It’s amazing to think it’s been more than 12 years since Turtle Rock Studios created zombie co-op shooter Left 4 Dead. The game and its sequel won over players with wanting a PvE experience with replay value. The Warhammer: Vermintide games are a recent example that show that it’s still a genre that works well. And though Back 4 Blood doesn’t stray too far from the original formula the it does make this feel like the the modern sequel we’ve needed. There’s little introduction to the world when you start playing and you have to piece it together as you play. All you need to know is that the world is overrun by the Ridden, the new name given to your Zombie enemies, and that you’re part of a small group of survivors trying to make a living in it. The game gets away with the minimal story through the strength of it characters who have plenty to say through in game dialogue. That coupled with an environment littered with signs and noticeboards to read give enough to set the tone and fill in a few blanks.
At its core the game doesn’t stray too far from the Left 4 Dead template with each stage being a point to point run where players not only have to fight off the Ridden but complete objectives before they reach the next safe room. During each run the “AI Director” tweaks the stage so that players can’t always assume that it will play out the same way as before which adds a significant replay value to the campaign. So don’t always expect enemies to swarm from the one location or a boss to be around that same corner. The biggest change in Back 4 Blood compared to its predecessors is the use of player cards to tweak the run even further. Each player has access to a desk of cards that they can build and during each run they have an opportunity to select ones to play. Some may increase difficulty (with rewards), others may boost abilities penalties, some just make it easier to fight. It’s an interesting idea as it means the experience is not totally reliant on the Director to drive how the run works out but can be influenced by player choice. In the very least players can choose to be better equipped if they are having trouble. Completing runs can reward you with points that can be used to purchase more cards and cosmetic items and coupled with challenges in the game can give you incentive to give each run another attempt.
Technically the game handles everything thrown at it well while looking and sounding excellent. A number of set pieces do an impressive job of setting the right atmosphere or choosing just the right song to play in the middle of an encounter which show a lot of care in not just building the world but getting the tone right for those players who are part of it. Having those “watercooler moments” helps make a co-op game work for a party and the game does really well in that respect. Sometimes though it does feel like the game holds onto its legacy a little tightly. Player movement is fine but I do wish everyone was a little more nimble when it came to traversing obstacles. Even being able to slide would be handy just for avoiding enemies. The saferoom checkpoint system still works well in breaking up each run and allowing players to take a break or leave (to return later) but it also does come across like the elevators from the original Mass Effect – just a way to minimize the load between levels and keep the progress linear. If some of the levels could do something a little different, maybe even let players go back or choose a completely exit (instead of the intended one), it could add some further variety. It seems like a lost opportunity as the existing system was likely created originally to not only deal with saving progress but to work around hardware limitations. The companion AI, for when you can’t find a full roster of players, handles itself well in providing support but can sometimes make the wrong choice that can end a run. It’s great that they have the ability to save you but when it’s approaching a game ending moment they could potentially be a little more aggressive in getting that revive.
In the end if you enjoy teaming up with mates for some zombie bashing action Back 4 Blood is a game worth checking out, especially if you like a paced, more linear experience. That it is to all intents and purposes Left 4 Dead 3 is going to win over a large chunk of that audience which might be why they haven’t pushed too hard in changing what was previously a winning formula. A lot of other games over the years have taken many of these ideas and gone in their own direction (even Call of Duty Zombies!) so there is a chance for some this may feel more like a throwback game but Turtle Rock deserve credit to sticking with what works in this return to the genre that made them famous and showing that there’s still some life left in it. 🙂
Back 4 Blood is out now for PC, Xbox and PlayStation. Played on an Xbox Series X via Game Pass.