Turtle Rock Studios rose to prominence over a decade ago by developing the Left 4 Dead series. Ever since the release of the excellent sequel and its surprisingly emotional DLC, fans have been wanting another entry. However, Valve’s avoidance of all things with a “3” has led to over a decade spent playing custom campaigns and mods instead. Now Turtle Rock is back with Back 4 Blood, which delivers the familiar undead co-op action but with plenty of changes that will throw longtime players for a loop.
Initially, the ways in which Back 4 Blood tried to differentiate itself from Left 4 Dead were disappointing. Levels were over just as they started to ramp up, rarely lasting more than 10 minutes long, and the card system seemed bothersome. Choosing cards every 15 minutes sucked the momentum out of the cooperative run-and-gun gameplay that was already getting stunted by brief stages. While these changes didn’t connect at first, Back 4 Blood began to take shape as time passed and blossom in ways that make it feel like an evolution of Turtle Rock’s past titles rather than simply Left 4 Dead 3.
Nearly every change is seemingly rooted in Turtle Rock asking itself one question: “How do we make Back 4 Blood as replayable as possible?” While it’s not addressing a weak point in the Left 4 Dead franchise — those games were incredibly replayable — there are so many permutations at work that these stages will likely have just as much staying power as its predecessor.
The shorter levels are also a product of this design philosophy. They’re bite-sized experiences that usually have the players doing one big event, whether it’s triggering a horde of zombies or going up against a huge boss. However, after that one big thing is over, the safe house is nearby and it’s on to the next section. And their brevity is a multi-pronged success that benefits the game in a few different ways.
The aforementioned card system pulls a lot of the weight in making sure each playthrough feels different. Not only are players selecting perks that help their own characters and their team, but there are also match permutations that will change yet another layer of the stage. From an annoying fog that allows zombies to creep up on you out of nowhere to extra boss encounters and objectives, the card selection process quickly became a highlight rather than a burden. Since the levels are so short, that means an irritating card that is in play won’t take up 30 minutes of your time and will instead just offer a 10-minute challenge to overcome.
Another advantage of the short stages is that it allows Turtle Rock to truly play with the difficulty. Even the lowest difficulty level offers up a solid challenge if you’re using the default cards, and the higher difficulty settings require that all four players to be working together. However, the levels never feel impossible to overcome since they are short enough to where restarting isn’t that big, demoralizing punishment, although after a continue, you will lose out on the gear and perks you’ve attained during your current run of stages. This almost roguelike-esque aspect of Back 4 Blood is another interesting spin on the formula and keeps the gameplay feeling fresh.
Turtle Rock also must be commended in how it take advantage of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller. All of the guns and melee weapons take advantage of the trigger resistance and haptic feedback, which helps make the action even more intense. While this level of feedback led to some poor aiming at first on my part, it’s something I adjusted to rather quickly and began to appreciate. The DualSense’s ability to immerse players has been one of the PS5’s best selling points, so it’s always worth celebrating when it’s implemented correctly.
While there’s no competitive campaign option in Back 4 Blood, there is a multiplayer mode that allows you to play as the special types of Ridden in the game. While it’s hard to imagine these designs being as iconic as L4D‘s Boomers and Tanks, these gnarly-looking zombies do look menacing and offer up some great challenges. The multiplayer mode itself has two teams squaring off to see who can survive the longest as they alternate between humans and zombies as a PUBG-style circle closes in and restricts the movement of the humans. It’s a fun diversion, even if the campaign is a far more rewarding experience.
Back 4 Blood does have some glowing weak spots, however. First off, the artificial intelligence for bot companions is awful. Expect would-be zombie slayers to get hung up on walls, cornered by the undead, and have a 50/50 chance of actually helping a downed partner. So if you’re not playing with a group of four full players, you’ll have to keep in mind that the A.I. is largely helpless and bring along some extra defibrillators to revive a fallen robotic ally.
Additionally, the playable characters don’t seem nearly as fun or memorable as the casts in Left 4 Dead and its sequel despite having quite a few lengthy cutscenes. There’s not as much fun banter between the characters and their personalities don’t get all that much time to shine during gameplay itself. This could be due to the short levels being all (zombie) killer and no filler that lead to less downtime for talking, but getting attached to this cast is harder than warming up to Coach, Louis, and Zoey in L4D.
While Back 4 Blood‘s characters and special infected aren’t quite as memorable just yet, that might just be something that develops over time. After all, this is a game designed to be played over and over again with friends and it’s impossible to have that long-term experience by now. What matters the most is that Turtle Rock has nailed the gameplay and surrounding replayable elements like the card system. These new changes are net positives for this style of game, even if longtime fans will need to adjust their expectations a bit to fully appreciate them.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8 equates to “Great.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the game succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.
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