I experienced a rare moment of fanboy self-awareness earlier this week: Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2, the sequel to one of my favorite games of 2008, and I could barely contain my disappointment.
I was cynical for some of the same reasons the game's Steam boycotts group is: It was too soon, it wasn't enough and, most importantly, it just wasn't Valve. This is a company who spends years polishing four-hour chunks of episodic content and continues to provide substantial free updates to a game that came out in 2007. Yearly sequels are for Guitar Hero and Madden, not the company who made Half-Life, Portal and Team Fortress 2.
Fortunately, some hands-on time with Left 4 Dead 2 and a conversation with Project Lead Chet Faliszek have divested me of many of my previous notions on the title. This is a bigger and more complete version of the original Left 4 Dead, and it's received some extra polish that has made its intense bursts of action even more satisfying. Whether the new additions to the series - including melee weapons, new ammo types and, perhaps the most significant departure from the original, a new emphasis on narrative development and continuity throughout the game's five campaigns - justify the game's price is a question that a 20-minute demo simply can't answer.
Many of the changes seem to directly address common complaints about the original Left 4 Dead, some more legitimate than others. For an audience accustomed to endless variety in their killing tools, Left 4 Dead's six firearms simply weren't enough to keep players interested. Valve have promised more for the sequel, but the whirlwind demo I saw featured new variations of the same weapon types as the original - an uzi, a shotgun, an auto-shotgun, an assault rifle and a sniper rifle. There was one exception: You can now acquire incendiary ammo for the shotgun, a temporary buff which lets you set a pack of zombies alight from a safe distance.
More importantly, Valve have added melee weapons to Left 4 Dead 2, a natural extension of the original game's bashing mechanic. In Left 4 Dead, a quick swing of your rifle butt could give you some breathing room or knock a hunter off its helpless victim. In Left 4 Dead 2, melee weapons like the axe or frying pan serve the same ends, with the added benefit of being an absolute blast to use.