When I held a six-pack of soda as an impromptu melee weapon, I knew Left 4 Dead 2 would treat me well. Clutching Cokes, my teammates and I were fleeing the Save 4 Less mini-mart we'd busted into moments before, and the damn alarm was acting as the dinner bell for dozens of lurching unpeople. This wasn't our idea of a good time, but we owed a parched gunshop owner a favour: he'd let us walk away with whatever shotguns, laser-sighted assault rifles and high-calibre pistols our 'Use' keys would let us carry. So I trotted on, gunless, wondering if too many melee attacks would over-carbonate the bottles, yelling at my teammates to cover my ass on the most insane, ill-advised escort mission ever.
As a team of cocky Left 4 Dead veterans (with me as Nick, the riverboat gambler), the first thing we did in the sequel to Valve's huge-selling zombie co-op shooter was crank up the difficulty to Advanced. That proved to be a tactical error: after two hours of trying to beat the inspired final battle of the first of five campaigns, Dead Centre, we gave in and toned it down a notch.
Regardless of success or failure, we were loving every minute of it. Everything is fresh. You don't always know which way to go. Panic takes hold. Waves of Infected come unpredictably, and mixed teams of several Special Infected arrive simultaneously. You think on your feet. You make mistakes.
Mistakes, and desperate attempts to recover from them, produce some of the best, most thrilling moments of Left 4 Dead. Valve understand and capitalise on the fun created by emergent play and the freedom to experiment. The new melee weapons encourage daredevil tactics, new Infected varieties drive survivors from their safe corners and closets, many of the new finales are more imaginative than any in L4D1, and a new mode will steal more hours from your evenings than Versus, the campaign, or Survival (and possibly all of them combined). Clean, predictable zombie-killing is out. Cooperative calamity is in.
L4D2's core philosophy is to drag you, kicking and screaming, out of your comfort zone, and that couldn't be more welcome: the original allows survivors to dig in, fending off huge numbers of Infected far too effectively, so the larger, potentially panic-inducing moments can be worked around. One of the biggest factors that will keep L4D2 unpredictable far longer than its predecessor is the arrival of three new Special Infected types. The Spitter, the Charger and the Jockey all contribute new harassment mechanics, and terrifying new combos in conjunction with the four familiar Specials. (Who return unchanged, except for alternate character models, like the disgusting female Boomer I call Helga.) The dizzying number of potential combinations means that even experienced players are more likely to be caught off-guard, and that uncertainty puts delicious fear into you every time you round a corner.
Melee weapons are the biggest mechanical change to combat, and definitely for the better. Clutching a katana blade, machete, chainsaw, police baton, cricket bat, frying pan, or the signature Valve crowbar is guaranteed to put a mischievous grin on your face, and swinging like a madman enables you to run headlong into hordes with confidence, defend doorways, mutilate climbers and generally act like a madman. Cleaving away withered appendages shows off the awesome variety of zombie death animations, complete with gore-geous ragdoll physics and a new dismemberment system that models loss of limbs to perfection.
Common infected become more than fodder - they're piņatas, existing to generously bleed, animate and fragment with mortal confetti. Picking up a melee weapon is well worth sacrificing your backup pistol. My only disappointment was the lack of distinction as to how the new zombie-carving utensils part zombies from their limbs. Other than subtle differences in their swinging arcs and attack speeds, a frying pan kills a lot like a katana.