There is something to be said for games that push cooperative participants to their limits with some thrills and laughs sprinkled here and there. Way back in the dark ages of the early 2000s, the team at Turtle Rock Studios pitched an idea to Valve that ultimately resulted in the creation of Left 4 Dead. Marrying rock-solid first-person shooter mechanics with intimidating packs of bloodthirsty enemies made for a bonafide smash hit. Left 4 Dead would become the standard for how all future cooperative shooters would be designed and judged.
Turtle Rock ultimately split from work with Valve after the launch of Left 4 Dead and Valve quickly jumped into work on the legendary sequel. After trying their hands at a few different projects over the years, the studio opted to go back to the ideas that brought them to prominence in the first place. With the backing of Warner Bros. Games, Turtle Rock has just launched Back 4 Blood, a spiritual successor to their original breakout hit. While it has all the ingredients you need to make a world-class co-op zombie shooter, the final results are lacking the flavor to leave mouths watering.
As simple as moving from point A to point B
The setup in Back 4 Blood is relatively simple. The world is thrown into chaos after an outbreak of slimy, silver space worms manages to infect most of the global population, turning them into the “Ridden.” As luck would have it, the Ridden act a lot like zombies. Players assume the role of a survivor known as a Cleaner. There are eight total Cleaners to choose from, each with their own backstory and passive skill abilities. These can range from personal buffs such as increased carrying capacity or group buffs such as stamina boost.
Once a group selects their Cleaners, they will be presented with Back 4 Blood’s card system. Cleaners will enter a level using a standard card deck or they can build their own customized deck as more cards are unlocked through play. These cards provide a variety of passive buffs or abilities and are grouped into four categories, Reflex, Discipline, Brawn, and Fortune. The active card category corresponds to the type of buff provided on the card. There are also Corruption cards that can be played. These offer more difficult challenge conditions that can provide benefits if the group is able to clear the level and meet the Corruption card criteria.
Once on the ground, the action plays out exactly as you’d expect. The group is instructed to move from safe house to safe house, with some detours to assist other survivors or complete auxiliary goals. In between the safehouses are loads of Ridden, including special variants to mix up the action. As luck would have it, these special Ridden are almost carbon copies of the designs first used in the Left 4 Dead games. Most of the special Ridden also have their own unique variants that slightly alter the strengths of the enemies. Should the group of Cleaners make it to the next safe house, they can heal, re-arm, and prepare for the next expedition.
All of this is old news for anyone familiar with this genre, but the gaming public has been amped for this title since it was initially unveiled, and for good reason. It’s been a decade since Left 4 Dead 2 launched and it is not available to purchase on current generation consoles. Back 4 Blood is positioned to scratch that familiar itch and Turtle Rock is not ashamed to toss around the Left 4 Dead name in all facets of the game’s marketing. How successful the studio was at delivering a modern Left 4 Dead experience is arguable, though.
If you had to make a list of everything Back 4 Blood needs to succeed, there isn’t really a box that is left unchecked. It’s all here, but in practice, the experience can often feel like a pale imitation rather than the next evolutionary step in the genre. While the Cleaners are set up to look and feel like the Left 4 Dead survivors of old, none of them match up and I think it comes down to the writing. You get loads of quips from each Cleaner that offers some insight into their personality, back story, or the state of the game’s universe at large, though I felt they were lacking the charm and relatability of the characters from which they tried to mimic.
I had one Cleaner, Holly, scream at me during a run, “Why did you alert the Ridden? I have to pee!” It came up in a moment that didn’t make sense in context and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take away from the quip. Similar throwaway lines from other Cleaners hit me in the same way. In contrast, I never fail to smile when I hear Coach in Left 4 Dead 2 ask, “Who the hell puts an evac station up thirty goddamn flights of stairs?”
Much of the narrative and character-building is done across pre-rendered cutscenes sprinkled throughout the campaign. While the writing is as bland as the in-level dialogue, there are some decent moments scattered throughout. The problem with these videos is that they play in the middle of the acts. In a pub group, I often found myself having to wait forever between stops because someone in the group was watching a cutscene. Trolls can also make playing in pub games miserable by refusing to ready up, screaming over voice comms, or intentionally sabotaging runs. None of this community behavior is specific to Back 4 Blood, but I was never able to land in a group that could clear a single stage.
Having to deal with online trolls comes with the territory in online gaming, but it hurts worse when the solo play options in Back 4 Blood are decidedly user-hostile. If you don’t have friends handy and you opt to play solo, you will be unable to progress your Cleaners or card decks. Everything done in solo queue is locked to that mode, so you won’t be able to work through the game as designed without going for pub matches or bringing friends. Further complicating matters are the AI-controlled bots that join solo players. To deem them worthless may be too kind, though to their credit, they don’t actively shoot me like my pub teammates.
The various stages in Back 4 Blood look alright, but they all feel really bland. It doesn’t help that the time in the campaign is often stretched by having squads backtrack through the areas. It probably wouldn’t be as noticeable if the backtracks didn’t happen within two stages of each other. Backtracking through the levels is not new for the genre and it even happened in Left 4 Dead 2’s Hard Rain campaign, but in that case, the backtrack occurs through a monsoon that completely transforms the way your group moves and plays.
