Left 4 Dead was one of those games that cast a new mould that many would copy and fewer still would truly improve on. The four-player co-op genre nowadays has people hunting down everything from ghosts to robots (the very excellent G.T.F.O. and Phasmophobia come to mind) but there will always be a special place in the heart of every gamer lucky enough to be there for L4D in its prime.
And now the original studio has returned with an updated spin on the formula they created. And it’s been quite a long hiatus. The last time I covered them it was for the disastrous roll-out of Evolve, which quickly went from alpha predator to top of the endangered species list shortly after launch.
A recap of what happened with Evolve is necessary for some of the points I’ll make later so let’s wind back the clocks a bit. The year is 2015. Turtle Rock is coming hot off of the success of Left 4 Dead (Valve produced a very successful sequel in L4D2) and that massive amount of goodwill puts their next game, a 1v4 PvP game about monster hunting, on the top of every gamer’s wishlist. Evolve would pit one player-controlled monster against four unique hunters for what on paper was to be a cat and mouse game in an outerspace Jurassic Park.
Despite the hype, the shiny visuals, and the studio’s good reputation, Evolve landed with a thud. Mechanics that heavily favored the monster led to massive balance issues. In many cases you could play an entire 20-minute match just chasing the monster around but never quite catching up to it. When enough time went by, the monster became unstoppable and would wipe your team nine times out of ten.
There also was quite a bit of controversy over DLC, with Turtle Rock offering a dizzying array of cosmetics and packs (44 of them at launch) that could add up to cost more than twice the price of the game at launch. They also put additional hunters and monsters behind a season pass paywall, much to the displeasure of players.
This was at a time when marketing DLC was a relatively new thing and they’d clearly gone too far without realizing. It just felt like the entire focus was on getting into gamer’s wallets, not delivering them the best possible experience. At the very least, for the benefit of everyone after them, they showed exactly the wrong way to do DLC.
Evolve launched February 10, 2015 and by the following summer it went free-to-play. Not unlike the dinosaurs, Evolve vanished into the sands of time and was forgotten. Servers for the game finally shut down in 2018. The lessons Turtle Rock must have had to take to heart would break a lesser studio, but besides Evolve’s obvious issues a ton of great art, music, and character design had gone into Evolve, it just wasn’t the big hit formula they thought it was.
They’d go on to be an early VR studio, developing games like Face Your Fears, The Well, and Journey of the Gods for Oculus and GearVR. But now, after seemingly leaving the world of co-op multiplayer behind, Turtle Rock is back and poised to give the world a taste of their old magic.
You see, Back 4 Blood, is a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead right down to its mechanics, saferooms, and style. Though it plays less like a Romero flick and more like a season of a good zombie TV show. There’s a sense that the campaigns aren’t just one-offs (the original even had movie style posters for each campaign and corny names like “Dead Air” and “Blood Harvest”) but more like an on-going struggle against a world rapidly falling apart.
The timing of Back 4 Blood couldn’t be better as everyone across the entire planet continues to live through a zombie-less zombie apocalypse thanks to the coronavirus. Politicians argue, lockdowns loom, and entire countries are being split over just what to do about a virus that doesn’t seem to be leaving anytime soon. Like any character in a zombie story there’s a grim feeling in the air that a long struggle is ahead as the undead won’t simply just fold themselves back up into their graves.
And Back 4 Blood leans into this but in a way that feels relatable, not exploitive. Some NPCs wear masks, characters swap conspiracy theories and jokes about hoarding toilet paper, one character, (my personal favorite) Hoffman, is even a doomsday prepper. Voiced by Scott David Menville (Otto Octavius in PlayStation’s Spider-Man), Hoffman can crack wise but can also deliver palpable pathos for the world that’s gone by. “I prepared for this my whole life and even I wasn’t ready,” he says at one point. It’s moments like these that were sadly absent from Left 4 Dead which much preferred the tongue-in-cheek to the profound.
But don’t worry, there’s more than enough action. L4D’s shooting was very much “spray and pray”, shotguns were a cool distraction but assault rifles were almost always the best choice. The improvements here are a good example of just how completely Turtle Rock has improved each aspect of their work on L4D. There is a huge arsenal of guns now when there used to be only a few. Along with a ton of upgrades, throwables, gadgets, and consumables, the developers have given a fantastic new toolkit to bring to bear when facing the undead.
They’ve also built out a system for unlockables, no doubt learning from their mistake with Evolve. Players will do “supply runs” as part of standard missions that will yield them credits they can use to purchase cosmetics, sprays, and new cards. The card system is a bit tricky to get a hang of at first but once mastered you’ll be able to boost your survivor with a bevy of cool perks.
