When Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2 during Microsoft's E3 2009 press conference -- less than seven months after the release of the award-winning original -- gamers were, perhaps rightfully, shocked. This was the same Valve that spent nearly ten years iterating on Team Fortress 2 and whose experiment in episodic gaming has forced us to reevaluate our expectations for future installments of Half-Life 2 using the "Star Wars–definition" of episodic.
So when Valve announced a direct sequel to the ground-breaking Left 4 Dead on what could only be considered an accelerated schedule for normal developers (and an impossibly accelerated schedule for Valve) we had every right to be shocked. Valve answered this concern with assurances that Left 4 Dead 2 was an entirely new game, with changes that could not be simply grafted onto the original. And the team was right! ... But that's the problem.
The Quantitative Argument
Valve's marketing for L4D2 promises "New friends. More zombies. Better apocalypse." While we can't help but agree with the first two, the math never adds up: New friends + more zombies ≠ Better apocalypse. In many ways "more" seems to be the focus of the game's marketing and the singular focus of the enthusiast press (ourselves included!): More zombies; more Special Infected; more weapons (including entirely new melee weapons!); more (and longer!) campaigns. This has to mean "better apocalypse," right?
To paraphrase something one of my team of four said while shooting a murderous zombie clown in the face (in the game!), the logic is something like this: "If one rubber chicken is funny, seven thousand rubber chickens must be seven thousand times as funny!"
Left 4 Dead 2's AI Director is perhaps from a younger generation of "torture porn" filmmakers.
Left 4 Dead 1 placed third on Joystiq's Top 10 of 2008 -- narrowly losing out to Metal Gear Solid 4 and Fable 2 -- and it was my personal number two pick in the nominations. Without a doubt, what made that experience so compelling was the AI Director, the name given to the game's mischievous (but clever!) AI overseer; the omnipotent "creative" force that alternately doled out health packs or hordes of zombies, always with an eye towards keeping players perched on the precipice of failure. What made the Left 4 Dead co-operative experience such a breakthrough was precisely that: It was always challenging. When it wasn't, the AI director would wake up the horde. When it was, it would ease up a little bit, maybe share a health pack. To extend the "director" metaphor, Left 4 Dead's AI Director was a bit like Alfred Hitchcock: a master of suspense. Left 4 Dead 2's AI Director (dubbed AI Director 2.0, conveniently enough) is perhaps from a younger generation of "torture porn" filmmakers. In place of suspense is sheer brutality and instead of tiptoeing along the precipice of failure, you're pushed over. And over. And over.
The Delicate Balance of Fun
It should have raised more concerns when Valve began talking about tweaking the AI Director. More weapons? Okay. More maps? Sure! New AI Director? No! At E3, shortly after the game's announcement, Valve's Chet Faliszek told Joystiq, "Left 4 Dead 1, like I said, had some of those fundamental things that we wanted to change about it, like the changes to the Director, which took really long periods of time and a really long period of testing ... And so, those changes fell in line with the long period of time it takes to create characters and everything else. That's why we're doing Left 4 Dead 2, right?" Since everyone's experience with L4D2 (and L4D1) is unique to them (thanks, AI Director!) I'm really writing about that system and how the Director (and Valve, by proxy) is responsible for balancing the fun of an experience.
To make sure I wasn't somehow cursed; that AI Director 2.0 didn't just have it out for me personally, I played the game both pre- and post-release with six different gamers, all of whom had experienced the original (and some of whom were really good at it). Playing on Normal difficulty, we were unable to beat a single campaign before opting to readjust the difficulty to Easy. On Easy, we still took quite a licking, in two cases deciding to just quit. A typical campaign in Left 4 Dead 1 would take approximately an hour to run through and, while individual players often died, all four players rarely went down at the same time. In Left 4 Dead 2, on Normal difficulty, that's an obnoxiously common occurrence.
The new, larger maps also mean that after each failure -- when all four players die -- you're sent back to the last safehouse checkpoint, often as far back as fifteen minutes, a rare experience in L4D1. After failing several times, you might imagine the AI Director would let up, opting to encourage you on instead of frustrating you into quitting; instead, the Director continues to throttle you with experiences that become increasingly less fun and more frustrating, a delicate yin and yang that the latest iteration seems unable to balance.
And before anyone should inevitably respond with the usual, "Maybe you just suck at games," I would offer the following evidence, supported by many similar sentiments on Twitter: You're almost dead, you're so close to the end of the crescendo event, two of your partners are dead, there are no health packs anywhere and you're out of ammo ... and you get assaulted by two tanks. At the same time. On Easy. Restart, back to the safehouse. Or perhaps the AI Director's propensity to dole out multiple Special Infected at once? You'll never see less than two at a time. Or the non-stop waves of zombies? Yes, the melee weapons help -- a little bit. In fact, the only thing Easy mode appears to do is limit the damage inflicted on your player; the "cheap shots" are still fast and furious.
While the first Left 4 Dead was an incredibly accessible shooter, everything about the sequel seems intent on "fixing" that. While the game's Easy mode has been made frustrating (albeit passable), the Normal difficulty has replaced fun with frustration for all but the most dedicated, organized teams. Not enough challenge for you? Try Advanced. Then move up to Expert. Then up to Expert with Realism Mode enabled. With no replacement for the original's "Normal" difficulty and a plethora of more difficult options, there's a frustrating and inscrutable lack of balance in the game's various modes. While the game design universe seems pre-occupied with accessibility and not punishing the player, Left 4 Dead 2 turns its nose up at the idea.
I'm not sure what Faliszek meant when he told Xbox360Achievements.org, "We always wanted to make sure the best way to play was always the funnest and so that was a lot of the underlying work we did." If the goal was "fun" and not "challenge," then I can only say that the normally meticulous team at Valve failed horribly in its pursuit.
For many of you, Left 4 Dead 2 may have been just what you were hoping for: more everything and, sure, a harder difficulty level. For me, and the six people I played the game with, the additions do little to compensate for upsetting the delicate balance of fun. While there are some truly stellar moments in the game (the second half of "Hard Rain" immediately springs to mind), for me, Left 4 Dead was never about the game's fiction but rather the ad hoc fiction being created with each apocalyptic playthrough.
To hear them tell it, L4D2 was the experience the developers at Valve always wanted to make and there were so many ideas left unrealized that they fast-tracked development of a sequel. And unfortunately for me, as well as countless other fans of the first game I imagine, our experiences weren't "the funnest" they could be and, in looking to remedy that, Valve has tipped the balance from fun to frustration. If there's one silver lining in this entire situation -- the accelerated release, the boycott, my frustrations with the new game -- it's this: Valve is promising more downloadable content for the original, so we may be down but we're not out.
Editors' note: This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of the game provided by EA.