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.