Monday, 30 November 2009

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 – A comparative review for you.

Ever since Left4Dead 2 was announced I’ve been seeing the same questions time after time: How much like the original is it? How much does it build on, if at all? Is it really worth the price or is it just an inflated expansion pack pumped out to appease the franchise monster?

Quite a few people still dwell on these doubts, so I’m going to attempt to clarify the whole matter by doing a comparative review of Left4Dead 2.

First thing you’ll notice is that the game is harder, much harder, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In the original Left4Dead the difficulty curve was pretty absurd. Easy was for the brain damaged only, normal was way too easy, advanced was easy, and expert was ok - except for the Tank parts that were very difficult unless you had a “professional” team, and even then it was a bit of a gamble. In that sense, the game would often become frustrating as finishing a chapter would depend heavily on if, when and where you got a Tank. It wasn’t smooth, it felt like a wildcard, a random difficulty inflation from “challenging” to “nightmare”, just because.

This issue, however, has been addressed in Left4Dead 2, and the difficulty is more consistent this time around. While the general difficulty has been considerably amped up, the survivors were given a whole new set of tools, like bigger weapons and explosive or incendiary ammo that indirectly fixed the tank issue. As of now Tanks feel tough, but fair. Valve also listened to the “it’s still too easy” complaints, and added an alternative Realism mode. This plays a lot like a zombie movie and if you still think Expert is too easy, then Realism Expert is exactly what you need.

Second thing you’ll notice is that the game itself is more dynamic, and I don’t mean the whole “dynamic paths” thing Valve has promoted that was meant to change the map each time, that has only been partially successful. I mean the way the entire game plays out, owing mostly to the major changes they’ve done in the way of “events” and map design. The original game generally flowed very linearly. Go from point A to point B, camp during point B’s crescendo and proceed to point C after. This made it so that, while the maps could be as varied as you’d like, the game flowed fairly similarly regardless. In Left4Dead 2, however, every map feels unique since they’ve added a variety of events, ranging from running to deactivate an alarm causing a constant stream of zombies to picking up gas cans to fuel up an escape vehicle while zombies drop to give you an entirely unhelpful kind of “hand”.

A big contribution also came from the new weapons (melee is insanely fun) and the substitution of generic ammo piles for loaded guns. On the original Left4Dead you’d generally stick with your tier 1 weapon until you found a tier 2 stash, pick your favorite and generally run with it till the end of the campaign. In Left4Dead 2, however, that’s generally not an option. Weapons have lower ammo capacity, and ammo piles are a lot rarer, while weapon spawns are a lot more common. What this means in practice is that while you’re hard pressed to run out of ammo, you’ll be forced to switch weapons all the time, based on what’s available, or put a lot more emphasis on ammo conservation. The new infected also play their part on making the game more dynamic. Whereas previously in Left4Dead the best possible defense against anything NOT tank-shaped was bundling up in a corner, in Left4Dead 2 you need to constantly change and adapt your strategy or risk having the whole group incapacitated in a wink.

This isn’t to say the game is a perfect upgrade. All this new “dynamism” has certainly confused the bots, which seem remarkably stupid this time around. Surprisingly, in Left4Dead 2 the bots actually seem denser than on Left4Dead 1. And it doesn’t seem like a simple case of the developing team forgetting to adjust their AI accordingly either. The bots seem genuinely denser than before, which is rather confusing as you'd expect things to either improve or remain the same, not become worse, so make sure you’re playing with humans online or prepare for a headache or three. Equally disappointing was the absence of truly dynamic path and weather systems (the latter only applied to half of one campaign) and, I’m aware this is quite the petty gripe but, the absence of the fucking SDK at launch as Valve goddamn promised!

Graphically the actual engine is pretty similar, and while Source is by no means the absolute peak of our generation, everything still looks very pretty if you turn all options to max. The graphical highlights are definitely the facial animations and the new effects (body damage, dismemberment, weather effects), which effectively make the game look a lot prettier.

The bottom line: is this a good sequel or an overpriced expansion? I say, despite my original concerns, this is exactly what a sequel should be: it picks up the original, expands and polishes. The core of the experience is still the same, surviving and killing zombies, but so much has been changed that the actual experience is quite different. And Left4Dead 2 is nothing if not beautifully polished. You’re bound to find a scratch in the paint here and there, but overall if you like co-op, survival and zombies this is a no-brainer of a purchase.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Put your money where your mouth is.

If you have internet access (and if you’re reading this, you do) I feel like I don’t need to explain the massive shit-tsunami generated in the wake of Infinity Ward’s announcement to drop dedicated servers. PC gamers have been up in arms, started boycotts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if death threats had been sent. When former-gaming-visionary John Carmack announced ID’s new IP (the only new IP ID has developed since Quake in 1996) Rage would also be dropping dedicated server support PC gamers threw their arms over their head and awaited Armageddon.

And I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to put up with it. No. Stop. Put down that Boycott group. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that these companies seem to have forgotten they work for us, not the other way around.

Oh we’re certainly to blame for it. There was a time before the internet where our wallets did our speaking for us, loud and clear. At that time, developers took us seriously because if they didn’t, they’d crash and burn. But not anymore. I mean, blame Infinity Ward all you want, but you can’t say we’re not sending them mixed signals here... What’s the point of a boycott where everyone buys the product being boycotted anyways? They can’t hear your e-hate over the sound of how awesome their sales figures are. You think Mr. Kotick cares about your blog? Or your verbose forum post? You think IW give a damn about your eloquent review saying their game sucks monkey balls when you bought it? Go ahead. Tell them it’s the worst thing in the world since cancer. Once you buy their game all they hear from you is “ka-ching!”. Conversely, you can write all the good things you want about a game, but if you don’t buy it, your support falls flat. If any of these companies could make the worst game in history, a game so horrible it would make Atari’s ET or Superman 64 look like flawless masterpieces, knowing EVERYONE would buy it, they would.

Regardless of how much I hate Bobby Kotick, as off this moment, I couldn’t take us seriously either. We’re all bark, no bite.

So how do we get to them? How do we show them they need us a lot more than we need them? With money. The all important currency. The fun thing about this business is that it’s like a permanent election. Companies follow the flow of money wherever it goes. You disagree with a company? Send your money to a company you DO agree with.

The bottom line? Are you pissed about the new “no dedicated servers” policy? Is it important to you? Well, would you look at that, here’s a company that actually seems to care. Dice are reaching out, extending their hand, and saying they care. Meanwhile, Activision seems perfectly content in violating us some more since we seem delighted to take it.

Our turn. Our move.