Games 11/18/08: Left 4 Dead, Gears of War 2, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe

Left 4 Dead
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: PC
From: Valve
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)

The honeymoon between gaming and zombie apocalypses is borderline ridiculous right now, with zombies making cameos in everything from “World of Warcraft” to “Grand Theft Auto” to “Call of Duty.”

But while those franchises simply toss out a zombified mode and fight for position on the bed of the bandwagon, Valve heads straight for the driver’s seat and emerges with the best zombie apocalypse simulator in all of gaming.

To fully get “Left 4 Dead,” though, you must first understand its methods, which run fairly counter to convention. There isn’t, for instance, a single story mode, but instead four small “campaigns” that might take an hour or so each to complete. That sounds a bit threadbare until you realize the game never populates its campaigns the same way twice, randomizing zombie placement every time you play to keep you on your toes.

“L4D” gets away with this for precisely one, somewhat ironic reason: brilliant zombie artificial intelligence. The game trots out the same breeds of undead over and over, but individual zombies act as individuals — sometimes cowering in corners, sometimes minding their own business, sometimes coming straight at you or even inflicting harm on one another.

The bevy of tactics means different parts of the same campaign will have you acting proactively and reactively — able to formulate strategies in some areas while forced to run for your life or just unload lead in others. Because you never know precisely what the game has waiting for you, every trip through a campaign feels different. And because “L4D” shares other Valve games’ rabid appetite for physics, even individual zombie encounters will trigger wildly different results.

All that said, if you plan to maximize your “L4D” experience, you best not come alone. In another bucking of convention, “L4D’s” single-player offering appears at the bottom of the main menu, with co-op (two players offline, four online) and competitive (two offline, eight online) taking precedence.

While playing through the campaigns alone is fun — “L4D” outfits you with three very capable A.I. teammates — it’s considerably more exciting to team up with human players. “L4D” not only emphasizes the importance of teamwork when zombies are descending from all 360 degrees, but actually makes it fun to watch each other’s back. Human teammates are prone to fallacies A.I. teammates can avoid, and that alone adds considerably to the excitement of whatever unknown danger lies ahead — or behind.

As for the competitive mode? You get to play as the zombies. No more need be said.

—–

Gears of War 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Epic/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

The question: How do you top a game that, only two years ago, raised the bar in almost every respect in which it attempt to raise a bar?

The answer? Do it again, which precisely is what “Gears of War 2” does.

No sense blowing smoke where smoke need not be blown: “GOW2” doesn’t reinvent the third-person shooter the way its predecessor did. On the basis of control, firepower and general fundamentals, both games operate almost identically. The lone significant addition to your combat repertoire — the ability to turn wounded enemies into hostages and employ them as moving cover — is a good one, but it doesn’t exactly rattle the series at its core.

Rather, “GOW2” mostly leaves the cake be and focuses the bulk of its energy on the icing, packing the same brilliant gameplay inside a campaign that’s both genuinely engaging and ridiculously, hilariously over the top.

It’s hard to fully quantify just how out of control “GOW2” gets without spoiling the fun of uncovering it yourself, so no details will be spilled here.

Just know this: Epic is working without a filter this time around, unloading environments, scenarios and even one unbelievable weather pattern that seem designed primarily to incite giddiness and only secondarily to advance the game’s story, which is surprisingly good despite the almost satirically macho playground on which it unfurls itself. “GOW2” never loses sight of the story, which is something of an accomplishment considering the first game didn’t even really tell one. But the game seems most concerned with letting players do everything they wanted to do in the first game but never could — a point hammered home by some staggeringly cool vehicular missions that barely make sense but are ridiculously fun to play out.

Elsewhere, the improvements are impressive but in line with expectations. The visual leap forward is a pleasant surprise given what a breakthrough graphical showpiece the original was. Online multiplayer (10 players, up from eight), meanwhile, benefits greatly from a party system and better matchmaking.

But no feature endears itself more than co-op play (two players offline, up to five online). The single-player campaign is predictably more fun with friends on board, and the new Horde mode — a collection of 50-wave, arcade-style encounters with increasingly brutal enemies and only your friends at your back — is a viciously fun challenge that will keep the disc spinning long after the story has been told.

—–

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, suggestive themes, violence)

“Gimmick” is something of a dirty word in gaming circles, and leaning on DC Comics’ heavy hitters — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Joker, among others — to breathe relevance back into “Mortal Kombat” most definitely qualifies as a gimmick.

But it’s hard to knock a gimmick when it works, and so it’s hard to knock “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe,” which freshens up a franchise stuck in neutral while taking full advantage of the moment to trim much of the fat that had accumulated since “Kombat” went 3D.

That latter point, in fact, is the real story. Whereas recent “Kombat” games have tried half-heartedly to compete with other 3D fighters, “Universe” essentially brings the game back into the second dimension, presenting fully three-dimensional characters who fight almost exclusively on a flat plane. That, in layman’s terms, means “Universe” plays a lot like the original “Kombat” arcade games, combining the fluent animation expected from today’s games with gameplay straight out of 1995.

But if you haven’t played a “Kombat” game since those days, that means nothing to you. Fortunately, if you came to the party simply because Batman scored an invitation, there’s good news there as well. Dual story modes let you play as either faction, and the absurd but entirely enjoyable storyline provides a great means to familiarize yourself with both rosters. The game’s a visual mixed bag overall, but the fighters look great in motion, and Midway has stocked each with an ample supply of satisfying moves (including the series’ trademark finishers) specific to each.

All that said, if you’re coming to “Universe” expecting something on the level of “Virtua Fighter” or even “Soul Calibur,” don’t. Midway is unapologetic about keeping “Kombat” on the casual end of the fighting game spectrum, and “Universe,” while gifted with move sets deep enough to appeal to serious fighting fans, remains a game at which anyone who can mash buttons and master a fancy move or two can excel. It’s wildly imbalanced, but it’s imbalanced on both sides, making for a frenzied, fun arcade experience that nonetheless will rub tournament-level players the wrong way.

Beyond the two story modes, “Universe” features a standard arcade mode, which itself features a unique end sequence for each fighter. Each character also has a Kombo Challenge, which is a great way to “win” something while mastering the game’s more complicated attacks. As expected, “Universe” sports both local and online multiplayer (two players each), and as long as your Internet connection is respectably fast, it works pretty much as you’d hope it would.