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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.

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As for the Southern setting, those who say the new look is too vibrant and colorful for a Left 4 Dead game can go cry in a corner with the Diablo 3 art critics. Setting parts of the game in daylight varies both the atmosphere and the gameplay; more importantly, it lets players admire the gorgeous French Quarter architecture and level design in a way that a veil of darkness wouldn’t. Faliszek says the Creole locale was prompted both by his time living in New Orleans and by the distinct lack of games that take place in this region.

But for me, the biggest departure is the series’ new emphasis on telling a cohesive story across the game’s five campaigns. I loved how lean Left 4 Dead was in this department; for me, the lack of an overarching narrative actually added to the experience. Everything you knew about the infected you learned either from gameplay or from the intermittent scribblings on safe-house walls. Without any heavy-handed exposition, these little scraps of a story beyond the four survivors became even more poignant. I’m slightly discouraged that Left 4 Dead 2 will lean more toward Half-Life than Portal in this department, but it feels a little silly to complain when the developers have already nailed such a variety of storytelling methods.

If you’re wondering whether Valve is even capable of creating a AAA title in a one-year development cycle, remember that the developers have the benefit of the A.I. Director to aid in polishing their new maps and gameplay concepts. Faliszek explained the ease with which the team was able to test factors like new ammo buffs by using some of the same metrics the Director takes into account when spawning enemies. Then there’s the fact that the Director already knows how to effectively dictate the pace of a game regardless of the setting. I’ve seen people play Left 4 Dead on a Team Fortress 2 map with fairly entertaining results; if nothing else, that demonstrates what an amazing head start the technology gives the team.

There’s no question in my mind that Left 4 Dead 2 will be a more polished, varied and robust version of the original game. In fact, the only questions I have about the title have more to do with overall strategy than actual gameplay. I’ve heard game industry insiders speak about how much extra effort is required in developing a sequel to simply reach the same level of acclaim as the original, and I suspect that the fresher a game is in the audience’s minds, the higher the bar is raised for the next title in the series. If the ongoing controversy is any indication, exceeding the expectations of current Left 4 Dead fans will provide plenty of challenges for the developers to overcome in the next five months.

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