Left 4 Dead 2

Axe to grind.

It might be all strawberries and cream and sunshine at Wimbledon, but the only summer sport we were interested in this week was a game of mixed zombie doubles in a dingy, dimly-lit tunnel beneath a railway bridge in London. Undead beats Fed every time.

Valve dragged us into its gaming dungeon on the hottest day of the year to see an equally sizzling new build of Left 4 Dead 2, running on banks of PCs and 360s, revealing the second half of the Parish campaign unveiled - and previewed by Oli - during E3. No frills, no grandiloquent pronouncements, just a quick hello from Valve's affable marketing boss Doug Lombardi, and then an opportunity for us to get stuck into the sequel to last year's sensational co-op shooter.

The two previously unseen stages on offer couldn't be more different in terms of pacing, approach and strategy, and point towards the increased variety and scale Valve is aiming for in the follow-up. If you've been following the flow of information since E3, you'll know the headline additions, but to recap: a new cast of characters and storyline; a new location (from the plantations of Georgia to the swamps of Mississippi); melee weapons (including a frying pan!); new boss zombies; the Wandering Witch; an AI director overhaul; 'gauntlet' moments; and more features still to be announced.

But the core experience of group survival in the face of overwhelming odds of course remains. And despite the checklist of new features, Left 4 Dead 2 looks and feels very much like its predecessor at first. Which doesn't fit any definition of "a bad thing" I've ever come across, although opinions differ in certain quarters.

1

New guys Nick and Rochelle take to the New Orleans streets.

The first new stage is a tense, nerve-wracking run through a battered New Orleans suburb in daylight. Survival under the sun is another signal addition to the sequel, adding visual variety. And if you're thinking that might strip away the tension, fear not.

The environment is a tightly structured, claustrophobic rabbit warren of rooms across multiple storeys and multiple blocks. The constant, creeping fear that a zombie could emerge from around a corner, through a window, up a stairwell, from any direction, is shattering. And this is skilfully managed by the AI director which, for the most part, drip, drip, drip-feeds danger on the squad, while all four players wince in expectation of the inevitable flood.

Zombies are spied lurking alone through windows, or shambling along in small groups, but rogues are liable to storm in at any moment. Nothing, however, punctures the tension quite like stepping into a room as a boomer wretches a Jackson Pollock all over your face and, while stumbling in a vomitous blur, gun flailing wildly, a hunter savagely pins you to the floorboards. It's classic Left 4 Dead, and the fractured layout of the town here makes it all the more critical to adhere to the game's caution to stick together unless you want to go home in bin bags.

2

The axe lets you slice off individual limbs. Amazing how he keeps that suit clean.

The horde moments come in the broader open spaces between buildings. In one section the onrush is triggered by starting a discarded carnival float. And the myriad tiers, balconies, roofs, nooks and crannies are quite the playground for a wily AI director, with plenty of scope for strategic variety.

New weapons make an appearance. Oli mentioned incendiary upgrades in his E3 preview. Here, it's deliciously satisfying to pop a round through a window frame from the street, and watch the room - and zombie - go up in flames.

Melee weapons are also in evidence. We're still frustratingly denied the most promising of all - the chainsaw - but the frying pan is an hilarious addition, while the axe, as well as making a fabulous noise as it tears through flesh, lets you hack off individual limbs with a careful aim. There's clearly much amusement to be had from hacking off a zombie's arms while it continues to lunge for you; or neatly de-legging one that's towering above you on the bonnet of a car.

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