Saturday, 8 August 2015

Ranking the Zombie Apocalypse, Part Two

Here it is, the continuation of my review ranking the campaigns of zombie survival game Left 4 Dead and its sequel Left 4 Dead 2. 

9. The Sacrifice

The Sacrifice is the final campaign in Left 4 Dead, and as its name implies it does not end well for everyone. Added onto the end of the game's story arc as a DLC after the release of an online comic by the same name, The Sacrifice is set in Rayford, Georgia, and spans three levels as the original Survivors search for a sailboat to take them to the Florida Keys, where Bill plans that they will live out the rest of their lives safe from the Infected. For DeltaHax and I this campaign's strong story elements and climactic finale keep it out of the bottom of the list, but its shorter length and unprepossessing environments such as debris-strewn seaside industrial areas and a gloomy brick factory put it in the bottom half. It's far from the worst campaign, but it's also a long way behind the best.

8. Blood Harvest 

Blood Harvest is the fifth campaign in Left 4 Dead and was the game's final campaign until the release of The Sacrifice. Set on the outskirts of Allegheny State Forest, Pennsylvania, it has the original Survivors follow a set of train tracks northwards towards Evacuation Point Echo, an abandoned farmhouse where they make their final stand before being rescued by the military. The gloomy pre-dawn woods are full of hidden Infected, forcing players to rely on reflexes and wits to avoid being ambushed, and the train tracks provide a strong linear reference point throughout the campaign. The only way in which this campaign falls flat is that its tone stays the same the whole way through, the level of action and player motivation not peaking towards the end as they should but rather remaining at mid-level. Blood Harvest is a solid contender that ticks all the right boxes, but it doesn't have what it takes to be considered exceptional.

7. The Passing 

The Passing is the second campaign in Left 4 Dead 2, a DLC crossover between Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 that sees the second group of Survivors encounter Francis, Louis and Zoey in Rayford, Georgia while looking to cross the bridge that the original Survivors raised at the end of The Sacrifice. Unable to convince the original Survivors to lower the bridge for them, the second group strike a deal that sees them fight their way through the town, take an historic under-the-river tour that diverts them through the sewers, and emerge on the other side of the bridge where they must gather gas cans to power the bridge generator in a brutal final level so the original Survivors can lower the bridge for them without descending to the ground. It's a tight, engaging campaign that links the two games together and features some very original environments, but sadly only goes for three levels. The Passing feels like the game developers' party piece, a quick novelty campaign that's tacked into the storyline in a place where its difficulty can be unwelcome. It is a personal favourite of mine, but this list was a compromise for both DeltaHax and I and every campaign ranked above this one is in the top half for good reason. 

6. Dead Center 

Dead Center is the first campaign in Left 4 Dead 2, and introduces a new group of Survivors, Coach, Ellis, Nick and Rochelle (pictured left to right on the poster) as they are abandoned on a hotel rooftop by rescue helicopters. As the first campaign in the game Dead Center is not too challenging, designed to introduce players to the game mechanics without piling on the zombies. For this reason I never considered it top six material. However, DeltaHax made a compelling argument in its favour, namely that it has a lot of variety. Over the course of the campaign players must fight their way down through a burning hotel, cross the streets of Fairfield, Georgia to a gun store where they must negotiate with the eccentric owner and retrieve a six-pack of cola in return for his cooperation, navigate an abandoned mall and lastly collect gas cans to fill the tank of a show car to use as their get-away vehicle. It's a fun, engaging introduction to Left 4 Dead 2 and the new Survivors, and for that reason it makes the top six. 

5. Dark Carnival 

No campaign in this list was so contentious to place as Dark Carnival. The third campaign in Left 4 Dead 2, it follows the second Survivors as they navigate an abandoned amusement park, negotiating merry-go-rounds, giant slides, the Tunnel of Love and the Screaming Oak roller-coaster before catching the attention of a circling chopper with fireworks from a rock concert they trigger themselves. On paper it sounds amazing and it is certainly one of the most popular campaigns with players, something I had in mind while arguing for its placement high on the list. However, Dark Carnival is also Left 4 Dead 2's equivalent of Dead Air, a unique level that suffers from being brutally challenging in a bad way. Featuring two nightmarishly difficult to pass gauntlet sections Dark Carnival is enough to make hardened zombie-slayers rage-quit, and this was the main reason for DeltaHax's arguing against it. In the end my repeated emphasis on its good qualities and the point that if the fourth level containing the boring barns area and the pointlessly near-impossible second gauntlet was removed it would be likely the greatest campaign in both games brought him round, and Dark Carnival secured this spot high on the list without quite making the top four. 

That's it for this post. Keep an eye out for part three, which will reveal our top four campaigns including of course the one we decided was the greatest of all.     





