When putting both zombie and co-op in the sentence, everyone’s first thought is Left 4 Dead. It’s just a given at this point. And trust me, as a diehard fan of the series, that status is plenty warranted. I can’t even count the number of hours I’ve put into the series, and don’t even get me started on the fan-made custom maps (shoutout to my fellow Diescraper fans). As such, when word came to me of a new co-op zombie shooter, from the team that birthed the phenomenal franchise, I was ecstatic to see what the team had in store for this spiritual successor. But does Back 4 Blood provide truly epic levels of undead slaughter? Find out in my impressions of the open beta for Back 4 Blood!
Zombie Slaughtering With a Hint of Roguelike…?
Back 4 Blood, at its very core, feels much like what Left 4 Dead was. From the gameplay structure, open-ended level design, and random weapon pickups, Turtle Rock Studios has ensured that some of the mainstays of the series were replicated. While there were successful imitations though, the team changed much of the core gameplay loop as well. Starting with by far the strongest aspect is the brand new card system. Simply put, you can choose from a myriad of cards (both unlocked by default or purchased with in-game currency) which can provide you with various stat boosts. Then, once you get into a match, you can choose a card from a selection of five, randomly taken from your deck, to use for future maps.
Many of these stat boosts are basic, such as 10% increased stamina, or 10% ammo capacity, but all provide a unique aspect of choice in-game. Whether you feel you’ll need an extra life going into the next map, additional health to prevent said downs, or additional ammo to make the zombie slaughter-fest that bit easier, each round presents plenty of choices alongside your standard fare. The weapons see this sort of treatment as well, with random attachments from magazines, scopes, stocks, and barrels. You’ll rarely use the same weapon on two runs, and even rarer to see them with the same attachments.
With all these new aspects to be concerned about, Back 4 Blood doesn’t shy away from improving upon what Left 4 Dead did well. Most noticeably in gunplay, with each weapon feeling much more weighty than it once did. This results in a lot more satisfaction, as each blast of an Exploder (Back 4 Blood’s rendition of the Boomer) feels more earned than you’d expect. While some areas have drastically improved though, I wish I could say the same about many others. As an example, recoil on weapons is non-existent for much of the weapon roster, with the Compensator attachment nearly negating this effect entirely. On paper, you might think that sounds like a positive, but anyone who knows what recoil changes about a game know that takes a large amount of skill out of firing your gun. I shouldn’t be able to spray a Vector SMG and barely flinch. Mind you, recoil wasn’t a huge problem in Left 4 Dead to begin with, but with many years since the original, that fails to excuse its negligible impact.
The same sort of thing can be said for the refreshed movement system, which provides its own host of improvements and noticeable negatives. Sprint is based entirely around a stamina bar now, which can be improved with the aforementioned cards. While you’re increasing it though, you have to consider how you use it. As the moment it runs out, you’re as good as did. My issue doesn’t so much lie in the amount you’re given though, but rather how many actions use it. Everything from running, vaulting, jumping, and swinging your melee weapon uses stamina, so you find yourself wrestling with it more often than not. If you have experience in Left 4 Dead, then this complicated system will seem rather jarring. And those that don’t likely will feel very frustrated.
With every aspect put together though, Back 4 Blood feels much more like Turtle Rock’s attempt to turn Left 4 Dead into some sort of co-op zombie roguelike. Now on paper that may seem like an interesting idea, but in practice, it’s uniquely frustrating. It’s a game where you have to consider a lot when proceeding, and one wrong move can quickly lead to your downfall, only for you to have to restart the level. I played through the entire game on Veteran (the second of three difficulties) and I could easily say a third of my playtime was dedicated just to completing the level Abandoned.
Repeating levels in this style of game simply isn’t fun, and the payoff for finally doing so isn’t rewarding. The card system plays into this and, while I consider that a great system, it can’t hold the rest of these systems on its shoulders. What results is a game that’s arguably suffering from an identity crisis. It wants to recapture what made Left 4 Dead special while attempting a roguelike spin on the whole concept. What results are two systems that are good at best, but far from great. And good really isn’t good enough.
