting off and opening areas dynamically to shunt you around, according to how well you are doing.
The end result is that in Left4Dead 2 – even more so than in the first game – you feel like you are living through a zombie film with three mates, no idea of what is going to happen next and nothing but your wits and a host of found objects (admittedly primarily consisting of serious firepower) to get you through. It’s sure to create an online sensation. Be very afraid.