Left 4 Dead 2 (Xbox 360)
I remember being cool on Left 4 Dead. Before the game came out my buddy Jeremy linked me some early footage. "Looks like a lot of back up and shoot," I shrugged. That was, of course, before I got my hands on the game at E3. Actually playing Left 4 Dead changed everything. I felt palpable fear as hordes of zombies booked down the hallway of Mercy Hospital. I glimpsed the way that the game would transform cooperative gaming beyond the simple notion that two guns are better than one. And, most importantly, I began to identify the Survivors not as empty player avatars, but as lively characters.
For me the big triumph of Left 4 Dead wasn't simply the fact that it was a fun cooperative experience with a surprising amount of replay value. No, the best thing about Left 4 Dead was the way I came to fall in love with Zoe, Bill, Francis and Louis. Left 4 Dead marked a huge turn for Valve -- a developer that long adhered to the silent protagonist rule. Games like Half-Life 2 and Portal were chatty, but all that talk came from sidekicks, enemies and companions. Gordon Freeman and Chell are as mute as a Versus match is long.
Not so with the four player-controlled protagonists in Left 4 Dead. Those guys can't shut up to save their lives.
Left 4 Dead 2 kicks the convos into overdrive. The gab starts in the game's opening cinematic. Remember the opening for Left 4 Dead? The point of that clip was to familiarize you with the rules of the game. It introduced you to the special Infected and gave you tips on how to deal with each one. Left 4 Dead 2's intro has greater ambition -- it begins the business of character building from square one. Notice how Nick, the con man, checks the cash register for dough -- even though money is mostly worthless during a zombie apocalypse. Watch mischievous Ellis' playful grin as he opens the gun rack. See how Rochelle, the reporter, pores over maps while Coach chews on a chocolate bar. All of these moments pay off as you play and replay Left 4 Dead 2. Running gags, run. Bits of character bear out as the four new Survivors fight their way from Savannah to New Orleans. That's the magic, the pure bad-assery of Left 4 Dead 2. Valve has gotten so good at what it does that it can pour energy, effort and life into the one aspect that so many others stumble upon -- story.
And the brilliant thing about Left 4 Dead 2 is that the story isn't segregated from gameplay by long cut scenes or being tucked into books or audio files or other cheap videogame gimmicks. The plot of Left 4 Dead 2 actually happens. And in this game it isn't all just about getting from point "A" to point "B." I'm usually not the type to fret about spoilers. But I'm of the mind that what goes down in more than a couple of the campaigns in Left 4 Dead 2 are the kind of thing you don't want to know about until you're in the thick of things. We can talk about these things next week or in the comments in the days to come. Just know that there are many game-changing moments in Left 4 Dead 2.
Thanks to the new special Infected (especially the Spitter, bane of all campers) and ingenious level design, no two campaign climaxes feel entirely the same. Much of this hinges on the game's approach to finales: Rather than task the Survivors with simply surviving a wave or seven of zombies, Tanks and other nasties, Valve gives them something to do. Sometimes that means camping; sometimes that means running fuel back and forth. And other times you just gotta run like hell.
A fifth character, the game's Southern setting, picks up storytelling duties as well. Not willing to rely only on the writing on the safehouse wall, the night-and-day changes in locale make the arc of the game feel more like an adventure. Left 4 Dead's Northern setting was sober in comparison. Left 4 Dead 2's campaigns, when played end-to-end, feel like a true odyssey. The final airlift is a hard-won prize as cathartic and thrilling as the climax to any movie.
And there's where Left 4 Dead 2 makes the greatest improvement over Left 4 Dead. The first game was indebted to the zombie film -- borrowing heavily in tone and setting from America's undead originator George Romero. Left 4 Dead 2 takes the ball and runs it well past the Mason-Dixon. This game is a lively, original zombie work -- full of big, dramatic moments you've never seen before in a zombie movie.
Sure, Left 4 Dead 2 kicks off in a mall -- one of the most familiar zombie-horror settings out there. But soon the flavor of the South takes hold, taking the terror to swamps, the streets of New Orleans and, in one glorious moment, a final stand that goes down on the stage of a rock concert that never came to pass.
There's a lot of game in Left 4 Dead 2. The new multiplayer stuff is killer. Scavenge, which is all about pumping gas into a generator, provides a quick, tense and dramatic twist on Versus play. The Jockey -- a new zombie mutation that clamps onto a Survivor's skull -- is a blast to play. Do yourself a favor and play your first Versus match against friends. Because when you spawn as a Jockey and finally nab the Qualified Ride Achievement, you're going to want to be able to brag that it was a friend's head you were humping when you made the reward pop.
But multiplayer innovations and tweaks like new guns, nutty barf grenades, explosive ammo and adrenaline-spiked heals aren't what make Left 4 Dead 2 such a fabulous success. Left 4 Dead 2 feels so good because it isn't just a riff on the horror genre, but an imaginative expansion of the genre. The game doesn't try to replicate other awesome zombie stories, but tells a ripping yarn of its own. Left 4 Dead 2 is a great game. Unlike most games, it would make a hell of a movie too.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.