Back 4 Blood Review: "More Often Than Not, You'll Be Left Frustrated And Tilted"
Back 4 Blood has dug itself into a small hole in the build-up to launch. Despite not being part of the Left 4 Dead franchise since the IP is owned by Valve, Turtle Rock Studios is made up of numerous people that worked on the original series and adopting the same naming format makes it so evidently clear the game is a spiritual successor. With such big shoes to fill since both Left 4 Dead games have become essentially cult classics, how does this evolution of the genre fare almost 12 years on?
Don’t say the Z-word
If you’ve played Left 4 Dead, the premise is largely the same: a group of survivors are fighting their way through the “ridden” apocalypse, searching for other friendlies stuck in sticky situations. Embarking on a mission usually involves leaving Fort Hope, your safe refuge on the outskirts of a nearby town, and fighting through the streets to your next objective. Each time the layout of the town changes however, as more ridden appear and certain paths become blocked off.
While the missions themselves have a lot of variance in your objectives - the Bar Room Blitz level in the first act being a particular highlight - the locales you slay through can often get repetitive. Lots of rocky, forested areas typical of the northern U.S. states, alongside very cookie cutter streets. Combined with how dark it is - it is a horror zombie shooter, after all - and it gets quite repetitive.
- Did you know that streaming Back 4 Blood on Twitch could get you banned?
There is certainly a horror element here too, because Back 4 Blood is far more visceral than Left 4 Dead ever was. Playing with pals as a co-op shooter largely makes you fearless because you’re having a laugh, but there’s no avoiding the fact that some levels and enemies are horrifying. Special shoutout to the sewers in the second act that would’ve petrified me if I was playing solo.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Back 4 Blood is how different each and every playthrough can be, largely thanks to the Game Director. While this sounds ominous, like Big Brother watching over your zombie-slaying antics, it’s actually another returning feature from Left 4 Dead.
The Game Director will adapt the hurdles you come across, whether it’s in the form of certain locked or alarmed doors, the types of enemies you fight, the loot you find, or something else entirely. This essentially means that you can’t memorise your way through a level. Of course, the objective will remain the same, but each attempt will write a new story as Back 4 Blood encourages you to replay missions over and over again.
When it comes to the major gameplay elements that can change per level, say fighting a boss, you’re forewarned via encounter cards that appear before you spawn in. These modifiers can be anything from challenges like carrying a medical research sample box to the end of the level or finishing with all four players alive, to a heavy fog settling all over the level, limiting your vision. Depending on the environment you’re fighting in - the fog is a huge pain in open levels - they can make or break a run. If you seriously struggle the first time, you may get entirely new encounter cards the second time around and find the level far easier.
The 15 card non-shuffle
Cards are a prominent theme throughout Back 4 Blood because alongside the above encounters being showcased in a card format, all the perks you can create your build around are part of a 15-strong deck. At the start of each level, you’ll draw the top card in your deck, then you can choose between the next five below it. This eliminates any random nature as you’d find with most card-based games, because you can guarantee the order in which you pick your perks.
- As long as one person owns the upcoming Back 4 Blood DLC, everyone in the party can play
While plenty of the cards are bog-standard perks, your +20% reload speed, +30% ammo capacity, there are plenty which completely change up your build and style of play. You can get +50% reload speed for example, but it comes at the cost of being unable to aim down sights. Another that leans heavily into a specific build would be +75% melee damage, but -50% gun accuracy. This opens up so many possibilities for overpowered builds, once the community figures out the meta.
No matter which build you opt for, the combat does feel meaty and satisfying, especially when it comes to assault rifles and light machine guns. In every single way, gunplay feels like 12 years’ worth of improvements over the Source engine used for Left 4 Dead. It’s akin to similar shooters on the market right now, even though you’re firing against hordes of undead instead of other people.
Back 4 Blood’s drawbacks lie in a myriad of teething troubles that will no doubt be fixed post-launch, but since they’re part of the game right now, the experience has to be reviewed with them in mind. The most notable of which is how unfriendly the game is to solo players. If you’re by yourself and don’t want to party up with randoms via matchmaking, you cannot progress in the game whatsoever. Playing on your lonesome doesn’t unlock supply points which are spent on more cards, which means you can’t improve your build from the starter set. It’s easy to understand why Turtle Rock wants Back 4 Blood to be a solely co-op experience, but locking out solo players entirely isn’t the way to go about it. You can’t even earn achievements or track your stats.
Playing with bots is also a truly infuriating experience, as their pathing and general common sense is abysmal. They will frequently just stand in your way when you’re shooting, they won’t revive you when you’re down, and they try to defeat special ridden with their fists if they’re close enough instead of backing away and using a gun.
Speaking of which, when it comes to balancing issues, two issues need seriously addressing; the first of which is the difficulty. As it stands, you can pick from Recruit, Veteran, or Nightmare difficulty, but the first is far too easy whereas the second is frustratingly tough. Try Nightmare if you want to lose your sanity. It needs a difficulty level between the first two, or Veteran needs to be toned down a little. This isn’t just a “hurr-durr games journalists are bad at video games” incident either - complaints are pretty widespread from those with the deluxe edition.
Part of the problem is the sheer number of special ridden you come across. Back 4 Blood isn’t Left 4 Dead so special enemies don’t necessarily need to be treated the same, but when four or five tall boys - the toughest non-boss special ridden - can spawn simultaneously, some fine tuning needs to happen. A run can be ruined in an instant because everything can spiral out of control so quickly. Not to mention the Hag boss, which means you can pretty much kiss your run goodbye.
There’s also the Swarm PvP mode, which pits two teams of four against each other, switching between a team of ridden to the usual survivors. The less said about this mode, the better, because it’s incredibly janky, the maps are way too small, and it’s so unbalanced in favour of the humans. It was so evidently tacked on as an afterthought when instead, that time could’ve been spent polishing the issues mentioned above.
This is all without mentioning the performance issues on PC too. It’s not been gamebreaking, but the frame rate can drop in specific areas, and if you try using text chat, it pauses every few characters you type. Character animations are incredibly janky, with bots frequently getting stuck on walls and jittering in place, as are some of the more unique animations. One mission has you attaching crates to a helicopter in the air, but rather than flying directly above, it was over the other side of the playable area for me and the crate instead teleported to it once the ropes were connected. All these problems are things that should and likely will be fixed soon enough, but it could easily have had another month or two in the oven to iron these bugs out.
Left 4 Dead 2.5
Back 4 Blood isn’t Left 4 Dead 3, but it is so evidently an evolution of the genre. When things go right and you have a deck that works for your build, plus the Game Director doesn’t screw you over with the corruption cards, then the game feels amazing to play. Far more often than not however, you’ll be left frustrated and tilted because too many enemies have spawned so there was literally nothing you could do. Back 4 Blood is the best multiplayer zombie game on the market right now, but the competition is weak and if you’re a solo player, steer well clear.
Played on PC. Code provided by the publisher.