Left 4 Dead 2
Valve Software, valvesoftware.com
Expansive and varied gameplay; beautifully atmospheric
Somewhat sluggish compared to Windows version
The helicopter had arrived and I had just taken a katana to the last of the zombies in my line of sight. I had two choices: race to the chopper and save myself or help my trapped friend and risk my own hide. With a war cry, I switched to the assault rifle and turned around. When playing Left 4 Dead 2 as a survivor of a zombie apocalypse, we look after our own.
2008’s Left 4 Dead, by Valve, was that rare game that made you feel truly like an action hero, made you trust and rely on your friends, and utterly redefined a genre. It wasn’t just that you were surviving a horrifying reality with your guns and your wits – it was that alone, you were toast. You needed your three friends to help snipe enemy smokers (zombies with constricting tongues), to cover your back when the horde charged, to heal you when you needed it. As you traversed across dark-lit settings in search of the next safe house or rescue point, you knew that around every corner randomly generated danger lurked. Requiring equal-parts strategy, cooperation, and reflexes, Left 4 Dead produced a new kind of game: the cooperative multiplayer first person survival horror. Genre aside, the game was brilliant.
Now Mac users can enjoy the original Left 4 Dead missions, the Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns, and the new downloadable missions featuring both casts. Available on Steam, that’s more zombie killing than you can shake a machete at.
Speaking of bladed weapons, Left 4 Dead 2 now offers melee weapons. Machetes, frying pans, katanas, cricket bats – all the iconic zombie-killing weapons are at your disposal. The player can even grab a chainsaw for more bloody carnage (though due to a gas-limitation, you can’t use it infinitely).
Unlike the original, Left 4 Dead 2 actually has a linear plot. The four survivors this time are trying to escape the zombie apocalypse in the American Deep South. Starting around Savannah, Georgia, the four fight their way through a shopping mall, a zombie-infested carnival, a sugar mill, flooded homes and swamps and eventually to an evacuation point in New Orleans.
Fans of the original game were sad to see that Bill, Francis, Louis, and Zoe weren’t in the sequel, but Valve has recently released downloadable content with new campaigns for the original cast. They’re a mixed bag (The Passing had some great segments but the climax of The Sacrifice could have had some more epic set pieces) but reveal that Valve deeply cares about its fans and the characters it has created. You can also check out the beautifully drawn web comic that explains the back story of all four characters and the tragic ending that is The Sacrifice.
Count me as one of the dedicated fans of the series who wasn’t sold on the change of scenery to the Deep South or the new characters. But after playing through several of the campaigns (each taking about an hour), I’ve actually found myself coming back to those missions more than the original. The four new characters are all compelling and the voice-acting is top-notch (I especially enjoy Coach’s banter). Meanwhile, the visuals are a step above the original’s, especially when it comes to the character’s faces and the gore effects. The missions also feel both refreshing and yet familiar. Trekking through bayous and swamps while confronting specialised zombies like “mud men” provides new gameplay challenges and ways to be frightened. My favourite campaign might be ‘Hard Rain’, wherein the survivors must backtrack through a trailer park in the middle of a flash flood. Featuring changing weathers and limited visibility, just spotting the incoming zombies while you try to make it through the flooding area is tough.
The new modes for Left 4 Dead 2 are also real upgrades for the series. While I enjoyed playing as the infected in the first game, in the second game there are more special infected to play as and therefore more variety in how you can attack the survivors. In addition to versus and survival modes, there’s also a new mode called Scavenge. Scavenge basically tasks the survivors with gathering several gas tanks scattered through a specific level and returning them to a central point. The infected players try to stop them. One of my favourite moments was playing as a new specialised type of infected called a jockey. A jockey basically jumps onto the head of a survivor and guides them towards danger while dealing damage to them. On the ‘No Mercy’ Scavenge map, I managed to guide a survivor off the side of the building, incapacitating them as they struggled to get back up. My buddy, playing as an infected hunter, then leapt on any would be rescuers. Pure malevolent fun.
There’s also a new mode called ‘realism’ which makes the game much, much more difficult to be a survivor. Headshots do more damage rather than body shots, and if a survivor dies, they don’t appear later in the stage but instead must be revived using a defibrillator.
Ultimately, I found that the performance of Left 4 Dead 2 ultimately depended on the connections of the people I played with online. Left 4 Dead 2, while it can be played with just the player and AI, is much more fun with friends. Shouting orders, collaborating on tactics – that’s where the game shines. But it’s also frustrating when one of the games you hop into has significant lag, costing you valuable reaction time.
Overall, both my colleague David Chartier and I found that the game runs a little bit sluggish compared to the Windows version on the same hardware and settings (he ran it on a 2.66GHz iMac Core i5 with 4GB RAM, Radeon 4850 512MB DDR3). Chartier offered: “The game overall feels like it has a slight case of the Mondays, like it needs an update or two to shake off the cobwebs. Frame rate feels high, but reaction feels ever so slightly off.” Reasonable minds can differ, because on my iMac Core i7 the game felt smooth and the frame rates never really dipped. So maybe Chartier is just looking for excuses for his subpar performance on The Hard Rain campaign.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice
Left 4 Dead started out as a humble homage to zombie survival films. Valve’s multiplayer-focused first person survival horror game wasn’t expected to make much of a splash in a market already saturated with similarly zombie-themed games. But clever gameplay mechanics, like when the action was too dull, an AI “director” would unleash a horde of zombies to keep the survivors on their toes, helped make the game distinct. Left 4 Dead 2 has shrugged off the predecessor’s underdog status, and has now become an expansive, varied, and beautifully atmospheric standard for which all other survival horror games are judged. It’s no wonder some consider it the scariest video game of all time. Forget Resident Evil or Dead Rising, there is nothing like going through a creepy old sugar mill with your three friends, low on health, and knowing that at any point one of you can be dragged to your death. The only better feeling, perhaps, is being the zombie that does it.