16 November 2009

Left 4 Dead 2

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Left 4 Dead 2 Impressions--Hands-On With Hard Rain Campaign

The sky is angry. It's pouring rain, and you can barely trudge through murky, knee-level floodwater. Lightning in the far-off distance signals a worsening storm, and before you know it, a hard wind sweeps by and reduces visibility to a hair above zero. Clearly, things are bad and getting worse--and that's before you bring in the zombies.

This is the type of scene you can expect from Hard Rain, the fourth of five campaigns in Left 4 Dead 2. By now there's a good chance you're familiar with the new setting in this sequel to last year's hit co-op shooter. The development team at Valve has uprooted players from Anytown, USA, and has focused on telling the story of the zombie apocalypse from the point of view of four survivors crossing through the Deep South. The unveiling of Hard Rain comes on the heels of previously announced campaigns, like the daytime New Orleans streets of The Parish, the twisted nighttime fairgrounds of Dark Carnival, and the spooky wilderness of Swamp Fever.

With Hard Rain, the focus isn't so much the setting as it is the nasty weather conditions. Things start out harmless enough. You found your way onto a rescue boat at the end of the previous campaign, but with fuel running dangerously low, your group of survivors has decided to dock and head inland to find a gas station. This quest for diesel begins in a nondescript suburban town as you make your way from zombie-infested backyard to zombie-infested backyard. Aside from having to fight your way through dozens upon dozens of the ravenous undead--an act aided by new melee weapons like the katana, fire axe, and chainsaw--things don't look too bad. There's even a yard sale where VHS copies of '80s comedies have been replaced by ammo caches and silenced Uzis.

Then things go south. Soon that suburban town leads to a series of dilapidated industrial buildings, culminating in a trek through a witch-infested sugar mill. (When we say infested, we mean it. It turns out those witches are attracted to the scent of sugar.) Worse yet, your reward for safely exiting this sugar mill is a blind dash through a sugarcane field with nothing more than a neon gas-station sign peeking up in the distance to let you know you're not running in circles. Think of this scene as a follow-up to the cornfield in Blood Harvest.

It's once you get to the gas station and complete the second chapter of Hard Rain that this campaign's clever design becomes apparent. Rather than head off to a new location, completing the point-A-to-point-B gauntlet of other Left 4 Dead campaigns, you need to retrace your steps and take that gas back to the boat you arrived on. But in the time it has taken to fill up those cans of diesel, what began as a light rain has turned into an outright downpour, resulting in a ground covered in deep pools of water that were only small puddles earlier. Suddenly that quick run through the sugarcane field becomes a terrifyingly slow march through deep water without the ability to see where you're going.

On the run back to the boat, retracing your route step for step means drastically reducing your speed and leaving yourself an easy target for any boss infected waiting around the corner. The best approach is to take the aboveground alternate paths that were there the first time around but you may not have noticed. Catwalks and raised platforms offer a safer but trickier path through the sugar mill, while the best means of quickly making it through the suburban town is to stick to the rooftops and jump from house to house. It's a deviously clever way to take you back through familiar terrain, yet have you totally rethink your path.

There's also a new storm mechanic that will trigger a zombie horde in a scary new way. At certain points, the game's AI director will trigger a sudden increase in storm conditions, which picks up the rainfall and drastically limits your visibility for a short duration--all while sending a new wave of zombies your way. The best strategy during these storms is for everyone to quickly hole up in the smallest building nearby and wait for conditions to pass, because that reduced visibility makes it easy to get separated. It's especially hilarious if you do this with one teammate standing at the doorway to greet every incoming zombie with a revving chainsaw--sort of like the world's least friendly bouncer. If there was ever a melee weapon designed for keeping control of choke points, it's that one.

All this wetness means that fire-based weaponry like Molotov cocktails and the new incendiary round ammo are suddenly much less effective. Thankfully, Valve has seen fit to add a number of new weapons and equipment to help keep you in the game. One that caught our eye was the jar of boomer bile, which lets you play the role of the boomer by attracting the horde anywhere you throw the jar. Want a quick laugh? Throw the bile on the tank and watch his zombie buddies suddenly turn on him. There's also an adrenaline shot to help you run superfast when things get desperate and a defibrillator to revive fallen teammates.

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With some persistence and a healthy dose of teamwork, you'll make it to the fifth and final chapter of Hard Rain. Here the team has to turn on the neon sign of a fast-food joint to act as a signal to let the boat know where to dock, but of course that triggers a swarm of common and boss infected that will last for minutes on end. The final battle here is done much like those in the original game, which contrasts to some of the other Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns, such as the Parish, that end in a point-to-point dash to safety instead of the traditional standoff.

The options in this final standoff include hanging out on the rooftop and leaving yourself open to tanks and chargers knocking you down to the flooded ground below, or hanging out in a small room such as the restaurant kitchen in order to hole yourself up closer to the ammo stockpile. Like in any other Left 4 Dead campaign, all the options work; it's just a matter of how well you stick together as a team. That's certainly what we did--right up until the boat arrived and we made a mad dash to safety that left one of our fallen comrades a mere soaking-wet punching bag for the tank. Hopefully you'll be a better teammate than we were when Left 4 Dead 2 is released November 17. 


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