Valve is widely regarded as one of the best videogame developers active today. As creators of Half-life, Half-life 2, and Left 4 Dead, and buying up the mod teams responsible for Portal, Counterstrike, Team Fortress and Day of Defeat, the company has established itself a firm place in the pantheon of game creators, as well as in the hearts of gamers.
Valve launched its co-operative zombie shooter, Left 4 Dead, to a rapturous reception in late 2008. Gamers loved its balance, the way the game adapted to good or poor performance from the players, and its visceral combat. However, earlier this year, Valve pulled out a surprise - a prequel, less than a year after the original was released.
While many gamers welcomed the news, a minority were incensed. Why was Valve building another full-price game, when this was content that could have been put into a cheaper expansion? Or free downloadable content for the original? A full-scale boycott was called, with Valve eventually quelling the riots by flying out the leaders of the boycott to their offices to play the game.
It's not clear what happened to those kids in Valve's HQ, but they returned with smiles on their faces, gushing about how incredible the prequel was. Despite initial disbelief from their followers, eventually the mob subsided - trusting Valve to get things right. But was their trust misplaced? Is Left 4 Dead 2 more of the same, or a genuinely different title worth shelling out the extra cash for? Read on to find out.
Left 4 Dead 2 has a totally different setting to its predecessor. The original game was set all over the place - airports, farms, hospitals, and towns. L4D2, on the other hand, is set firmly in the Deep South, in the swamps of Georgia and Louisiana. We were able to get hands-on with a couple of levels of one of the campaigns - The Parish, which takes place in New Orleans - on both the Xbox 360 (including some co-op action) and the PC.
The environments seem to be better constructed than the original's. There are multiple routes to wherever you're trying to go, and you'll uncover extra rewards by exploring rather than hurtling full-pelt towards the exit. More difficult paths will be rewarded with better equipment, including new ammo types. Also of note is that there's now daytime settings - torches aren't as compulsory as they were in the first game.
As well as a different setting, there is a whole new set of "Survivors" who you can play as. There's Rochelle, a news reporter for a TV station, Coach, a high-school football coach who bears somewhat of a resemblance to Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Ellis, a white-trash mechanic, and Nick, a professional gambler and con-man who mistrusts the other survivors totally.
One of the delights of the original game was the banter between characters that matched the situation you were in. That system has been expanded considerably, and your avatars - when not in the middle of combat - will joke, argue and snipe at each other with an alarmingly realistic uneasy tension.
But the real stars are the new zombies. In addition to the original game's cast of Hunter, Boomer, Smoker, Witch and Tank, there's now the Spitter, the Jockey and the Charger. The Spitter is a long-range attacker who shoots acidic phlegm that splatters over an area and hurts anyone standing in it. Not good when half your team are lying incapacitated on the floor.
The Jockey a tiny, dwarf-sized creature that skitters around emitting a horrible giggle. If it manages to leap on you, then you lose all control of your character - it takes over and steers you around - into traps and hordes of common infected. Lastly, the Charger is a mini-tank that moves very quickly, knocking you down, and can grab a survivor and slam them into the ground.
On their own, they're relatively trivial to deal with. But the problem is that they come in groups. A hunter might pounce on one survivor, while a charger grabs another, before a spitter then covers the ground with acid so that the other team members can't reach their buddies.
The regular infected have had a graphical upgrade too, and location-based damage has been added. If you shoot off an arm or a leg, that zombie's going to still be coming at you. Headshots are imperative, and when a particular infected goes down, you're never totally sure that they're not going to get up again.
As a result, battles seem considerably more intense. Instead of staying back and keeping the hordes at bay with assault rifles, it's now difficult not to get drawn into a scrabbly melee that you only just survive every time - and sometimes you don't survive at all. But it never stops being fun, even after the fifth or sixth attempt. The stories where you don't make it are almost more fun than the ones where you do.
Thankfully, the survivors get a few new tricks. There's the aforementioned ammunition types - incendiary rounds can set zombies on fire, and explosive rounds deal more damage. You can also pick up Boomer bile to throw on enemies (very useful against the tank) and resurrect fallen survivors with the defibrillator.
There's also a much wider range of weapons. AK-47s, scoped assault rifles, Uzis, silenced submachine guns and Desert Eagle pistols are available on the ranged front, and a whole pile of melee weapons can replace your pistol. Those deal considerable damage up close and include saucepans, baseball bats, machetes, and even, quite ridiculously, a guitar.
But, despite all the changes detailed above, Left 4 Dead 2 is still the same game as Left 4 Dead 1. There's piles of new content - weapons, enemies, levels, survivors, but if you didn't enjoy the first version then you'll almost certainly not enjoy the new one.
That said, it seems like everything that was great about the original (the characters, the pace of play) has been enhanced, and a few of the little niggles (like being able to stand in a corner meleeing and survive anything) have been removed. It's most definitely a better game than the already-excellent original.
It'd be even better if the two games were merged somewhat and you could get the original's maps with the new zombies and weapons, or the original characters in situations with the new ones, but it seems like Valve wants to keep the experiences separate.
Is it worth a full game's price tag? From our play-throughs so far, we'd umm and ahh, and probably come out on the side of yes - but only just. It's clear that Valve hasn't rushed L4D2 - it's just been able to build quickly on the successes of the original to create an even better zombie-slaying game. There's a whole tonne of new content, and a more focused experience, but this doesn't seem, in our time with it so far, to be a revolution. Just a (very large) content pack.