I’m trying to remember the fear of the first time I was pounced by a Hunter.
You always know there’s a Hunter around. They emit a low guttural growl as they lie in wait. Sometimes you’ll hear a blood curdling screech and the team will look around, waiting for that dark hooded figure to come hurtling out of the shadows. They can leap ten metre spaces in under a second. Half the time you’ll never see them coming. You’ll hear that scream and find yourself suddenly pinned to the ground, a hooded nightmarish thing tearing chunks of flesh out of your chest. The first time this happens it’s utterly terrifying. You’re completely helpless until one of your teammates shoots the beast off you, but until then you’re left screaming “get it off! Get it off!”
Of course, the terror fades. In the beginning, Left 4 Dead was full of horrifying moments. The Smoker dragging you away from your team with his disgusting prehensile tongue, being vomited on by the Boomer and firing wildly as your blurred vision fills up witht he faces of a hundred snarling zombies trying to claw your face off. These experiences were the things of nightmares. But once you’ve killed your twentieth Hunter the fear fades. Once you start to get good with your team, dealing with the zombie apocalypse becomes a matter of grim efficiency. You recognise the calls of the special infected, you instinctively know good places to huddle and defend as the hordes come. Boomers are executed at distance. You’re no longer surviving by the seat of your pants, you’re in control.
Left 4 Dead 2 isn’t so different. Your Expert-conquering team from the original Left 4 Dead can still go a long way in this newer, shinier iteration. This is a harder game that’s for sure, the run and gun style of the gauntlet events, executed most effectively in the climax to The Parish campaign, are a frantic and welcome addition to the experience. The new Special Infected are inventive and, in specific situations, devastatingly effective at breaking your team apart. But The Jockey, Charger and Spitter haven’t given me that jolt of terror I experienced the first time a Hunter pinned me down. I charged through much of Left 4 Dead 2 recently in a LAN meetup with friends. We had a brilliant time. Left 4 Dead 2 builds on everything that was great about the original and delivers a series of much more varied and interesting campaigns. But I was worried that the horror of the zombie apocalypse was gone. That is, until the boat drops you off at the beginning of Left 4 Dead 2′s fourth campaign. Then everything changed. Over the next hour we were treated to something pretty special.
Hard Rain brings the fear back.
Your task is to make it to the nearest gas station, find some Diesel and return to the pier to refuel the boat and make good your escape. As you leave the pier and set out through the abandoned town a light rain begins to fall. “Looks like there’s a storm comin’” says Ellis. He’s right. There is.
The first level eases you in nicely. The small Louisiana town is brilliantly realised, and more believable than most of the locations in Left 4 Dead. The houses hide spare weapons and ammo caches, and the walls are adorned with the scrawls of those who came before you. There’s a dilemma here. You’ll be travelling back through these very same houses towards the end of the campaign, so you won’t want to use every medpack, and you’ll want to leave the pipe bombs and special ammo for later.
The first indication that Hard Rain is going to be something a bit special is the Sugar Mill. The half collapsed concrete structure is an eerie and melancholic place. Rain falls through gaps in the roof in an image of urban decay reminiscent of Stalker’s more poignant scenes. The dispatched Infected corpses seem to fit in perfectly, their gory remains as raw and brutal as the uncompromising architecture that surrounds them. This shattered structure opens out into an area packed full of machinery. From the claustrophobic depths of this maze comes the sound of sobbing. A high warbling melody grows louder with every step. The Sugar Mill has become a home to wandering Witches.
They are the most haunting and disturbing part of the Left 4 Dead experience. Pale white figures with huge clawed hands, they live in their own world of private misery until disturbed, the only advanced warning you’ll have of their presence is the sorrowful sobs they make. If you’re unlucky enough to rouse one she will charge straight for you and attack ferociously. The sugar mill is full of them, and they wander slowly, with stilted steps through the machinery. Those whole pace of the game changes. With flashlights off you have to cautiously navigate the area, trying to find the best route past these pale spectres. It’s a surreal and unnerving experience, it’s a whole new kind of tension I wouldn’t expect from a game as fast and explosive as Left 4 Dead 2.
If the Sugar Mill is the slow menace of The Shining, the sugar cane plantation that follows is Jurrasic Park. It’s a logistical nightmare. You can’t see more than a couple of feet, and hordes can come from anywhere. Nose to tail, you’re forced to inch forwards towards the tall sign of the gas station ahead fending off attack from every angle. It’s difficult, tense, and a solid test of your teamwork. It’s all too easy to unlead your shotgun into your friend’s face in such a close situation. If you make it out of the cane field alive, you get your gas. But don’t get cocky. The shit is about to hit the fan.
Thunderstorms. For an age they’ve been the cheesy backing to many a horror movie. A werewolf howls to a thunderclap, Dracula cackles madly as lightning throws shadows around his chamber. That’s all good stuff, but so rarely is the primal thrill of an actual, real-life thunderstorm captured. The mad, terrifying scramble back to the pier in Hard Rain is one of those few occasions.
Opening the safe room door for the return trip you find the world darkened by ominous clouds, and the rain’s coming down in sheets. The areas you travelled through to get here are flooded, requiring you to take new paths to navigate the sludge. Then, every now and then, the real storms come. Thunder crashes about you, lighning streaks flash across the horizon and the world seems to close in around you. The noise draws the horde, and you’re forced to face them charging you through the mists. As I switch my melee weapon, desperately shoving back the masses, chopping down those who get too close I hear someone behind me saying “Shit! Shit! Shit!” and realise that I would be doing the same if I wasn’t holding my breath. There’s another thunderclap so loud I jump out of my skin. It feels as though the whole world is against us four, huddled back to back in the middle of the cane field, soaked to the bone, desperately trying to find shelter. Then I realise that this is the hit of terror that’s been missing from Left 4 Dead, from the whole of gaming.
We’re glad of the provisions we left behind. The first half of the campaign seems like a different world. The situation is so much more severe with the storms clamouring above us. Packing our rifles with incendiary ammo we ignite the hordes and watch them flail through the floodwaters, alight fron the chest up. We drop a tank and press on to the finale, defending a flooded burger joint waiting for the boat to come. It’s tense, we know that not all of us will make it, and as the second tank comes charging over the rooftop, to our collective panic, the storm closes in again.
The fear is back.