The objectives scattered throughout the campaign are just as bland as the level design, with some exceptions. For the most part, you’ll be running to a spot to activate a switch that triggers a horde of Ridden until a timer expires. Other times, you may need to escort NPC survivors under the stress of a Ridden horde timer. Occasionally, you’ll come upon some interesting encounters such as creating a diversion using a dive bar’s jukebox to draw Ridden attention away from NPC survivors.
The gunplay and weapon selection is solid here. Weapons can be modified with attachments prior to runs or by finding them strewn about the stages. Shooting things feels pretty good, but some issues keep the experience from eclipsing what we saw in Left 4 Dead 2. I had lots of frustration with hitboxes while playing. The Tallboy Ridden in particular being a major offender. Already the most annoying special variant, the encounters always feel bad as you try to shoot the weak point on the arm and watch the bullets go through the model without hitting. This is usually followed by said Tallboy whack-a-moleing you into a flapjack.
The Ridden on the whole feel less lively than the infected they were designed to emulate. Their animations are less emotive and when you shoot them, much of the wonderful gore system has been toned down. You can decapitate the Ridden and you’ll occasionally see them lose chunks from their torsos, but it doesn’t come close to the visceral feel of battling Left 4 Dead’s common foes. I still keep a candle lit in my window waiting for the next video game to carry on the mission started by Soldier of Fortune and later improved upon by Left 4 Dead 2 to provide the greatest, grossest gore system.
The difficulty scaling here is also a negative for me. You’ll be presented with three difficulty options at the outset of runs, but the normal and hard selections are brutal. Only determined teams using good comms and balanced card decks will move through the acts without frustration. It doesn’t help that there seems to be no real dynamic pacing in many runs. Often, you’ll open the door to a safehouse and get obliterated from all sides within seconds. You’ll also get unlucky from time to time with special Ridden, further increasing frustration. Back 4 Blood has already been out for more than a week and Steam achievement stats show that less than 5% of all players have reached the end of the first level on the standard difficulty. Woof.
Graphically, Back 4 Blood looks the part. While some of the level design and animations leave a lot to be desired, the effects on display can be impressive. I particularly liked how great the Reeker vomit looks as it slides down your screen. HDR output is included and is the best way to play the game as it adds detail to shadowy areas and highlights (such as a neon diner sign) always please. I also experienced very good performance on my test PC. I had no issues achieving various frame rate targets by fiddling with the included settings. The inclusion of NVIDIA DLSS ensures that those with compatible GPUs will have more frames than they know what to do with.
On the aural front. Things are less rosy. I found the directional audio in Back 4 Blood to be bad to the point of comedy. You’ll hear sound effects from directions that make no sense and will hear dialogue through walls and buildings at volumes that are just as bewildering. Trying to fool around in the audio options menu won’t help. It comes with all sorts of sliders and toggles. In my experience, they are more suggestions of things you might want to do rather than what the game will give you. Try setting the music slider to 0? Too bad, enjoy this jukebox at near-clipping levels. Put the master volume at 15/100 so you can hear your buddies in Discord? Too bad, you’re actually gonna listen to this mini monologue at 115db.
On the PvP side of things, players can queue for Deadly Swarm mode. This pits teams of Cleaners and Ridden against each other, with team swapping sides. The Cleaners try to survive while the Rideen work to make things more difficult. Cleaners make use of card decks while Ridden earn Mutation Points that are spent during rounds to buff the bad guy team. It works as a diversion, but the omission of a PvP campaign as we got in the Left 4 Dead games is a glaring oversight.
Step 1: Have friends
While the majority of what I’ve written above has been negative towards Back 4 Blood, there are going to be loads of players ready and willing to take the jump. Lots of the issues in Back 4 Blood can be overlooked when you have a team of friends willing to back you up. How long you and your friends are willing to stick with the game beyond the initial jaunt is yet to be determined, but if you are all hot to collect cards and craft deck builds, it could have legs. Likewise, if you are burning to play a Left 4 Dead-style game but you only have a newer console, Back 4 Blood should fit the bill, though there are several more interesting options out there if you look. At the end of the day, this is an inferior version of Left 4 Dead 2 that lacks the style, charm, gore, and engaging characters it tries to reproduce. That said, there is a decent foundation here and there are worse ways you could spend a weekend with some buddies. 6/10 Reeker belly buttons
This review is based on the PC Steam release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. Back 4 BLood is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Xbox Game Pass, and Steam.
Back 4 Blood
- Solid gunplay and fundamentals
- The card deck system offers some new wrinkles to the formula
- Good optimization on the PC version
- Fails to improve or evolve the genre design in any meaningful way
- Bland level and mission design
- Unfriendly to solo players
- Inconsistent difficulty scaling
- The sound options menu actively hates me
- Most parts of the game feel more generic than what it drew inspiration from
Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Back 4 Blood review: Settling 4 less