Checkpoint: Left 4 Dead 2

checkpointlogoThis column originally ran on November 20, 2010. This was the final Checkpoint — we brought the band back for one last hurrah with a slightly different format.

Four new poor bastards have joined the fray.
Four new poor bastards have joined the fray.

Characters

Left 4 Dead 2 introduced a new group of survivors to the mix: Nick, Coach, Ellis and Rochelle. With the new characters came new personalities and interactions, but was it an improvement over the original?

Chris: I know people are hesitant about change sometimes, and gamers were tied to the original group because its what introduced us to this world, but I honestly don’t feel like the new survivors were as good as those from L4D1. Less personality, fewer humorous exchanges, and Rochelle is a damn waste of space.

Shaun: First of all, if you can get past her ridiculous B-movie screaming, Rochelle is awesome. Secondly, while the first group holds a special place for me, I honestly didn’t have any problems with the second group. I felt like they each had their own personalities and nuances, and most of the characters had some hilarious moments (Ellis recalling stories about his buddy Keith and Coach singing “Midnight Riders” tunes stand out).

Shaun: There was actually some sort of character development through the different campaigns. In Dark Carnival, you learn of the characters love (and lack thereof) for the Midnight Riders; in Dead Center, there is commentary on the famous race car driver whose car the group is using to escape the mall. In the original L4D, you learn that Francis hates…everything. Funny, for sure, but it fails to give us any meaningful insight into the character.

Lee: I did not have a problem with any of the new characters. There were the three who were all right (Coach, Ellis and Nick) and the one who got under your skin. It was just like Left 4 Dead, but replace Francis with Rochelle. I do not think either set of survivors were very well developed. We just showed up with them and took off. In terms of improvements over the original, the only person who stands out is Nick. He was the only criminal (unless you have suspicions about Francis) in the bunch. Yet he realizes he has to put aside his pre-apocalyptic life to survive. I think his character is the most believable.

Shaun: “Every lady’s crazy when her Daddy’s not around! NAH-NAH-NAH-NAH-NAHNAHNAHNAH!” Highlight of character development highlight of the entire series. And why does everyone hate Rochelle so much? She’s a reporter, so she knows how handle a gun (she’s probably covered wars, you know), and she’s got some sass. I will give it to you, though, that it’s nice to see someone react like Nick. There is no way a zombie apocalypse is happening and everyone still alive is noble. Someone is going to cash in on that.

Chris: You’d think I would like Rochelle more, considering all of her Anchorman references, but I don’t. At all. Her AI is the worst of the four, and she just comes across as…bland. No personality. Maybe it’s because Nick and Ellis are so different, but she doesn’t hold up well. She’s more boring than Bill.

Shaun: True, except for the part where you forgot that Bill is actually the best character in the entire series.

And this is why you shouldn't go to carnivals.
And this is why you shouldn’t go to carnivals.

Story

Like the original, L4D2 uses character interactions and pieces of scenery to tell most of its story, rather than an overarching plot. Still, what was your take on what little we know about this world full of infected?

Shaun: This is a complaint of the original L4D as well, but for me, I feel like the series really drops the ball when it comes to storytelling, especially considering they already have everything they need to really flesh out the world. Portal, another one of Valve’s games (arguably their best), does a great job of telling a story in-game using only the narration of an evil AI and writing scrawled on the walls. Half-Life 2 and their subsequent episodes stand as the pinnacle of character investment in their creation of Alyx. In the L4D series, we merely get the skeletons of characters and plot. I can appreciate the developers taking a hands-off approach to the narrative (if we were to discover midochlorians caused the zombie outbreak, I burn someone’s house down), but would love more rewards for fans willing to go an extra step to flesh the world out, whether it’s documents, meaningful interactions with side-characters, or occasionally more introspective dialogue.

Chris: There are elements of that in L4D2. The CEDA posters, the messages in the safe rooms or on the walls in other areas, strategically placed piles of bodies. But you’re right that Valve has done it better elsewhere.

Lee: I wasn’t upset about the lack of story. Sure, there is a huge hole where a story should be, but think about what a zombie apocalypse would actually be like. Do you think we would get anything out of news stations? No, because we all know the news is controlled by the government, and they would be trying to keep order. Valve does a good job putting you in the shoes of an actual survivor. You are scared to death and not very knowledgeable about what is going on. You, like your character, just need to shut your mouth and gun down some God-forsaken zombies.