Basically it works like this: you can hold up to 15 cards in your deck but can only play 7 at the beginning of a run. The cards you choose come up at random and you can select one of four from a draw to be your active perks for that run. It’s quite clever and involves a bit of strategy and experimentation, finding out which combination of cards works best for you.
Do you replace your standard punch with a combat knife? Will you focus on stamina, health, or offensive buffs? Even which character you choose matters as each will bring their own unique perk that the team will share. Hoffman, for instance, gives the whole team an extra 10 percent ammo capacity.
The choices run deep for just what kind of survivor you’re going to be. If you like melee weapons you’ll want to focus on perks that boost your use of those weapons. If you want to be the team medic, pick a character with health buffs and carry extra meds. If shooting is your thing, get a sniper rifle and pick off the infected as they run at you screaming.
Weapons feel incredibly well balanced and you can tell the difference weapon attachments make. Scopes and barrels give you extra range, silencers let you weed out ads stealthily, and big, beefy LMGs let you mow down zombies when things get heavy. L4D’s weapons were simple, like a pop song. Back 4 Blood’s, by comparison, are a symphony.
I especially appreciate the love they’ve shown semi-automatic rifles. These would not only be more common in a real zombie attack over SCARs and M416s, but they do a great job in mid to long range combat. Back 4 Blood’s maps vary from tight corridors and narrow forest paths to wide open streets and rolling fields. This makes it so if you want to play with an M-14, you can, when before the terrain nearly always dictated your weapons.
Weapons now also feel personal. What you get on a run you keep and upgrade throughout, either by buying weapon attachments at safehouses or finding them in the wild. Taking a basic gun and upgrading it gives you a real feeling of ownership and it was only when I truly felt I had to, did I switch out the upgraded ranch rifle I’d been toting for something a bit punchier.
Melee weapons however feel a bit imprecise. When I tried using them I ended up absorbing way too much damage. To be fair, melee weapons weren’t added until L4D2, which Turtle Rock didn’t work on, so it’s not accurate to call it a step backwards. Melee weapons in L4D2 were always the better choice over the pistol given they could cleave through whole crowds of zombies. Here the focus seems to be on characters that specialize in melee and the fact knives and bats don’t need reloading.
The maps play out very much like they did in Left 4 Dead, you’ll fight your way through the hordes, scavenging for supplies along the way, and triggering events to progress, usually calling down a horde as you dig in and defend. Contextually you’re not trying to escape, like in Left 4 Dead, you’re actually taking the fight to the undead for a change.
You see, you’re a cleaner, a volunteer soldier among the surviving humans. You live at a camp called Fort Hope (your hub for missions) and venture out to try and do your part to help humanity avoid becoming zombie calories. These zombies are called “ridden” as in “ridden with parasites” because just under their skin are about a billion parasitic worms. Chop off an arm or a leg and the stump will produce some grotesque flailing tendrils.
Though tons of familiar callbacks to Left 4 Dead are spread throughout the experience, Back 4 Blood manages to feel like it’s own game in many ways. A true evolution. You’ll feel exactly the same as you did in Left 4 Dead as you and your team scramble towards a safehouse door, a horde on your heels, but given the depth they’ve added here with decks, characters, and weapons, you’ll be getting that much more out of the experience.
There is however one thing that needs to get ironed out and that’s the versus mode. This was legendary in L4D with teams going 4v4 against each other, playing each map as survivors and special infected. There was a versus mode of sorts in the beta but it was just a horde mode where player-controlled special infected pretty much dunk on you immediately if your team isn’t on point.
Speaking to that for a moment, and this will probably be a controversial opinion, but I don’t think you should be allowed to play if you’re not using a microphone. This is a game that’s best enjoyed using a high level of communication and more or less demands it in order to win.
This isn't a Call of Duty deathmatch where you can just kick back and not talk to anyone. If you’re a no-miker you have no business ruining the experience for other players. Thankfully, you can turn crossplay off if you don’t want to mingle with the console masses which I found more often than not were quieter than a troop of mimes.
I don’t regret the $60 I spent to pre-purchase Back 4 Blood and I can see it taking up a lot of my time when it finally releases on October 12th. A public beta is slated for August 12-16 so if you missed the private beta mark your calendars now to get a taste of the action.
Back 4 Blood is setting itself up to be a seasonal game with content drops like new characters, special infected, and rewards to grind for. It’s a games-as-a-service model applied to Left 4 Dead with a ton of polish and just the right amount of depth. To boot the world looks and feels appropriately zombied-out and the characters are all well written and voiced.
Back 4 Blood is shaping up to be one hell of a bloody good time.
Alexander Eriksen | Gamepressure.com