That's a Lot of Goo

Left 4 Dead 2

2008's Left 4 Dead is an infinitely playable experience. Sure, it only has a small selection of campaigns (boosted slightly by two add-ins over time) but the way it plays, combined with the fun experience of gaming with buddies via couch co-op, makes it one of those titles that never really seems to get old. I hesitate to call it a "perfect game" just because perfection is so hard to really pin down, but it is such a finely tuned experience that I could see some people describing it as such.

While Valve seems averse to actually putting out third entries in any franchise (see also: Half-Life and Portal), in the case of Left 4 Dead we did at least get one sequel to really up the stakes and give us all that we could want in the appropriately titled Left 4 Dead 2. It's a game that delivers the things fans wanted: more, more, more. And it is a lot of fun, in some ways just about as fun as the original. With that said, it's far from a perfect experience and, frankly, has some things that hold it back from being almost as good as the original.

The basic mechanics of Left 4 Dead remain the same. Players start in a group of four -- Coach, Ellis, Nick, and Rochelle -- and are tasked with getting from one end of a zone (a city, a plantation, swamps) to the other, battling all sorts of undead in the process. The players are tasked with running, gunning, and killing in the first-person perspective, with just a main weapon, a back up weapon, and limited inventory space to aid them on their perilous journey. That and, of course, three friends.

This new game does add in a few extra items to aid the players, although the low inventory space does mean each person will have to pic and choose what they want. The guns have been added to with a rare grenade launcher, fleshing out the roster of shotgun, sniper, and machine gun. The pistol has gotten an added bonus of not just a second pistol but also the option to swap out for a Desert Eagle that does more damage in exchange for firing slowly. Or players can opt for a melee weapon, which now allows them to melee kill enemies although that puts them much closer in rage to the special infected. The tossed weapons have had the Boomer Bile jar added, so players can draw zombies wherever they want, and the life kit has also seen the addition of the de-fib device. A lot of new gear to aid the quest.

To balance that out (at least in theory) the game has seen the roster of special infected expand. Joining the Tank, the Witch, the Smoker, the Hunter, and the Boomer we now have three new beasts: the Charger, the Spitter, and the Jockey. The charger is like a mini-Tank, barreling into an area and pinning down a survivor. The Spitter coughs out noxious acid that stays on the floor for a while burning victims. And the jockey is a small, hopping guy that leaps onto survivors and drags them around, riding them like, well, a jockey would.

The new infected can be, quite honestly, obnoxious. The Spitter is annoying just because they'll hock a pool of splooge right where you're standing, or wanting to go, and then you're forced to pause and wait. But that's not in comparison to all the ways the game has now to pin you and make you suffer. There are times were a crew can see a Smoker, a Hunter, and Jockey all at once, and trying to regain control of your friends, and actually survive, in a game where being on your own essentially spells instant failure, can be cruel.

Now, in fairness to the game the new levels are designed well to balance the new infected, all the regular infected, and the players all mixing together. There are tense moments, are nail-biting scenarios, but for the most part the game tries to keep its difficulty to the point where you have to be on your toes but won't outright get annihilated... at least as long as you don't play on Expert. With that said, this is a game very much tunes for multiplayer co-op. You have to be very skilled (and likely a speed-runner) to be able to handle all that the game can throw at you on your own.

This is a contrast to the first game. I wouldn't call myself the most skilled first-person shooter player, but I got deep enough into the original Left 4 Dead that I actually managed to clear all the original campaigns on my own on Expert. I never felt that level of skill or comfort in Left 4 Dead 2 to be able to pull off the same feat. At best I could play on Advanced (a couple of tiers down from true hard mode) but Expert was beyond my skills, even with friends.

And that's to say nothing about the expanded content. If you grab Left 4 Dead 2 on Steam now you'll get the whole collection with all the original campaigns, all the Left 4 Dead 1 campaigns, and a bunch of fan-created additions. These bonus campaigns, though, are not as well tweaked for the Left 4 Dead 2 experience. There's more than a few fan campaigns in the set that feel like kaizo-level hard mods, far beyond what a normal player could handle.

What suffers the worst, though, are the original levels from Left 4 Dead that were ported into the sequel. These were levels designed for the original mix of monsters and equipment but the Left 4 Dead 2 edition keeps all the sequel's content additions in the mix. Thus you'd have to deal with jockeys and spitters and chargers in levels that really weren't balanced for them. Sure, you also have new gear to aid you, but that doesn't really feel like it helps that much. And that's to say nothing about level tweaks that were included that actually make most of the zones harder. Trying to beat "No Mercy" without the back room you could hide in during the finale really sucks.

I love the Left 4 Dead games and I do heartily enjoy this sequel on its own. I'm still regularly playing it with friends Online because it remains one of the best couch co-op experiences around. But when it comes to a head-to-head (Head 2 Head?) comparison between the two games, its easy to choose the winner: the original Left 4 Dead. This sequel is fun but the mix is just slightly off.