I played the Left 4 Dead 2 demo for the first time today. I then went on to play it several more times, record a machete run and upload it to Youtube for shits and giggles, and advise numerous frustrated Australian gamers of the wonderful loopholes of Steam's gift system. I enjoyed it thoroughly, although it certainly does have a different 'feel' to the first game. Obvious differences in characters, environments, infected, and weapons nonwithstanding, I found L4D2 to be more confusing and cluttered; while I commend the effort they've put into the game, perhaps Valve have given us too much choice. Although it could be due to my lack of experience with the new game and my intimate knowledge of the original, it seems that the level design in the former has moved away from the simple (yet effective) formula that made L4D so fun to play. There were plenty of places you could get slowed down or even stopped, but most of the time that bogging down could be attributed to the set-pieces or horde intervention. The map itself presented you with a clear and relatively uncluttered path, while still convincingly portraying the intended environment.
In L4D2, I found myself getting hung up on walls or disoriented a lot. Sometimes this is good as it can add tension to the game, but in this case it was more annoying than anything else. From what little the demo shows, it seems that Valve has moved away from the original game's level design theory somewhat, following the more recent example, Crash Course. Compared to the retail campaigns, Crash Course was a lot more open and a lot less simple to navigate; it offered wide alleys, courtyards, and warehouse floors, as well as a number of shortcuts and backtracks. The impact on gameplay was immediately apparent. Teams used to the constricted but intuitive layout of the first four campaigns found themselves being drawn apart by the wide expanses and shortcuts; players were running far ahead of the rest of their team, sometimes without even realising it. This new environment certainly provided an interesting new set of problems which players needed to adapt to, but it was severely mismatched from the rest of the game. Instead of narrow, linear hallways dominating each campaign with some open (yet still ultimately linear) areas here and there, players were faced with the polar opposite.
This brings me to L4D2. From the first two segments of The Parish, it seems Valve have opted for medium-sized spaces this time... except they're filled with clutter. Unlike the original levels, which typically had a sort of 'clutter-free zone' through the most likely route to be used, The Parish breaks up this zone with hedges, columns, armco rails, fences, and all manners of detritus. The result is a game which feels as constricted as the original - if not more so - yet is more liberal with open space. I'm honestly not sure what to think of this yet, other than it being interesting that Valve have decided to change even the most basic of the game's rules. Similarly, the vast array of weapons, the new ammunition types, the new special infected, and the use of movement panic areas rather than 'hold until relieved' panic areas (the CEDA quarantine point versus the drain bridge or construction yard) have complicated what was an incredibly simple (gameplay-wise) game. L4D's simplicity is one of the things I liked most; I could jump straight in and have a few hours of fun, but not especially taxing, gameplay with friends. So far, L4D2 seems like an information overload - but whether this means it'll be less enjoyable as a casual game but more so as a serious one remains to be seen. I'll reserve final judgement for when I finally get to play the full game in mid-December, as I won't be around for the release.
With the game itself out of the way, the obvious major issue surrounding the demo's release is just how badly censored the Australian version is. Anyone who keeps track of the OFLC's decisions will know just how inconsistent they are, but I think I can safely say that a new low has been reached. Thankfully, I have the US version; however, a lot of fellow Australian gamers pre-ordered without realising what was coming, and are now incredibly annoyed. I don't blame them. The Australian version lacks any kind of dismemberment, blood sprays, dead bodies (they fade instantly, before they even hit the ground), and even the intro movie has been censored. Whenever someone fires, the camera pans up to their face. When Coach frees Ellis from the Smoker's tongue in the elevator with a chainsaw, it doesn't show the effect on the common infected in the way. If I'd been lumped with such a watered-down version of the game, I'd be pretty mad, too. As if that's not enough of an insult to the gaming community, the game still carries the MA15+ rating, which is the highest available for games in this country (R18+ applies to movies, but not games, thanks to Michael Atkinson's stubborn ignorance and holier-than-thou disregard for gamers). Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, the recently-approved and released Borderlands, and countless other games were not banned or censored with regards to violence by the OFLC, despite all featuring blood, dismemberment, and in some cases extremely violent cinematic sequences. In fact, the only one of those games named which the OFLC disputed at all was Fallout 3, and that was due to the game using the name 'morphine' for what is known in our version as a 'stim pack'.
Once again, an entire nation's gaming community has been colossally flipped-off by a ratings board which panders to the demands of irresponsible or overprotective parents and bad scientists. According to the kinds of people who force these insane decisions through, the responsibility for raising their children lies squarely on the shoulders of the community, the government, the games industry - anyone but themselves. It seems they have better things to do than educate their children properly about violence, much less trust their children not to copy what they see in movies, read in books, or do in games. Of course, games are the rock and roll of the early 21st Century; they have some kind of evil hold over the adolescent mind, while books, movies, and music do not. Ironically more people seem inspired to commit violence due to their parents' ridiculous, ignorant views than they are due to games.
Naturally, anyone who argues against violent games will have stopped reading this article long ago, since I dared to disagree with their unsupported opinions. Anyone can claim games cause real-world violence, and anyone can construct a study which is an absolute affront to proper experimental methods to prove their statement true. The fact of the matter is that every person thinks differently. Some (especially twins) think almost exactly alike, but the word 'almost' isn't there for no reason; many people are polar opposites. Each person will have their own reaction to violent media, be it games, movies, or books. Give me an obscenely violent game, and I'll probably laugh hysterically at just how many pieces I can hack someone's body into. Show me a photograph of an actual, mutilated human being, and I might crack a joke to try and keep myself from thinking about it on any deep level (probably a valuable asset in my part-time line of work). Give me a machete and tell me to hack somebody - stranger, family, worst enemy - to pieces with it for any reason short of defence of self or loved ones, and I'll be escorting you to the nearest mental hospital. The way any anti-gaming campaigner will take great pleasure in listing off every death threat sent to them seems extremely ironic, considering that in a similar situation, their reactions probably wouldn't be much different. Does anyone know what Michael Atkinson's favourite past-time is? If you do, maybe you should persuade a politician in an appropriate position to heavily restrict it or even ban it outright, then get on the telly and make a mockery of him for all the paranoid parents and retirees watching Today Tonight. Let's see just how different you are from us, Mr. Atkinson, when the playing field is actually equal.
See, no matter how depraved, desensitised, and hateful the media portray us as being, or the out-of-touch, ignorant parents, politicians, and bureaucrats alike want us to be, that's just not true. Looking back, it's plain to see that society has chosen something new, something whose following is relatively harmless, and branded it that generation's great evil. Exposed skin, rock and roll... unfortunately for us gamers, we're the fall guys for now. It's up to us to try and prove the ignorant wrong at every turn, but until we can do so on such a level that even they can't ignore or deny, it looks like we'll just have to wait until we're the out-of-touch, overly conservative desk jockeys who make the rules. I can only hope we don't end up being as foolish as those before us.
So get writing to the OFLC (sensibly). Meet up with your friends, your local fellow gamers. If your parents are as open-minded as mine, then get them in on it, too. Organise petitions, organise massed complaints, organise protests, strikes, whatever you like - just do something. Nobody ever got what was right by sitting around picking their noses all day.