In the interests of full disclosure: I never played the original Left 4 Dead – are you kidding me? It came out four days after Wrath of the Lich King! So if you’re looking for an opinion on that whole brouhaha about whether or not it’s different enough from the first game to be a full-fledged sequel instead of an expansion pack, you won’t find that here. What you will find is this: Judged on its own, standalone merits, Left 4 Dead 2 is an awesome, awesome experience.

The premise is the same as the first game: Four Survivors have survived the apocalypse thanks to being immune to a virulent disease that turns all who are Infected into ravenous, murderous monsters – zombies, essentially. The Survivors must work together in order to survive and reach safety, and on the way they’ll blast and chop their way through the Infected to get there.

The lucky (or unlucky?) quartet this time around is Rochelle the ambitious young journalist, Nick the drifting con-man, Ellis the energetic redneck mechanic, and Coach the, uh, coach. While fans of the first game may miss the original four Survivors, the newbies are all endearing in their own right, and their dialogue is well-written – Ellis may well be one of the funniest characters I’ve seen in a game in entirely too long. Certain phrases will get repeated enough to become rote and commonplace, but I’m still hearing new things after 30+ hours of play, so make of that what you will.

The Survivors will be fighting for their lives in five new campaigns set all across the American South from a shopping mall in Savannah to the grand finale in New Orleans, and while there’s a bit of storyline connecting the scenarios it’s hardly on the level that some were expecting. Still, the game isn’t any weaker for it, and the individual stories gleaned from the writing on the walls in the safe rooms speak loudly enough on their own.

In a way, perhaps it’s almost refreshing that Valve hasn’t subjected us to lengthy overwrought cutscenes, because it would get in the way of the game’s zombie-slaughtering good time. All of the guns in the game – new and old alike – feel powerful and entertaining in their own right, but the real fun is in L4D2‘s melee weapons. Maybe it’d be more prudent to hang back and blast the Infected with an M16, but there’s something viscerally enjoyable about wading into the fray and chopping heads with a fire axe. And I do mean visceral – Valve has upped the gore tremendously in this installment, and chopping off limbs will reveal the splintered bone beneath, a shotgun blast to the chest will expose the rib cage, so on and so forth. No wonder it got banned in Australia.

L4D2 also introduces new tools the Survivors can use, such as a Bile Bomb which makes all the Infected converge where it’s thrown, making them an easy target for the slaughter (or alternatively providing a distraction for a desperate dash to the rescue boat), and Incendiary and Explosive ammunition. Some, like the Laser Sight upgrade, are too rare to really be worth buying the game for, but the Adrenaline shot and Defibrillator can really come in handy in a pinch.

Of course, the three new Infected – Charger, Jockey, and Spitter – necessitate every tool you’ve got on hand, and some might argue that the new AI Director tends to err on the side of “brutal.” There are periods of quiet and you’ll find the occasional health pack when you really need it, but there will be times when you and your teammates are battered and on your last legs, and the Director will throw a Tank at you because, I don’t know, it feels like being a dick. As for the much-touted improvements to the Director that will allow it to change the level architecture itself? I’ve noticed it, but it’s relatively underwhelming, usually boiling down to what is essentially “go through this door instead of the other entrance thirty feet further down the street.”

People who liked playing as the Infected in Versus mode in the first game should enjoy the chance to mess around as the Charger, Spitter, or Jockey (and especially enjoy playing as the Charger and knocking Survivors to instant death by tackling them out a window). Beyond that, there are two new gameplay modes: Scavenge, a Versus modification that asks the Survivors to find gas cans to fill a generator before the time is up, and Realism, a mode that turns off many of the things that make the game feel, well, game-y – no revival closets for you! These should be more than enough to hold players’ attention once the Campaign starts to wear thin, but even that should take a while.

So yes, Left 4 Dead 2 is a great experience if you’ve never played the first game. From what I’ve heard, it’s a great experience even if you have. No matter what, it seems that everybody can agree on this: Bashing zombie heads in with a guitar in the middle of a rock concert is awesome.

Bottom Line: Cool new weapons, likable new characters, dastardly new zombies, huge new levels with epic new finales. Doesn’t quite deliver on all the promises, but it delivers a damn entertaining experience. It’s a bigger version of Left 4 Dead, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could go back.

Recommendation: Do you like killing zombies? Do you have an internet connection to play with friends and avoid the less-awesome single-player mode? Great, you’ll probably like L4D2. If you’re wavering, that’s what the demo’s for.

Score: [rating=5]

John Funk doesn’t know why Valve didn’t call the final New Orleans campaign “No Quarter.” It’s such a perfect title!

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