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January 31, 2014

Level Review: Dead Center (Left 4 Dead 2)


Ever played one of those levels which are just too amazing to forget? This weekly column is devoted to those levels that go above and beyond the call of duty (pun firmly intended) to craft richly replayable and highly memorable experiences. So sit back, have a drink, and let me level with you.

So after reviewing Left 4 Dead 2 last week, it didn't quite feel that complete when it came to the review. I wanted to add a lot more detail, but due to time constraints, I left it. Instead, I'll review all the levels of the second game in these weekly posts. If you guys like it, I'll do more in the future.

The first up is....well, the first level!


Dead Center:

Overview: Normally this is where you get warned about spoilers, but since Left 4 Dead 2 is not plot-based, you don't have to be.

The levels in L4D2 are comprised of stages, ending in a safe house and starting the next stage in the same safe house where you can recuperate and discuss strategies with your friends before grabbing your frying pan and heading out the door. Most of the levels are divided into 4-5 stages. Dead Center is four stages, and all of it acts as a very fun and elaborate tutorial on how to play the game.

The first stage, Hotel, is very linear in nature, especially when to compared to the rest of the game (all of them are linear, but here it's very noticeable). It works very well to introduce you to the mechanics of the game. For instance, one of the newest enemies in the game, the Charger, is able to, ahem, charge through survivors like meaty bowling pins, knocking them apart and grabbing one of them, beating him/her on the ground until they are flatter than a pancake flattened by steamroller crushed by a falling skyscraper squashed by a meteor (Pretty flat, basically), which carries across the message that hallways and tight spaces are very dangerous.

The second stage, Streets, is a bit more open and introduces you to some of the variations that take place when you replay the game. For example, you meet a Gun Store owner who requests that you go get him some Cola from a nearby store in exchange for his help. The dialogue between him and the four survivors starts the same but always ends differently on each playthrough. This stage also shows you that noise attracts the Infected horde, when you have to open the door to the store, triggering an alarm.

The third stage, Mall, mixes the gameplay of the first two stages, combining open spaces and linearity to create an unpredictable mix. Here, the game's AI Director, which generates Infected in new locations every time, is given a chance to shine. For example, you may encounter a swarm just before the safe house at the end of the level, or not. You may come across smokers up the escalator near the beginning, or not. You may come across a very hugsy Hunter at the bottom of a staircase whilst you're running away from a freakin' Tank!*

Or not.

The fourth and final stage, Atrium, isn't a long level, more resembling a final standoff. Players have to collect gas cans to fill a stock car as a means of escape. The gas cans are spread out all over the level, which takes place in one big open area. The game's random nature means that you'll encounter new enemies every time, but one thing stays the same: The more gas cans you collect, the more difficult it becomes.

*The Tank is a huge gorilla-like Special Infected with a humongous upper torso and very small head (braun over brains, man).


Gameplay Tips:

Hotel: The game does a good job of helping you through this level, so let me just give you a general gameplay tip: While it may be nice feeling like a samurai swinging your Katana at every living (dead) thing, it's an unreliable technique against Special Infected. Rather use your melee weapon to shove enemies away and then whip out your Primary to shoot them. And never, ever, melee attack a Boomer!

Streets: This is where you learn to stick together. Always. When grabbing the cola, make sure that only one person is the carrier, while the rest defend him/her and move as one unit to deliver the item. Don't spread out, the horde will get you. Stick together!

Mall: Not much else to say except: You have to stick together. Here, it's crucial. Tanks and Hunters are incredibly lethal in this level, because of the tight spaces and difficulty to run away. Also, beware of smokers. They are a real pest in this level.

Atrium: Try to gather all the gas cans first and place them at the stock car before pouring them in. Now, you have to be careful, because shooting the cans will result in fire. If you shoot one of them and they're all bunched up, you got a huge fire and no gas cans. Back to square one! To avoid this, place the cans underneath the overpass behind the stock car, so they're out of the way.

You still might send a stray bullet their way, but thankfully they don't SEEM to instantly ignite when hit once. Otherwise, you really have to stick together, especially on higher difficulties. Running away will get you killed by the various amounts of Special Infected, who seem to spawn every 15 seconds on Advanced difficulty (I haven't worked up the guts to try it on Expert yet).

Memorability/Replayability:

In spite of it's linearity and First Level-ishness, this level is always fun on multiple playthroughs. My most recent run, whilst writing this review in fact, had some very memorable moments, like the discovery of how to make hordes of Infected commit suicide by jumping off a building (Hint: Use Boomer Bile). 

Valve did a knockout job with this game, making every level a hugely replayable affair and Dead Center is no different. It's always nice to replay this level in order to try new techniques before using them on harder levels, like Hard Rain or The Parish. With that, I can safely say that this is one of the best first levels I've ever played.

Now, if you don't mind, I've got a carnival to go attend. A DARK carnival...

What do you guys think? Did you like the Level Review? What did you think of Dead Center?

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