Here we go again. You’re almost out of shotgun shells, and you used the last of the group’s first aid kits to patch up Ellis - the mechanic who got nabbed by a hunter as you sprinted through that last courtyard. The American football coach is wolfing down a jar of painkillers, while Rochelle the reporter is tensely gripping a bloodied frying pan. Outside the safe house door, hundreds of Infected are waiting: the walking dead, whipped into a fury by some form of mystery virus. The situation demands a clear head, but all you can think is, “How could the same sh*t happen to the same guy twice?”
It’s a valid question, because Left 4 Dead 2 looks and feels extremely similar to the game we played and loved last year. There’s a slight change of scenery, a fresh cast of survivors and a new selection of melee weapons, but on the whole it seems to be the same old FPS. This isn’t such a bad thing, of course - let’s not forget that Left 4 Dead was our Number 1 game of 2008. What worked then still works now, but this in of itself begs the question: has this sequel arrived too soon?
Some people certainly seem to think so, if the angry boycott group on Steam is anything to go by. But there’s also another camp, one with a voice as loud if not louder, that says Valve deserves to be given a break. These are the guys who gave us Half-Life, Counter Strike and Portal, as well as the super-good-value Orange Box. When it comes to first-person shooting, there are few safer hands.
Personally, I suspect that L4D 2 will be one of those sequels that only reveals its true distinctions over a long period of time. The whole Left 4 Dead formula is reliant upon oodles of balance: these games are designed to played over again and again, and any enormous changes to the setup could easily rock the proverbial boat. My initial impression is that this game feels more like a FIFA or Pro Evo-style update than a fully-fleshed sequel, but I’ll certainly reserve my judgement until I’ve played it for a considerable length of time. Why? Because that will be the only way to fully appreciate the impact of the new features.
Take the new melee weapons, for instance. During my recent hands-on I got a chance to try out the frying pan and the fire axe. They both seemed quite fun: the pan makes a great comedy “bang” as it collides with Infected faces, while the axe covers the screen in gore as it chops through a crowd of enemies. I eagerly rushed to use these weapons as soon as I found them, but in both cases I soon grew bored and reverted to my standard firearms. You drop your melee tools if you take any damage while using them, and since you have to be right next to your enemies to use them, this happens quite a bit. It seemed to me that one was far better off sticking to ranged combat - particularly since you still have infinite ammo for your basic handgun. However, later in the day I watched one of my fellow hacks using a frying pan with great success - thinning out a crowd with his shotgun, then bashing down the stragglers from up close. By carefully switching between the two methods, he reduced his need to reload and saved a fair bit of ammo.