After Modern Warfare 2, I think Left 4 Dead 2 was the most anticipated release of the year. Well, neither were "most anticipated" by me but, you know, by the general populace. I liked the original game -I thought it a very high-quality product- hampered only by its lack of content. But none of the previews for the sequel promised anything as exciting.
But, not surprisingly, I ended up buying the damn game on release day anyway (hey, I've resisted buying COD:MW2; I mean, $60? Really? But I digress). My initial playthroughs of the first few campaigns more or less confirmed my initial suspicions: this is basically an expansion pack to the original where the goal was simply "lets give them more" without any real attention to whether more was actually needed.
So, the first impression is the opening cinematic; remember that terrific movie that Left 4 Dead started with? It gave you the setting, the situation, the characters and the mood of the game all in four exciting minutes of CGI battle. Left 4 Dead 2's opening cinematic, however, has none of that. It plays out more like a movie trailer, with snippets of the most exciting moments haphazardly stitched together. If you're not familiar with the original game, L4D2's cinematic is not going to set the stage for you at all.
But forget the opening movie; I mean, okay, how often do you really watch that? What about the gameplay?
At its heart, its basically the original game with more... everything. More zombies, more mini-bosses, more weapons. Unfortunately, the levels lack the same intensity and quality of the first game. For one thing, the level design is not quite up to par with other Valve titles. The levels don't look as good, lacking many of those tiny details that make the levels so appealing, and the flow is not as instinctual (which is my clumsy way of saying I often got lost because I couldn't tell which in direction I was supposed to go).
But the big difference is the game doesn't feel as balanced as the first. Four players, four main weapons, four types of special zombie); it all had a very simple balance. All the additions in L4D2 makes the game feel too busy and complicated. It is starting to play more like Counter Strike with all the different goals and weapon mixes. Now, given Counter Strike's popularity, one might argue that is a good thing but I miss L4D's unique style.
On the plus side, the game does ship with five campaigns as opposed to the original's four; although they still only take about an hour each to complete, at least now you're talking five hours instead of four. A variety of additional game modes which provide some additional length. Oh, and apparently there's a multiplayer mode too. ;-)
I'm not done with the game yet but I don't expect my opinion of the game to change to much. This isn't a bad sequel but it doesn't match the standards of the original. It definitely could have used another six months or a year more of Valve's famous iterative level design to polish off the rough edges and make the game shine.