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Left 4 Dead 2 shambles along, but would be better as DLC

Coach and Ellis, two of the new playable characters, could just as easily have escaped New Orleans as part of an expansion pack.

AP/Electronic Arts

Coach and Ellis, two of the new playable characters, could just as easily have escaped New Orleans as part of an expansion pack.

With all the vampires invading the airwaves and cineplexes these days, our good ol' consumerist stand-ins, — the brain-craving zombie horde — has been getting short shrift lately. Never fear, Valve is here with a sequel to last November's Left 4 Dead, which was released Tuesday. Problem is, a sequel wasn't all that necessary.

Don't get me wrong; The "geek" in Geek Speak gets a workout whenever the word "zombie" is uttered, and Left 4 Dead 2 ($59.99 for 360, $49.99 for PC; Rated M) is a solid title with lots of upgrades. But Valve promised the L4D faithful lots of support and downloadable content for the first title; instead we get a whole new sequel that really isn't all that new.

The premise is the same: Four survivors must run the gamut of infected citizens swarming all over several campaigns, this time set in the South, in an attempt to reach an extraction point that will take them to safety. This time the zombie-flick stereotypes have changed from biker, war vet, college coed and black guy to redneck, black woman, a smarmy gambler and a bigger black guy.

Also new are some special infected — the Spitter, the Charger and the Jockey, all of whom do pretty much what their name implies — and the addition of melee weapons, a dreadful oversight from the first game. Indeed, what zombie game would be complete without a machete or chainsaw to work over the undead?

But after playing the game for a spell, excitement for the incremental improvements in gameplay were glossed over and replaced with the nagging feeling that most of the changes were nothing special. There's absolutely no reason this game should have been developed as a separate title and dropped into stores for $60 a hit. (In fact, many gamers have called to boycott the sequel entirely.)

Valve has assured fans that L4D will continue to be supported, but the aforementioned aspects of L4D2 discount that. The sequel is a better game, and will be the one people want to play, especially gamers who have never tried the first one. Once you've beaten off a bloodthirsty wave of mutants with a nightstick, fiddling with dual pistols as the highlight of your experience loses its charm.

This is part of a broader problem in games today — incremental updates being billed as full-blown sequels. Halo 3: ODST had this issue (Geek Speak, Sept. 22), charging gamers a premium for a few hours of extra content and new multiplayer maps that didn't merit being called a separate game. In a holiday season where money is tight and only one or two software titles will likely end up under a tree, that's a big bite developers are asking gamers to swallow.

Unfortunately, it's a trend that shows no signs of slowing down, precisely because it's a lucrative business model. If EA Sports can continue to sell 1.9 million copies of Madden NFL 2010 in its first month despite largely irrelevant changes save for rosters (and this was considered a down year), why should studios prevent their creative teams from spinning incremental content additions into full-blown marquee releases?

That's not to say Valve abandoned its faithful like the titular survivors of the original. Free DLC was offered, in the form of April's Survival Pack and September's new campaign, Crash Course. But that only strengthens the argument that these new characters, creatures and weapons could have been offered online or in stores as an expansion pack for about $20, and would likely have strengthened the series' following.

As it is, there's nothing about L4D2 that defends the price tag, unless you didn't play the original or are a rabid zombie slayer. And if that's the case, then you don't care about a measly $60. You just want to load your shotgun and get blastin'.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Left 4 Dead 2 shambles along, but would be better as DLC 11/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 2:11pm]

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