And since fans of Left 4 Dead would kill me had I not mentioned this, Back 4 Blood’s Versus mode is far from what’s expected of a title of its caliber. Ditching the prospect of Versus Campaign in favor of Versus Survival, the “fresh” mode appears to ignore what made the original games great. Gone is the need for strategic thinking and coordinated attacks, when you can instead run in as an Exploder, feeling virtually no punishment for doing so. It becomes a war of attrition more than a war of skill, and thus turns the mode into more of a gimmick than an endlessly replayable venture. I understand the prospect of wanting something unique rather than copy-pasted, but you need that unique idea to be fine-tuned and replayable fun if it’s to have any staying power.
Don’t get me wrong, there is quite a bit of merit to what Back 4 Blood is trying to do. Where it gets gameplay right is certainly felt, with a deeply satisfying roster of weapons, breadth of (sometimes random) challenges to overcome, and enemy variety that forces you to think before you act. Even excluding the usual beta issues though, it feels Back 4 Blood’s gameplay requires some serious overhauls if it’s to be considered among the best. In its current state, I fear it’ll just be pushed to the wayside, to be loved by few but forgotten by many. And with my near 15 hours in the beta overshadowed by a feeling of repetitiveness, that only holds more truth to it.
Beauty in Gore
For what it’s worth, Back 4 Blood’s audio/visual suite is fantastic for what it is. While the majority of the time is spent covered in guts and gore galore, landscapes really play into the game’s beauty by offering stunning vistas, rivers, ruined buildings, and much more. A diverse set of locations highlight the true beauty of the game’s engine, something the team’s previous title Evolve arguably failed to do (among a lot of other things). Even the character and weapon models hold a lot of detail, feeling distinct from one another. Some enemy designs could use some tuning (I honestly can barely see the difference between an Exploder and a Retch), but where it gets things right stands out much further. It all serves to sell that setting of a desolate world, and damn does it sell it well.
The audio offers an even better setup, thanks to some solid tunes (albeit not excellent) and crisp weapon sounds. Back 4 Blood doesn’t pull any punches, as weapons such as the Desert Eagle and Magnum sound as though they hit like trucks. A personal favorite of mine is the RPK which with its low rate of fire, packs a heavy punch with each consistent shot. That and, well, the damage is quite solid. Back 4 Blood even offers an extensive level of character banter, something that so many Left 4 Dead clones seem to get wrong. Sure, it’s cringe-worthy at times, but some good one-liners even gave me a good laugh here and there. I genuinely hope it’s replicated with other characters since it’s one of its strong suits.
To top it all off, Back 4 Blood provides players with plenty of options to tweak the game, from your standard performance fare to some welcome accessibility options. I have a fairly solid graphics card combined with a 4th-gen CPU (yeah I know, an upgrade is desperately in order), yet I find myself running at a solid 60FPS, even in some of the more densely packed areas. One could argue there’s the potential for more to tweak, but I feel with the way it is now, that’s not necessary. What is necessary, and is nice to see though, is options such as text to speech and colorblind options. Am I personally going to use text to speech for anything more than a few laughs hearing that robotic voice? No, but having that opens the door for the visually impaired (and the hearing impaired with speech to text) to be able to enjoy what they can from the experience.
I struggle to know exactly how I feel about Back 4 Blood. Being from Turtle Rock Studios, a good chunk of Left 4 Dead’s strongest aspects are preserved, or even improved upon. While some areas have been improved though, there’s so much I wrestled with in my time with it. From its movement being much too restrictive, half-baked roguelike ideas, and abysmal Versus mode, I can’t help but fear there’s a long road before Back 4 Blood can be considered among some of the best. In its current state, it’s definitely good, but Back 4 Blood is far from being the great game you’d expect from the ones that launched it all. In today’s market, that simply isn’t enough.