Left 4 Dead 2: A Zombie Killing Masterpiece


Tiger Media Network

When it comes to making games that truly stand the test of time, few can match the sheer legacy of Valve. The creator of many iconic franchises such as “Half Life,” “Counter Strike” and “Portal,” and of the digital marketplace “Steam,” the company has moved away from video game production nowadays and focuses mainly on hardware and content for the aforementioned website. Nevertheless, Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington’s company garnered a reputation for releasing some of the most iconic, influential and beloved franchises on the market, which remain incredibly popular decades later. And few match this description better than “Left 4 Dead 2.” 

During the height of their popularity in the 2000s, Valve released “Left 4 Dead,” a zombie horde shooter that took the world by storm with its great cast of characters, fantastic presentation and atmosphere and simple but addictive co-op gameplay. Still considered by many as one of the best games ever made, “Left 4 Dead” has a massive legacy that couldn’t be topped by anything…except its very own sequel. So, exactly one year later, “Left 4 Dead 2” was announced, to initially hostile reaction from fans and controversies over its violence and even its cover art. But despite initially negative feedback, “Left 4 Dead 2” quickly became one of the most beloved, cherished and iconic games in Valve’s library, keeping the same addictive gameplay loop of the original with a new, equally phenomenal character roster and loads of new content. 

It is genuinely hard to describe how much of an impact and legacy this game still has. Despite reaching almost two decades old, “Left 4 Dead 2” still maintains a player count in the tens of thousands, with a dedicated fandom and tons of mod support keeping the game alive and well. For people on the outside looking in, it may not seem like much, with simple gunplay and lacking many of the things that seem mandatory in most multiplayer games. But in reality, its beauty lies in its simplicity, as well as its fantastic four main leads, timeless presentation, and endlessly engaging gameplay. “Left 4 Dead 2”, by all accounts, is a masterpiece.

Release and additional info

  • Released on November 17th, 2009 for PCs and Xbox 360, exactly one year after the first game
  • Developed and published by Valve, following the split of Turtle Rock Studios, the studio behind the first “Left 4 Dead” (Then known as Valve South). 
  • Reactions were initially hostile from fans, who felt Valve was replacing the original, and the game received controversy in countries like Australia for its violent content. 
  • Received critical acclaim upon release and is now beloved by fans, being one of the highest-rated games on Steam.
  • All campaigns and maps from the first game were imported over, making “Left 4 Dead 2” the main hub for content. 
  • A third title was planned, but ultimately canceled.

“Left 4 Dead 2” takes place in the Southern United States, primarily stretching across from Savannah, Georgia to New Orleans, Louisiana, which has been devastated by a mysterious virus known as “Green Flu,” turning a large portion of the population into zombie-like creatures. Players take control of one of four survivors: Ellis, a young, friendly mechanic and Savannah native; Coach, a former high school health teacher and football coordinator, also from Savannah; Rochelle, an associate producer at a local Georgia news station; and finally Nick, a cynical gambler and conman with a mysterious past. Each survivor ultimately bands together, forming a strong bond as they attempt to escape to a safe zone, dealing with massive hoards of infected as they make their way across the remains of the US. 

Both “Left 4 Dead” have minimalist stories that rely on very strong environmental storytelling to make them come across, which works wonders in their favor. Seeing the devastation left by the sudden apocalypse and the hopeless messages left behind in the game’s many safehouses goes a long way to giving the game its derelict, hopeless atmosphere. Even with this, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, presenting itself as a fun, action-packed zombie movie, and is thoroughly propelled by the cast of characters. 

The first “Left 4 Dead” already had some excellent characters; Grizzled war veteran Bill, tough but compassionate biker Francis, everyday salesman Louis and college student Zoey are all fantastic and make “Left 4 Dead” even more of a blast to play through. The characters in “Left 4 Dead 2,” right alongside its predecessor, make up some of the finest and most well-rounded characters out there. Each character has so much personality and charm that make them all endearing in some way; Ellis, with his talkative, hyperactive nature and Coach’s warm deposition, optimism and instantly lovable personality are the true highlights for many, including me. Rochelle, although considered the most boring by the fandom, has a positive and well-rounded personality that makes her impossible to hate. Even Nick, the most abrasive, selfish and arguably unlikeable of the group, is a character you can’t help but get attached to, with his intriguing backstory and his interactions with the other survivors, especially as he grows closer to them as the game progresses. All in all, this is a fantastic cast of characters which, much like the first, propel the experience to even greater heights. 

The main gameplay is the big reason why “Left 4 Dead 2” has stood the test of time. There are numerous modes present that players can jump into, either with friends or solo. The main modes are the Campaigns, which see players navigating through levels divided into 4-5 chapters. Each campaign takes place in a different location, from a shopping hall, a swamp, and a carnival, among others. Each chapter is divided by a safe room, where players can gather supplies, stock up on ammo, and heal. The final part of each is a massive holdout section where players must defend against hordes of infected until a rescue vehicle arrives, or until players complete certain actions, such as filling a car with gas. Other modes include Survival, where players try to stay alive as long as possible against waves of zombies. 