Shaun: I have poured a significant amount of time into L4D 2, and other than Ellis’ friend Keith, I have yet to hear about anyone else in there characters’ pre-zombie apocalypse lives. Did no one have any family or friends? Does anyone have any motivation other than just simply trying to survive. Was Coach actually a coach of anything? I’m sure there is some information out there on this, but if I have not found it in my time with the game, I feel like it is a bit too deeply buried.

Lee: Sorry, Shaun. We keep that kind of information in books (cough, cough, the instruction manual).

Chris: I think it speaks to how solid the gameplay is that the lack of overarching plot isn’t a problem, or at least a major one. Would I like to know more about the world and how the characters fit into it? Absolutely. But it doesn’t preclude me from playing the game over and over.

The continued infection has not been kind.
The continued infection has not been kind.

Gameplay

New guns, melee weapons, adrenaline shots, new specials and frenzied finales. L4D2 took the basic formula of the original and expanded it in just about every way.

Chris: Left 4 Dead 2 returned many familiar mechanics from the first game in the series, but introduced new ones at the same time. For example, the special infected doubled in number with the addition of the Charger, Spitter, Jockey and the walking Witch.

Shaun: I hate the way L4D 2 handled specials. I actually love the new specials, the variety they bring, and the different methods they use to attack a group. What I hate is their durability (compared to the original), and their frequency. In the original, the formula was pitch perfect; specials were common enough to remain a threat, but provided enough of a lag between attacks to build tension and make each encounter feel significant. In 2, it’s just a gamut of specials at all times; the intensity you felt in 1 is quickly overrun by frustration.

Chris: And that’s pretty much my biggest complaint with this game. Look, maybe the rate of specials was a little low in L4D1. I could see that. But the answer wasn’t a constant stream. Hell, in the main mall level of Dead Center, we once saw three Smokers at once, each incapacitating someone. We’ve seen multiple Hunters at the same time. And these aren’t finales we’re talking about — just run-of-the-mill parts of regular levels. You’re right: The formula from the first game created some strong pacing, allowing players to address each special that threatened the team. That’s no longer the case.

Lee: The second game was really ramming us hard with specials. It really seems like the world is losing the war against the infected. Now we see more, they have evolved (some into common animals, like the octopus) and they just don’t stop coming. Now, anyone who has played Left 4 Dead for an extended period of time will know the game can glitch out every now and then. I think that is the root of your tri-Smoker problem. I agree, it can get a little ridiculous, but some part of those overwhelming odds make the games fun. If the game was just a repeat of Left 4 Dead, we as consumers would feel cheated. Ramping up the difficulty on some of parts of the game made it a little more intense than the original, which has become difficult to lose on the Advanced difficulty.

Shaun: Ramming us hard? Subtle. It’s the same problem RE5 faced in its later levels. More is better, until you reach the point that it’s too much. And maybe the increase in specials is organic to the state of the world or story they are trying to tell, but it still disrupts what was a very delicate balance.

Chris: And the old adage about not fixing what ain’t broken seems to apply there.

Shaun: Even though the engine is broken, I did enjoy the other new features. Melee weapons are a nice way to deal with close encounters, and adrenaline shots and defib units offer another layer of strategy to inventory management. It’s not enough to keep me from going back to the original, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Lee: My favorite new weapon has to be the combat shotgun. It provided me with the damage of a shotgun and the accuracy of one of the rifles. It was a marriage of qualities I wanted to see in a weapon, and I was a big fan. The melee weapons were nice, but how often do you expect to find a samurai sword during the zombie apocalypse? Fire axe – okay, chainsaw – hell yes, crowbar – I guess, machete – I don’t really think these are that common, samurai sword – are there really that many samurai dying in the zombie apocalypse to drop these everywhere? Yeah, not really believable, but still a good addition.

Chris: Melee weapons were a nice addition, but I didn’t find myself using them much. Rolling around with dual pistols (handy when you’re down) or the magnum pistol (satisfying power for a secondary weapon) was always preferable. Slicing a zombie in half was fun the first few times, but when all the common infected do is run behind you, melee becomes less effective.

Shaun: Some of the finales were altered this time around. For example, in Dead Center, you have to fill up a car with gas tanks lying around the mall (you know, because you can regularly find gas tanks chilling in the corners of shopping centers), and in The Parish, you have to race across a bridge while killing infected along the way. What did you guys think? Personally, I loved the intensity of grabbing gas cans and the strategy involved in filling up the car, but the bridge was too helter skelter for me. Plus, a Tank punched me off the side one too many times.

