Turtle Rock studios heads back to the co-op zombie shooter well with Back 4 Blood, and while it sometimes struggles to bottle that Left 4 Dead lightning, there’s enough here to enjoy now, and offers hope for its future.
Back 4 Blood’s story follows a bunch of battling survivors (Cleaners) who have been living in a broken world of dangerous, infected humans (The Ridden) for a while thanks to their immunity to the ‘Devil Worm’ that literally plagued most of the population, but things have been quiet lately, perhaps too quiet. The game begins at the quiet period’s very loud end, where a group of Cleaners is caught unawares by a sudden influx of Ridden. Forced to flee, the Cleaners must go on a long perilous journey through Ridden-infested spaces in an effort to find safety once more.
Players come in and play as one of these Cleaners in a squad of 4 (either A.I. partners or online friends and strangers), being led through gauntlet-like stages dressed up as cities, docks, swamps, and the like. Each Cleaner has their own particular set of skills, such as extra revives, revealing hazards, or boosts to gun accuracy. Understanding what your favorite (Mom) brings to the party will be of net benefit to the rest of your squad.
The Ridden come in many forms, from standard undead (the running kind) humanoids all the way up to grisly hulking towers of human tissue called Ogres. Sheer numbers of the standard Ridden are usually a big enough threat, but when you start throwing in the variants, true chaos begins.
There’s patterns to how they appear and are implemented, and these will be familiar to most. It’s usually escalating encounters culminating in a siege of some sort, a bit of relative quiet, then it all builds up again. The game obviously offers up a few tools to ensure this isn’t blindingly obvious and repetitive, but some of those tools can hinder as much as help how Back 4 Blood is viewed; one, in particular, is the game’s card system.
The hub base allows you to try out a variety of weaponry from barbed wire baseball bats to high-powered rifles too, so you can get a feel for what arsenal is best suited to your fiend-slaying capabilities. From here, you also access missions, and purchase the game’s interesting perk cards.
The perk cards allow players to set up a deck of power-ups, from better stamina to damage upgrades. You get to select one from your deck at every saferoom in a run. A few runs of a stage will give you a better understanding of what perk cards might work, in theory making your job a bit easier, but to counter that, the game will deal a corruption card, which usually offers a tasty reward for defeating, but ups the stakes in a variety of ways.
At present, it doesn’t quite feel like the risk/reward balance is quite there with these cards. The idea is obviously to gain replay value in seeking out newer and better perk cards to ease the strain of the corruption cards’ risks. Still, it relies on communication between players to be of any real benefit. Suppose a card requires you to fight a certain extra-tough Ridden, for example. In that case, it’s going to be a hell of a lot tougher if you’re lumped in with an A.I. team or indifferent strangers or vice-versa, you don’t want to tackle that problem, but your team does and you end up dragged into a fight you didn’t want.
On the one hand, the card system adds some strategic spice to primarily set in stone mission parameters for the campaign. It can make the less exciting parts of maps less of a repetitive slog on subsequent playthroughs, but on the other, it can make the game’s uneven difficulty spikes even higher and nullify enjoyment.
Yes, the bugbear of my time with Back 4 Blood’s Beta hasn’t really gone away in this version. Slightly less pronounced perhaps, but the game still often plods along casually for periods before unleashing far too much confusion and chaos at once. Given the game this is trying to build upon, seemingly random encounters make sense, but there needs to be a level of puppeteering behind the scenes to ensure its not a mess in play. At times, this chaos can be a pulsating thrill ride, but when it goes too far one way or the other, Back 4 Blood ends up almost unpleasant to play at times.
During the Beta, I also expressed concern over the threadbare scraps of story and the lack of weight in combat, but believed those were issues that would either be fixed or refined and defined in the context of the whole experience. The end result is an improvement in both departments, even if neither is entirely fulfilling.
Combat is best in its extremes. Taking out small groups of regular Ridden becomes almost rhythmic and satisfying. It’s largely riskless, but it works as a way of easing things before and after heavier encounters. This rhythmic nature is expanded further in the fairer, more balanced, instances of coming up against a horde of Ridden in their various forms. You have to time shots, reloads, and melee weapon swings whilst almost dancing around enclosed spaces. Anything in the middle upsets that rhythm to varying degrees, offering more uncertainty but also inconsistent pace. Despite my grievances with Back 4 Blood’s difficulty spikes, it actually benefits from setting the game’s difficulty options to a notch above what you might be comfortable with to maintain that rhythmic sweet spot.
Weapons themselves are punchier than they were in pre-release builds, notably the shotguns, and I love that there’s plenty of choice in what you wield, even when out in the field. Melee combat is great fun, smashing away at waves of Ridden all up close and personal. When things get nuts, you never feel vulnerable, just overwhelmed, and while that draws away a bit of the horror from situations, it does ratchet up the tension.
The story is decent overall, largely standard zombie apocalypse fare on the surface, but dialogue between characters and clues in the game world lend greater detail that I genuinely enjoyed discovering. Back 4 Blood will rarely give you a breather outside the safe rooms that connect levels, so often these details are fleeting in the initial runs, which understandably doesn’t showcase the story all that well to begin with. It’s buoyed by its likable cast of Cleaners who share pleasingly foul-mouthed banter along the way. Sure, none of it goes out of its way to be spectacular, shining examples of the horror game genre, but it does the job competently.
Disappointingly, solo play is a bit of a wash at present. Not only are A.I. teammates are no substitute for real players, you can’t make much in the way of progress either, with most of the good stuff gated behind online play. At the time of writing this, it appears Turtle Rock are looking to find a solution for it, so it may yet be a temporary, if unfortunate, misfire. Back 4 Blood is clearly a game designed for a squad of real people, but if there’s going to be a single-player option, it needs to align with the rest of it.
Multiplayer shenanigans are most probably why anyone’s coming to the game, so on that front it generally delivers. The PvP mode is horribly unbalanced at launch, and comes across as ‘content’ rather than a natural part of Back 4 Blood, but it is at least a separate thing. The campaign though? Well, co-op is exactly where those Left 4 Dead vibes buzz loudest. Having each others backs when the shit hits the fan is great, but strangers and friends alike can be double-crossing cowardly shits. Team-killing is almost as much of a threat as the Ridden, and the temptation to leave partners stranded while you lock yourself in the safe room is never too far away. You can’t account for the whimsy of others in cooperative play, and nowhere is that more evident than when you roll your eyes at yet another git decides to go running up to Back 4 Blood’s horde-inducing flocks of crows. It’s frustrating, it’s aggravating, it’s exactly what I like to see.
For all the grumbling and faults I might have with Back 4 Blood, it excels where it matters most, and ends up as a solidly entertaining zombie shooter. It could be better, and probably will be in time, but for now, if you fancy a decent new horror-led game to play with your friends, Back 4 Blood is worth a shot.
Back 4 Blood review code for Xbox Series X/S provided by the publisher.
Back 4 Blood is out now on Xbox One, Series X/S, Game Pass, PS4, PS5, and PC.