Stop whatever you're doing for one moment, and listen: can you hear that noise - the one that resembles a thousand rotting feet slapping onto concrete? That's the sound of Left 4 Dead 2, bearing down on all of us like a cadaverous tidal wave. The infected hordes have already torn the balls off a half-hearted revolt by part of the L4D fan base, and soon there'll be swarming over the rest of us, pulling us apart in a frenzy of giblets and gameplay goodness.
Before that happens, however, there's still time to take a sneak peak at one of the game's scenarios. "Dark Carnival" finds our four survivors battling their way through an abandoned theme park, eventually taking a last stand inside a large rock arena. True to form, Valve has used this setting to create a vivid and atmospheric set of maps that offer a few twists on the established L4D format without compromising the core formula that made everything so enjoyable last time.
The first thing to note is that this stage takes place during the daytime. The four campaigns of the original Left 4 Dead were all set at night, and while this design choice undoubtedly helped to build a sinister atmosphere, it also meant that certain sections of the game felt a bit same-y. Dark Carnival appears to take place sometime between late afternoon and early evening, and the graphics have a sort of golden "magic hour" glow about them. Of course, you won't have much time to appreciate these beautiful surroundings as you'll be busy fighting off hoards of homicidal corpses; it's far more likely that you'll notice how much grislier the violence is this time around. There's a lot more detail to the way your rabid foes go down, thicker splashes of gore and a more variety in the way they blow to bits.
Even if you're a veteran of the first game, you may be surprised by how much claret is spilled when you set about attacking a crowd with a chainsaw or samurai sword, and since we're now fighting in daylight, the blood is a lot more noticeable. More importantly, the game's melee weapons now seem like a viable strategic option. In the last build I played you could pick items like frying pans and axes and use them to fight the Infected up close and personal - but if you took any damage, you'd immediately drop the weapon. Under those circumstances, the assorted blades and bludgeons felt a bit pointless - but now when you grab something it takes the place of your pistol. This is a much fairer, balanced trade-off: if you pick up a katana, you'll be excellent at cutting through the crowds - but if you run out of ammo on your primary weapon, you'll have no way of attacking foes from a distance.
Speaking of ammunition, there are now several different kinds of ammo packs that can be used to boost the power of your primary weapon. These crates initially take up the slot used by your all-important medikit; when you're in a quiet spot you can then deploy it on the ground, creating a sort of temporary tooling-up spot for your part. One pack lets you fire exploding bullets, while another gives you incendiary rounds that make short work of crowds - and there may well be other varieties that we've yet to see. Both the flavours I encountered were a lot of fun to use, and they seem to be especially helpful when it's time to deal with one of the Special infected.
In broad terms, the level design on display in Dark Carnival is a typical mix of indoor and outdoor, shuffling between open areas and tight corridors that force the players into more claustrophobic battles. However, this general description utterly fails to do justice to the smart ideas on display. One particularly original section finds the survivors negotiating a rollercoaster track, an old school behemoth of arc, dips and wooden scaffolding. When I reached this point in the stage I made the foolish error of falling behind the rest of my team as I dithered over a choice of weapons. This kind of behaviour is never a good idea in L4D, and this occasion was no exception. A sneaky Smoker choked me and left me crying out for help on the floor, but my friends had already moved on. By this point I was far out of reach, but my buddies weren't actually that far away, geographically - they were simply walled off by bits of the track. As I slowly bled out, I could watch one chum sniping zombies from the very top of a big dipper, while another battled a Tank from behind what looked like a forest of wooden struts. By the time they noticed I was in trouble, it was too late. I died slowly, with salvation seemingly close at hand, and yet far out of reach.