Chris: And in The Passing, you had the unique experience of … grabbing gas cans. I understand the need to force survivors out into the open, and the fuel mechanic works for that, but it would’ve been nice if the DLC did something unique. I’m glad The Sacrifice went in a different direction, even if it did reuse that finale map.

Lee: I like some of the new finales, others can go die. I didn’t like the scavenger aspect of Dead Center, probably because the computer is a complete idiot. That mechanic was slightly better for The Passing, but not much. I do like what they did with The Sacrifice because it finished off the story of Left 4 Dead (at least I hope they don’t introduce somebody to replace Bill). Other than that, there were times when I thought sending two Tanks at us was unnecessary, especially on higher difficulties.

I'VE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE
I’VE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE

Audio/Video

Audio design might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the L4D series, but the subtle cues and ambiance are an important part of the experience. So are the graphics, which got a boost in this game.

Chris: One of the most clever designs from the first game was the use of audio cues to warn Survivors about approaching Specials. Not only did each creature have its own noise, but a short piano riff unique to that Special played with it. Problem is, in L4D2, the new Specials get cues with a southern twang to them, making the old ones sound out of place, almost jarring.

Shaun: The audio is definitely one of the game’s strengths. Everything from the screams of the horde to the blasts of the shotgun sound incredible and contribute to the immersion of the atmosphere. The cues sounding dissonant seems like it would be a problem, but I never really paid enough attention to them. To this day, I couldn’t tell you if the twinkling of the piano is a witch, a hunter, or an alarm to let you know you are close to the safe room.

Lee: I can agree that the new music was a shift. In Left 4 Dead, the horde is preceded by some distinct music. In the sequel, that music will change depending on the level you are in. Do you know how hard it is to hear that music when you are rocking the faces off some zombies in the carnival? That music is so low you have to ask the witch to stop crying for a second just so you can check. The original music cues would have made a more seamless transition, with differences only for the new special infected.

Shaun: Graphically, the game was pretty much more of the same, which is not a bad thing. The artistic design remains intact, the visuals look a bit more polished, and the increased zombie dismemberment was as enjoyable as it sounds. I did like the environmental influence of New Orleans, though. The Southern flavor of The Parish and the swampy swamps of Swamp Fever provide a nice contrast to the very urbanized locations of the first game.

Chris: If nothing else, being able to shoot holes into infected or blast away limbs gave the game more authenticity. Felt more real than every zombie being blasted back by a shotgun and then fading into the ground.

Lee: I remember watching a special on how Valve wanted to create a different atmosphere for the second game. They did not want to have a Left 4 Dead repeat, but wanted to show the progression of the infection. They changed the common infected eyes so they would glow a little. It was a small change, but I think it showed how much thought they put in to the smaller details.

The road to madness.
The road to madness.

Final Verdict

Shaun: Due to the controversy of the sequel coming so quickly after the original’s release, the obvious question regarding L4D2 is whether or not it even needed to happen. Did four new so-so specials, an overly aggressive AI director, melee weapons, and five new campaigns justify a full-on sequel?

Lee: I think the real question is, “Will we make money by putting out this sequel?” I can tell you, they got my money. And I do not feel ashamed that some kid in a Third World country will go without dinner for a month because I decided not to send in my 200 quarters to some fat white guy parading around starving children. I would rather solve the fake zombie problem.

Chris: There was enough new content that a sequel was justified. Maybe not one with such a quick turnaround, especially when so little had been done to support the first game. Still, as a standalone product, I vastly prefer L4D 1 over 2. The game’s balance and open-ended finale maps gave you the opportunity to work as a team to conquer each obstacle as it came at you, as opposed to being force-fed objectives just to add some artificial difficulty (cough gas cans cough).

Shaun: Theoretically, I wanted to like the changes; variety in gaming is very important, and while I prefer 1, my ideal vision of the sequel is not a simple rehash. Still, I felt like the focus on changing the engine was higher than it should have been, and some of the alterations to the formula (the bridge finale) were not well implemented. For the inevitable third entry, Valve should continue to change things up, but focus on the things that make the game work so well. Covering one player while they transport soda for a short distance is great. Running frantically across a gigantic bridge? Not so much.

Left_4_dead_2_logoCheckpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

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