What’s left 4 dead may never die
Back 4 Blood has a difficult act to follow. This isn’t just the latest co-op shooter to try and tackle the small group vs. big horde formula popularized by Left for dead, but it’s from the studio behind Left for dead in the first place. He has expectations, and I’m surprised both by how he meets and exceeds them.
It would have been easy to just retread the floor, but Back 4 Blood impressed me with the way he incorporates modern ideas and develops new concepts for the future. He finds depth in his bridge building customization and more customization in his various cannons and accessories. He incorporates more dangerous threats into his special Ridden (undead) and more strategy into his copper buying economy.
Back 4 Blood is a very solid entry into my co-op rolodex. Over the past week or so, I’ve always enjoyed running and re-running cards with friends. And even despite some concerns with its solo side and its difficulty curve, I don’t see this one leaving my hard drive in the near future.
Back 4 Blood (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S)
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Games
Released: October 12, 2021
MSRP: $ 59.99
Back 4 Blood takes place in the United States after an epidemic plunged the world into post-apocalyptic dystopia. The Ridden, as they are called, roam the streets and have mutated over time into ever more powerful and dangerous variants. The playable characters, or “cleaners,” are Fort Hope-based scavenging soldiers who seek to build a house from the rubble.
While the high level story served well enough to tie the maps and missions together, I really liked it. Back 4 Blood focuses more on regaining one foot rather than running for survival. Yes, there are a lot of times when you have to book it through a Ridden gauntlet, but just as often you establish a new advantage against the horde. One of my favorite moments of the campaign was revisiting an ancient area that I had helped embark and secure in a previous act, and seeing it thrive and inhabited by survivors.
These neat touches, alongside classic doodle-on-the-wall storytelling, weave a world that doesn’t look like a simple retreading of zombie outbreak tropes. Each level sequence has a nice distinction, and there’s a good variety of places to go and sites to see, mixed with familiar areas that change as the story progresses. The cards themselves are a bit wider, with some being lukewarm or even surprisingly short, and others having a long, lasting impact on me.
The obvious centerpiece is, of course, the bar. The zombie bloodbath takes place in an old bar, as cleaners use a roaring jukebox to grab the attention of the horde away from fleeing survivors, and Turtle Rock Studios has done a great job choosing the music. under perfect license. It captures the frenzied energy of a good action montage, and with your team of cleaners in the center.
And the cleaners themselves are not left out either. The team is a motley crew from all kinds of backgrounds, reflected in their individual perks, like mom wearing an extra support item or Jim racking up extra damage with repeated precision kills.
These perks lead to the larger metagame of deckbuilding. Playing through a Back 4 Blood the map will feel structurally similar if you’ve played Left 4 Dead; you will start in a shelter and, many times, you will end up in a shelter. At the start of each card, you will be able to put a card from your prebuilt deck into play from a drawn hand.
The cards start out as simple buffs to reload speed or stamina, but end up being huge playstyle-changing perks. Some of the cards I was unlocking when I came back to the supply lines, which are pathways. progression where you spend supplies earned from races to get new cards, were the ones I could build entire decks around; get temporary hit points from shotgun damage, for example, or big damage buffs to my melee weapon.
Attachments also help liven up the action, as they add a bit of variety and randomness to what’s already a fairly large arsenal of snipers, assault rifles, shotguns, and more. But really, like Yu Gi Oh !, the heart is in the cards.
Building and experimenting with decks has grown on me over time. At first I was a little hesitant about the idea, but some of the perks I unlock in the last game seem like powerful tools that can really influence and strengthen the way I play. It even pushed me into other weapons that I wouldn’t normally try, and I love how it reinforces the styles of play within the group. I can lead the charge with my very damaging shotgun build, or I can rush to fix my friends in the backline. All of this is not only viable, but encouraged.
The additional healing is very pleasant, because Back 4 Blood can get pretty punitive. I’ve played the entire campaign on Recruit and have been working on Veteran now, just to get a solid foundation of map options built for potential mega-hard runs. And even on lower difficulties, some cards will push the team to its limits.
One of the most controversial aspects of Back 4 Blood certainly feels to be the high number of Ridden special appearances. These amplified undead have unique abilities and properties, much like those found in Left for dead, and they pose a much greater threat. The campaign difficulty scale seems to like to throw tons of it at you; I have particularly thorny memories of a map where a Reeker horde appeared, sending throngs of massive balloons, explosive, and drawing hordes to our party.
With the cards you can possibly get, you feel like there’s a better chance for your team than, say, fighting a witch in Left for dead. But the glut of promotions makes it seem like sometimes the difficulty is in the quantity rather than the quality of the monster. It’s not the worst, but on some later maps it gets really noticeable. Overall, the balance doesn’t seem completely out of balance, but it’s definitely something I’d like to see evolve, if only to add more variety and put more emphasis on a stage when it comes down to it. join the game.
My other complaints ended up relating to the uncooperative aspects of Back 4 Blood. Turtle Rock said it leans towards solo progression, and the single-player mode is interesting in its setup: being able to use any maps you want. The bots ended up causing me the most frustration.
Back 4 BloodBots aren’t awful, but even on Recruiting difficulty at times, they have a hard time keeping up with the action. They can take a spot on a team and maybe even save your bacon from a sleeper a few times, but I would always find myself in situations where they would end up in rough places, get weirdly stuck in their way, or take one minute to pick up a downed teammate. It’s pretty clear that this is a game ideally played with three other human players, but bots are also an option, and despite some qualms, they were also a bit more reliable than matchmakers.
These problems, together with a card rate that really goes up and down, disrupt the Back 4 Blood experience, but the reassuring fact is that a good foundation has been laid. Turtle Rock a had a shaky start before, corn Back 4 Blood sees this studio doing what it does best: co-op killing zombies. And my boy, does the cooperative zombie kill well.
Whether I’m laughing at a brilliant strategy gone awry or barely getting into an escape vehicle with Ridden on my heels, Back 4 Blood has the right formula for a few good weekends of cooperative fun. If it gets even more support and updates down the line, I could see this taking a place as a staple social game for quite a while. Really, it feels good to find this kind of game again.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]