With its sequel, Left 4 Dead is becoming a lot like the old Roger Moore James Bond films – a world of guilty pleasures and endless gadgets. While the original Left 4 Dead was a fairly simple romp, Left 4 Dead 2 expands in virtually every direction. Where the first game had only six weapons and two types of grenades, the sequel delivers a much vaster arsenal and a selection of new tools to put at your disposal – many of which can be seen in the recently released demo.
In addition to guns, the only weapons in the original were molotov cocktails and pipe bombs; now there are bile jars, incendiary bullets, adrenaline shots and even a defibrillator. While these are all items that can turn the tide of a zombie war, when you first get a chance to play with these gadgets then it's hard not to feel a little bit overloaded by the weapons at your disposal.
Valve's dynamic help system comes into play though and mercifully explains many of these new tools to you – the bile jar is useful for concentrating and distracting hordes, while the adrenaline is good for giving you a speed boost and the defibrillator can revive dead players. It's effortlessly explained, allowing you to focus on the core joys of the game – killing dynamically positioned zombies.
Left 4 Dead 2 - Click to Enlarge
Unfortunately, this is where Valve hits a very identifiable weak point in the Left 4 Dead formula, as some of the new weapons shift the balance of the game into more of a grind than we're entirely comfortable with (at least judging things by the demo). The fault lies specifically with the new array of melee weapons, which provide the benefit of near-certain kills at the sacrifice of range and speed. The problem simply is that many of them, such as the frying pan, machete and truncheon which all take the place of a pistol in your weapon selection, are too powerful.
“This is silly,” said one friend we played through the demo with “I just killed another zombie horde with nothing but a frying pan, without taking a hit. What's the point?”
Sure enough, most battles are made almost insultingly easy by the righteous application of a machete or frying pan and, since the weapons can still be complemented by an assault shotgun or rifle to help with tougher boss infected and since the weapons don't degrade, playing through the demo is practically a breeze.
The selection of melee weapons on offer feels a bit suspect too, leaning uncomfortably towards either the foolish or failed-humorous in premise and ill-conceived in balancing. Since when did an electric guitar make for a suitable zombie weapon and since when was it possible to decapitate three enemies at once with a guitar as easily and swiftly as could be accomplished with a machete?
Left 4 Dead 2 - Click to Enlarge
Obviously, there's a certain flaw in expecting a semblance of realism from a game such as Left 4 Dead 2, but one of the most brilliant things that the original game did was to successfully capture the sensation of being inside a zombie horror film where the odds are always against you. By loading you up with new tools and providing unbalanced and out of place weapons, this feeling is, if not gone, then certainly receding into the distance.
What's really strange about it all though is that you'd expect this feeling to come because of the switch to a daylight environment, but it doesn't. In fact, the cloudless sky and New Orleans sunlight doesn't make much of a difference at all – as the same friend also said, “Killing zombies is killing zombies, whatever the weather.”
It makes us feel a little guilty to start our impressions of such an anticipated game by slamming the melee weapons when there are a lot of cool new features to be talked about, but we can't help it. To a degree, this feels like the first game that Valve has developed which might have a specific and significant failing and, though we loved the new, larger levels and the variations worked into the gameplay, the first thing we thought when we came away from the demo was that we didn't like the melee system. It sounds great in theory, but in practice it's something we could definitely do without.