Setting aside that Valve have gone back to the bad old days of seeming as surprised as anyone when their stated release dates come and go without event, now that Left 4 Dead 2 is playable I sort of wish it wasn’t.
I stayed up late for the grand, long delayed unlocking on Steam because it’s a Valve game, and Valve games are automatically Events. That’s partly because of the communal sense of excitement as they unlock all over the world at precisely the same time, and partly because they’ve established a level of quality that almost guarantees I’m going to love anything they deem worthy of release. It’s why they can get away with restricting access to this demo, for the time being, to people who’ve already paid for the game.
I don’t doubt Left 4 Dead 2 will be obscenely successful, and I don’t doubt that the full game is far better than what they’ve put out here. But this is the first time since the advent of Steam that getting to play a new Valve game has been a disappointment. It’s the first thing they’ve released in that time that doesn’t have that special Valve feeling: the sense that this is not only something new, but something exquisitely well crafted in every aspect. It’s probably not a coincidence that it’s also the first thing in that time that they’ve developed quickly.
I loved Left 4 Dead’s structure and systems and look, but was never entirely satisfied with its rattly, insubstantial feel. My hope was that Left 4 Dead 2’s dismemberment and frying pans would fix that.
Instead, dismemberment adds little – I wouldn’t notice if a server had it disabled. Melee weapons are unconvincing: swift swipes that pass through everything, and vague staggers from the zombies inconsistent with the hit. And the new guns, which is basically all of them, are worse than the old ones. Almost comically so, in some cases. I had the urge to video some of their puny rasps and feeble gibbers to demonstrate how wrong they’d gone, until I reminded myself everyone would see them.
It’s also truly shoddy, in its current state. After the three hour delay, the first thing that happened on starting it was a command prompt that closed itself. When it finally got as far as the highly cinematic intro, it quit to desktop at the end to announce “Installation complete!”. In-game, the matchmaking ditched me on a 200 ping server at the very end of a map. The engine locked up every few steps for five to ten seconds, looping sounds angrily until I switched to windowed mode. Melee hits frequently make no noise, several zombies forgot where ladders ended and kept climbing into the sky, my character got stuck with his hand protruding gropily as if he longed only to fondle the hordes – as you’ve seen – and then the game crashed my PC completely.
I’d love to say whether the disgusting new infected types add anything to the actual mechanics of the game, but since they’ve repeated the bizarre mistake of the original Left 4 Dead demo and only included half a campaign, there’s nothing approaching a finale to judge them on. In regular play, all three new types seem trivial to deal with – as of course are Hunters, Smokers and Boomers at that stage in a campaign. As I said before, this is as stupid and obtuse as releasing half of a song to promote an album – it doesn’t condemn the full experience, but it marks it with the sour taste of irritation and anticlimax while completely failing to communicate its presumed strengths.
I am baffled by what they’re doing with this. What they show here doesn’t suggest a bad game by any means, but it’s making it look like a clumsy step in the wrong direction. I’m just going to write as much of it off as lag, rushing and a terrible choice of demo as I possibly can.