Sunday, 2 August 2015

Ranking the Zombie Apocalypse

When I first started this blog I wrote a lot about books. Then I wrote nothing about books (laziness). Now I want to write about an aspect of my life I haven't yet touched on very much: gaming.

One game in particular.

Left 4 Dead and its sequel, Left 4 Dead 2, are first-person shooters set during a zombie apocalypse. Each follows a team of four 'Survivors' - individuals who are immune to the degenerative virus that has turned most of America's population into vicious, mindless Infected. Utilizing a variety of weapons you fight your way through post-apocalyptic landscapes, slaughtering swathes of Infected and occasionally falling prey to them. As entertainment it's about as mindless as the Infected themselves, but it's something else as well.

Gore-splattered, pulse-pounding fun.

This is a game I play a lot by myself, when I've come home at the end of the day and need to unwind by sinking into familiar patterns or possibly vent some frustration by ventilating zombie torsos with shotgun blasts. However, Left 4 Dead is designed to be a co-operative game, and recently I've been playing it with my friend DeltaHax (see my earlier post Brotherhood in Murderland). Together we're chewing through the game's campaigns in chronological order, and the other night we decided to rank each of the thirteen campaigns in order of which we thought were the best.

This became far more engrossing and complex than we first anticipated.

First we ordered Left 4 Dead's six campaigns from 1 to 6. Then we ordered Left 4 Dead 2's seven campaigns. Then we meshed the lists, creating a master list which I have decided to share with you, my handful of readers. Covering all thirteen levels in one post would make it far too long, so here I present the first four working up from the bottom of the list.

Because otherwise spending an hour discussing a single video game would be a waste of time, right?

Anyway, here they are, from worst to best in our opinion.

13. Crash Course

Crash Course is the second campaign in Left 4 Dead and also the shortest campaign in both games. It follows Survivors Bill, Francis, Louis and Zoey (pictured left to right on the poster) from the site of their crashed helicopter through the industrial outskirts of Fairfield, Pennsylvania. This campaign is filler in more ways than one. Added into the game as a DLC (Downloadable Content) after its original release to keep the game's fans happy while waiting for Left 4 Dead 2, Crash Course also fills in the story gap between No Mercy and Death Toll (both of which rank much higher on this list). Consisting of just two levels, the second of which is overly long to compensate, this campaign's industrial setting starts off as moody but quickly becomes monotonous and uninspiring. It's not a bad campaign, in fact it's arguably better than the next two on this list, but its length leaves it with very little to offer and that's what has put it on the bottom of the pile.  

12. Swamp Fever

Swamp Fever is the fourth campaign in Left 4 Dead 2. It follows the second group of Survivors, Coach, Ellis, Nick and Rochelle, as they navigate a shantytown and its swampy surrounds somewhere in the southern United States after the helicopter pilot that rescued them from Dark Carnival became Infected and they crashed (this is a deliberate mirror of the same situation from the first game). The gloomy, muddy forests and waterways of this campaign are confusing, making it the easiest one to get lost in, and the ramshackle shantytown walkways aren't much better. The swamp setting is meant to be fun but the appeal wears off after a while and it's a relief when you reach the plantation manor house where you make your final stand. At the end of it all the Survivors board their rescue boat tired, battered and muddy, and as a player you can't help but feel the same. 

11. The Parish 

The Parish is the final level in Left 4 Dead 2. Coach, Ellis, Nick and Rochelle have reached their ultimate destination, New Orleans, and must make their way through the dilapidated streets towards a distant bridge. The echoes of Hurricane Katrina can be felt in this campaign's design, the buildings smashed and partially re-built, and unfortunately the city gets no reprieve as the ignorant military bomb the districts the Survivors are moving through to cover their retreat from the zombie-filled hellhole it has become. The constant bombing is a harrowing experience for players and this campaign like others at the bottom of this list quickly becomes repetitive, players having to move through one wrecked building after another. For monotony no campaign can beat The Parish, and the only reason it ranks above Swamp Fever is due to its saving grace, the legendarily difficult final level where the Survivors must cross a long bridge against an incoming horde of Infected. Surviving this level means winning Left 4 Dead 2 as a game and it certainly goes out with a bang, but in terms of campaigns Left 4 Dead 2 does not save the best for last. 

10. Dead Air 

Dead Air is the fourth campaign in the first Left 4 Dead and the campaign DeltaHax and I were playing when coming up with this list, making this a fitting place to end the first part of this post. Set in the city of Newburg, which is mostly on fire, Dead Air sees the original four Survivors cross the city to reach its airport where they hope to find aerial rescue. It is also one of the more challenging campaigns, featuring long levels, dangerous drops and a truly sadistic gauntlet section where players must fight their way through the airport terminal against a mass of incoming Infected. Dead Air is not a bad campaign. It's just tough in a way that makes us both unlikely to revisit it, and any gaming experience that puts the player off is a bad one.