“Left 4 Dead 2” also introduced new gameplay modes. The first is Realism, which removes highlights around key objects, increases damage of the Infected, and so on. Then, of course, there’s Versus, where one team of players tries to reach the end of a campaign, while another team takes control of a special Infected to impede their progress. There is endless fun to be had, and while playing solo does provide its own fun, playing with others is undeniably the true way to play, as communication and teamwork is incredibly important when playing through the campaigns. Players have a great selection of weapons and tools to help fight through hordes, including a massive arsenal of guns and melee weapons, as well as throwables like Pipe Bombs and Molotovs, all of which play an important role in propelling back the horde. 

This really reigns true when it comes to the enemies players will face. Players will most frequently encounter Common Infected, which is seen in mass packs in the different campaigns. Certain zombies have unique attributes depending on the location; Zombies in hospital gowns and scrubs can be found in the “No Mercy” chapter, zombies dressed as clowns in “Dark Carnival,” and unique mudmen infected in “Swamp Fever.” These Infected are harmless and easily dealt with by themselves or in small groups; however, hoards can easily overwhelm the player and keep them from progressing. Really, the Infected you really have to worry about are the Special Infected, unique variants who will displace or hinder survivors in different ways. 

“Left 4 Dead” introduced three original Special Infected: The Hunter, the Smoker and the Boomer, each of which serves similar functions but with their own gimmicks. Hunters will pounce and pin players from a distance, Smokers ensnare survivors with their long tongues, and Boomers vomit on survivors and explode when shot, blinding everyone too close and attracting hordes of Infected. “Left 4 Dead 2” introduced three new variants: Chargers, who will charge and pummel survivors, knocking everyone else away; The Spitter, which spits balls of acid that do massive amounts of damage upon contact with the ground; and the Jockey, who rides on a player’s back and directs them away from their teammates and into hoards, spitter goo, and other hazards. All of these infected require teamwork to kill, as players can’t escape a Hunter pin or a Smoker’s tongue by themselves. All of these Infected have specific sounds and musical cues to indicate their appearances, making it easier to prepare. 

Then, there are the two Special Infected bosses, who have become an iconic part of “Left 4 Dead.” These types do massive amounts of damage and require good coordination in order to fight off. First is the Witch, a female, long-clawed Infected who usually sits passively and cries. However, when provoked, she will relentlessly pursue the players who spooked her, instantly incapacitating them and even instantly killing them on higher difficulties. Players can sneak around her if they’re careful, with her sobs and the intense music only making encounters with her more thrilling. Last but certainly not least is the Tank, a massive hulking Infected who deals and gives massive amounts of damage. Good teamwork, coordination and plenty of molotovs are key to victory against Tanks, as they wipe out your entire team if you’re not careful. Fighting these Infected is where the core of “Left 4 Dead” lies, and it provides immense satisfaction when you get past them and beat the campaigns. 

Really, the true beauty of “Left 4 Dead 2” is the simplicity of it all. To many people looking in, it doesn’t seem like this game has much to offer. You don’t earn XP for completing campaigns, there’s no progression or skill trees, and each survivor has the exact same stats and abilities, making the choice between them purely cosmetic. This may seem like a negative, but in reality, it’s what puts “Left 4 Dead 2” over so many multiplayer games today and a big reason why so many people are still playing. The lack of skill sealing or builds makes it an easy pick-up-and-play experience and makes each weapon and play style valid. Whether you’re blasting through hordes with the combat shotgun or AK, picking off Infected from a distance with a Sniper or Hunting Rifle, or fighting groups of infected with an Axe or even a Guitar, each are perfectly feasible and effective. 

Thanks to The Director, “Left 4 Dead”’s AI, this gameplay loop never gets boring. The Director determines the spawn rates and positions of different items and enemies, and will change and adjust different attributes such as location and skill level. This makes no campaign feel the same, as restarting a chapter could result in an entirely different runthrough than before. This type of constant engagement without the need for arbitrary skill levels and needless progression makes for a continuously satisfying and fun experience almost two decades after, and is the main reason for the game’s appeal. 

Other highlights: 

  • A simple but timeless art style and environment design, thanks to Valve’s Source Engine. 
  • Fantastic gore and body effects when killing Infected. 
  • Amazing music and sound effects, really adding impact to weapons 
  • Some of the best trailers on the market 

A few criticisms 

  • Friendly AI can be hit or miss
  • An unfortunately toxic side of the community (Mainly in Versus mode). 

“Left 4 Dead 2” has undeniably stood the test of its time, and is a game that more than deserves its legacy. With its fantastic set of characters, perfect tone and atmosphere, and endless co-op gameplay, combined with its endless mod support and amount of content, make it one of the best pick-up-and-play experiences out there. Even though a third entry may never come, and attempts to create a successor have led to mixed results, “Left 4 Dead 2”’s high player count and dedicated community make it clear its impact and legacy won’t be waning anytime soon. 

Nick McCoy is a senior at Fort Hays State University, studying digital media and journalism. An avid gamer and music listener, he reviews video games and songs and hosts the radio show “The Understanding of Nick” for KFHS.