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Left 4 Dead 2 for 360 and PC outdoes even its feted (fetid?) predecessor. But it takes the player to unearth the real story on offer here. Not the thin story of the main game, but the haphazard camaraderie that arises as you play with friends.
Left 4 Dead 2 hits the sweaty, sunny southern USA with new characters, more monsters, and even bigger and better action set pieces. Best of all, it provides more of what the first game did best: tense, exciting scenarios as players team up to fight off hoards of special and not-so-special undead.
In storytelling terms the game treads similar territory to 2004's remake of Dawn of the Dead, or the comic book The Walking Dead - this is the story of four mismatched survivors, fighting their way across undead America.
Shooters have difficulty telling stories, as there's not much opportunity for dialogue and character when you're running down a corridor with a shotgun. With a multiplayer shooter like Left 4 Dead 2, the problem is even worse, as any cutscenes or dialogue are likely to be chatted over rather than slavishly followed, which tends to break the atmosphere. I've never payed the slightest bit of attention to the cutscenes in Halo 3, for instance, and couldn't tell you anything about it beyond 'aliens bad, shoot aliens'.
Left 4 Dead 2 gets around this with storytelling that's subtle, environmental, and sufficiently unobtrusive that you can just ignore it.
Left 4 Dead 2 gets around this with storytelling that's subtle, environmental, and sufficiently unobtrusive that you can just ignore it. Cutscenes are limited to brief sequences at the start and end of areas, while character interaction is built unobtrusively through snappy little exchanges between the characters. In terms of in-game dialogue, the lines are well-chosen and context sensitive - when my character complains he needs health, or swears at the number of approaching zombies, most of the time it's just before or after I've said exactly the same thing over the mic.
And it's over voice chat that the real stories in Left 4 Dead 2 are made. The in-game objectives - go over there to get the plot device, then bring it back - are little more than loose markers between which you to have your own zombie adventures. The story isn't in the missions so much as the way they unravel, the random elements that come together, resulting in victory or defeat.
While there's some fun to be had from playing a game like Left 4 Dead 2 alone, with plenty to admire, it's a bit like going to a nightclub in the afternoon: the fixtures and fittings may be nice, but the place only comes to life when it's filled with people. Preferably four people, but three will do quite nicely, two at a push.
Left 4 Dead 2 builds on its predecessor's ability to create moments in which stories emerge. There are some memorable gags, either in dialogue or graffitied on the walls of the safe rooms, but the stories I really remember after playing are spontaneous, crafted in the moment. These are stories of personal failings and victories, of me and my friends and the quality of our teamwork.
The game throws threats at you: some structured like the weather in the Hard Rain campaign, and some that are unpredictable like the ebb and flow of the Horde, or the snap attacks from Special Infected. It's those latter elements, those curve balls thrown by the game's ingenious AI Director, that give you the chance to show what you're really made of.
One memorable example came from a recent play of Hard Rain. With a couple of setbacks, we had fought our way to the finale, where the rescue boat is summoned. We fought against the horde, we took down the tanks, and when the boat arrived we made a run for it, dashing across the jetty.
We lost, but that loss was as fun, thrilling and memorable as winning in most games.
Then, inches from victory, it all fell apart. I fell off the boat, and was left holding on to the edge, waiting for rescue. One of my friends got knocked down and ended up flat on his back, equally dependant on rescue to get back in the game. Another was surrounded by the horde, unable to break free. The boat pulled off with an AI character on board, and me hanging off the edge: but as I hadn't been pulled up by anyone, I counted as dead as much as the guys left behind.
We lost, but that loss was as fun, thrilling and memorable as winning in most games. A classic defeat-pulled-from-the-jaws-of-victory by a combination of bad luck and, on my part, fatal stupidity as I blundered off the edge.
That's a great story, and it's one that the game didn't spoon feed but allowed us to make for ourselves. It's those chaotic memorable situations, that make the game unique every time I play it with my friends. I love the way that a combination of skill and luck can make all the difference, and I know this will keep me playing Left 4 Dead 2 again and again in the months to come.
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