After the protests are over, and the boycotts are all done, what are we left with? A game – that is all Left 4 Dead 2 is, a game. Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) was released in late 2009 for the PC, and recently came to the Mac via Steam. My review is based on having played the Mac version and replaying the PC version for comparison.
Left 4 Dead 2 is the sequel to the best-selling and critically acclaimed co-op multiplayer smash from Valve, creators of the Half-life, Portal, Team Fortress and Counter-Strike game properties. With multiple multiplayer options both on and offline, extensive AI custom functionality, four character options, new mêlée weapons and more, Left 4 Dead 2 promises to become one of 2009’s best shooters on the PC platform and set a new benchmark for co-op centric action games.
That game that stirred so much ire and controversy last year is Left 4 Dead 2, the sequel to the mega-hit zombie crunchin’ co-op from Valve. Mac gamers might have completely missed out on this stuff, but message boards were all alight with many demanding more support for the original Left4Dead rather than a sequel a year later. Left 4 Dead 2 is set in the south this time, and across five campaigns you’ll be romping through swamps and graveyards and cities working all the way from Savannah, Georgia to New Orleans battling massive hordes of fast moving zombies.
I will not deal with anything related to the protests and boycotts, nor will I discuss whether or not more should have been released for the original game. All I will look at is whether or not the current game is good, and if it represents a good value based on the price. After all, sequels of this sort are dicey to begin with: this isn’t a story driven game, and the new game doesn’t run on a new graphics engine or otherwise push technology. So it is not surprising that some folks would be upset that rather than a budget expansion pack we’re getting a full game. Is it worth it? Let’s see!
Left 4 Dead 2 is not about a sweeping epic storyline, it is about plopping four poor souls in an awful situation with some weapons and leaving them to fight together or die. While other games offer four-player co-op (*cough* Borderlands *cough*), the original Left 4 Dead really did it right – and it only improves in the new game. This is due to a few things: ramped-up difficulty, better enemy AI, and improved weapons.
Starting the game, after a cool montage that explains how our heroes end up on the roof of a hotel, you get presented with a load of gameplay options. The default options are multiplayer, as I discovered right away when I chose ‘campaign’ and was informed that the system was ‘searching for games’, and launched me into a co-op battle! That was a load of fun, but given I had just started and only had about fifteen minutes to play at that moment, I had to do the lousy thing and bail on my squad just as we were starting to click!
The great thing about that first session is not so obvious – the juxtaposition of ‘first time playing’ and ‘started to click’. That is right – Left 4 Dead 2 is one of those games that any FPS veteran can easily just slide right into and be immediately comfortable. If there are any questions, the game highlights things to do and shows controls at the start of a game. It is really helpful for those who are new or are game-jumpers who might forget certain elements, yet they never interfere with making progress. The controls and interface are intuitive and immediately familiar to anyone who has played a modern FPS.
The next time I played I looked through the menus more carefully. You can choose between the standard multiplayer campaign, Realism, Versus, Survival, and Single Player modes, among others. There are a ton of options available depending on how you want to play, and it is clear that Valve has listened to their fans and focused on delivering an enhanced multiplayer experience that would keep gamers busy for a long time into next year!
The single player game is handled in a way that makes it feel secondary to the multiplayer. It is the last choice, the campaign mode doesn’t enforce a story-based structure, and so on. Yet it is actually loads of fun, and is set up in a very flexible way. Rather than just a linear campaign, you have the ability to jump into any mission you want from the very start. If you are the type of person who prefers to get some time in on single player before playing online, you can do so. But if you have been playing co-op and want to get in some offline time, you can choose whatever map you prefer without having to ‘unlock it’.
But as I noted, multiplayer is where it is at: there is no reason NOT to just jump straight into the co-op game and play all the way to New Orleans with a group of friends. Or join some strangers for a quick map. Because unlike so many other games, you really get the full narrative experience (such that it is) whether playing solo or in co-op mode, including more chilling stories of those who didn’t quite make it through the onslaught. It provides a nice backdrop to all of the action, and provides some context to the struggle. Of course, you can also take on others in Versus modes across all five regions, or just engage in your own struggles to Survive a continuous enemy onslaught! There is just so much content there for groups to enjoy that I anticipate folks who grab it next summer (when Valve inevitably offers up a great sale) being able to find a game without a problem.
Technically the game is amazingly well done. My one complaint is load times – they are as long as seems to be typical for Valve games, but at least you get a little animated ‘loading’ indicator so you know you aren’t frozen (unlike Half-Life 2!). But once stuff loads … behold! The areas are distinct and nicely detailed, with a mixture of light and dark, indoor and outdoor, as well as mixing up terrain types. The variety of zombies is also nicely done so that you feel like you are really being attacked y hordes of individuals instead of a bunch of clones. Of course, if you look further you’ll see many repeating enemy types, but then again, if you take that much time you are probably already dead. Sounds are perfectly suited, never overtaking the action but helping to build tension.
Speaking of tension, this is one area I thought wasn’t as good as the original. I am reminded of the ‘race to loudness’ in music, with the move to omnipresent compression losing the dynamic range of older music and therefore the potential dynamic tension. Likewise, in Left 4 Dead sometimes tension was created as it is in horror movies – by a lack of combat. With the new AI Director, while the overall enemy behavior is enhanced in terms of adapting to the capabilities of your squad, it seems like it has lost the ability to deliver dynamic pacing to create quiet moments to prepare for the next onslaught, and therefore the ability to surprise or ambush you effectively.
My final criticism is with the difficulty level. Left 4 Dead could get tough at times, but was very playable, especially as a squad. Left 4 Dead 2 really requires your whole team to be on alert at all times, which is why I felt so bad when I had to leave my group – I knew I was sending them to likely death! For some that is a good change, as after months of playing it can become too easy, but for many it was simply an exercise in frustration.
For the Mac release, Valve has optimized the game based on the ‘Snow Leopard Graphics Update’ released over the summer, so the performance for me was excellent from the moment I installed the game. The graphics look identical to the PC version, performance in offline and online mode is transparent, and the overall experience is identical.
I have seen reports of gamers successfully running L4D2 on Macbooks with integrated graphics, and other having issues on high-end Macbook Pros … but in general so long as you meet the minimum requirements you should have decent success. My older system is an early 2008 Macbook Pro with the NVIDIA 8600 video card, which is the minimum requirement, and I had no issues at all with framerates or lag.
But aside from the minor complaints I mentioned earlier, I really liked Left 4 Dead 2. My expectations were that I would like it since I have faith in Valve, but they greatly exceeded what I anticipated. Great new areas, huge campaign spaces with loads of variety, new enemies, new weapons, and better AI on both sides of the gun. If you liked the original, you won’t feel like you wasted your money by getting this one.
The protests are over, the boycotts are done, we’re left with a game … and boy is it fun!
Review: Left4Dead 2
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
What I Like: Awesome four player action; Cool new weapons; New zombies are great; Great play modes; Solid Mac performance
What Needs Improvement: Much more difficult; Seemingly constant flow of enemies; Less pacing control means less tension
Source: Review code provided by publisher