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TVG gets to grips with using a frying pan to dispatch the infected in the next Left 4 Dead title from Valve...
Let's get this Left 4 Dead boycott group stuff out of the way right off the bat. There's one particularly good reason why Valve can get a Left 4 Dead sequel onto the market a year after the original, and that's the game's AI Director. For those of you who haven't played the first game, this AI Director is able to procedurally generate swathes of the 'infected' enemies for players to co-operatively fight against. It can also tailor the infected's attack waves to the skill level of specific teams - the more successful you are, the more infected will be thrown at you. This forms the basis of L4D's gameplay, which is then set across a variety of 'campaign' maps (L4D had four maps, L4D2 will have five).
Designing a game in this way alleviates a vast portion of the workload that a developer would usually have when developing an FPS. There's no need to spend the bulk of dev time building a 12 hour campaign across a two year dev cycle. AI doesn't need to be painstakingly scripted through each set-piece and much fewer visual assets have to be designed thanks to the replayability of L4D's maps. Additionally, L4D doesn't have a deep storyline to worry about and focuses solely on the infected instead (in the same way that Counter-Strike focuses on counter-terrorism), so there's no need for a large number of artistically crafted cut-scenes and reams of dialogue between characters.
This co-op focused approach is not only very innovative, it's also very efficient. Once Valve had developed the AI Director for use in L4D, it had already done most of the hard work. Then it was simply a case of evolving the director, providing more content, and tweaking gameplay where required. These are the areas that Valve has been working hard on for L4D2 and in our recent hands on, this hard work shone through. The quality of the original has been retained and then some, while the content itself has seen a significant increase from the first game's load-out.
When it was initially released, L4D1 had four campaign maps (two of which were playable in the game's Versus mode) and five boss infected. The free 'Survival' DLC released earlier this year then added Versus mode compatibility for the two other campaigns and a new Survival mode (think Horde in Gears 2) that included 16 maps that were mostly taken from existing campaign sections. Left 4 Dead 2, on the other hand, will include five campaigns that are all playable in Versus and a new, as yet unannounced mode in addition to Survival as well. There will also be at least three new boss infected, which could be stretched to four depending on time constraints.
That's more than enough to justify a sequel alone and would be quite an excessive amount of additional content to fit in an expansion pack. Also, given the fact that Valve distributed its first set of L4D1 DLC for free, it would also be too much content to deliver as unpaid DLC releases over time. There's also the fact that L4D2 will feature AI Director 2.0, which will bring with it new challenges and different gameplay dynamics. In addition to controlling the infected, the updated director will now be able to alter players' routes through a campaign. Weather conditions, lighting across the maps, and even wall placement will vary from one playthrough to the next, allowing the director to usher players down different routes and serve up choices of riskier paths.
Any higher level of risk in a game should never go without a reward though, which is why gamers will be able to find goodies like incendiary ammo (i.e. bullets that set their victims alight) along these paths. Other new weaponry additions in L4D2 will include silenced sub-machine guns and a more accurate, scoped assault rifle. But the real focus for L4D2 in terms of weaponry will be with the new melee items. Valve has revealed that a baseball bat, axe, frying pan, and the pièce de résistance, a chainsaw, will all be in the final game. We've gone hands on with the frying pan and axe, which dispatch the infected with a pleasurable "bong" sound and ample decapitations respectively. Update: on 7/7/09, Valve unveiled a fifth melee weapon, the cricket bat. The announcment was timed to coincide with the start of The Ashes test series in the UK.
As with all of the hands on opportunities that have been provided by Valve so far, our playtest took place on the New Orleans themed campaign. In a first for the series, this campaign takes place during the day, although this is by no means an indication that all of the campaigns in L4D2 will be set in the sun, nor that they'll take place in New Orleans (there's still a lot to be revealed by Valve as far as campaigns are concerned). We went head-to-head with the new Charger boss, which bounded towards us at high speed before launching itself at our slightly-in-awe character, Coach. The creature was particularly hard to stop before it managed to inflict a health draining blow, although a few well placed bullets were enough to stop it in its tracks.
The level itself went from New Orleans back streets up to the first safe house, before continuing on down a dilapidated and very long bridge where abandoned vehicles lay strewn in all directions to hinder your progress. It was here that things started to get particularly hard and good communication between team mates was a pre-requisite for the level's completion. Our team came painstakingly close to the extraction point, where one player managed to reach the helipad only to get gnawed to pieces at the final hurdle. Such was the finely honed balance of Valve's gameplay using its AI Director that once one or two players had gone down, the remainder of the team soon suffered the same fate if they didn't successfully revive them.
Not only are we confident that this sequel from Valve is entirely justified, we're also satisfied that it will improve considerably on the original. Considering the mount of news articles and exposure that Valve has received as a result of the Left 4 Dead 2 boycott group (it even made the national broadsheets), we can only see this publicity being good publicity for Left 4 Dead 2 in the long run.
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