In my preview for Back 4 Blood I predicted the final build would tighten things up and deliver a redux of the outstanding 4v4 PvP experience that Left 4 Dead was. I’m sad to report that hasn’t materialized… yet. But much of what I wrote in my preview held true for the full release. Back 4 Blood is a tightly-designed and thoroughly enjoyable shooter that borders on being just a tad too casual at launch but still has incredible potential.
- Solid gunplay
- Killing zombies feels great
- Lots of weapons, environments, mission variety
- Card system and RPG elements are fantastic
- PvP is a massive disappointment
- Difficulty needs rebalancing
- No single player progression
- Lots of guns at the shooting range, not enough in the campaign
The developers at Turtle Rock Studios no doubt had a pile of leftover ideas from Left 4 Dead and it shows. Compared side by side, there’s just more of everything: more enemy types, more environments, more characters, more guns, more customization – literally everything. There’s even more of a story, though the game keeps things light lore-wise.
You play as a “cleaner” – survivors immune to infection from the parasitic worms that have triggered the apocalypse. While they don’t get into the particulars – like how you’re immune, where the worms came from, or how fast society melted down – there’s still more here than we got with Left 4 Dead which was basically “uh oh, there are zombies now.”
Your team of cleaners embark on missions from Fort Hope, one of the few remaining bastions of humanity, against “the ridden” (i.e. zombies). The campaigns have simple but varied objectives spread out across four acts with each act broken down into episodes. It’s definitely a lot better than just playing out the same escape scenario over and over. With Left 4 Dead, you were only ever out to save your own skin; now you’re trying to save the world.
World after a storm
B4B is also a game for its time. The characters could easily be talking about coronavirus when they theorize about the origins of the zombie plague. There are signs plastered on walls reminding you to wear a mask and wash your hands. It’s all handled in a way that feels relevant and at the same time not heavy-handed.
Who hasn’t complained lately that celebrities are globetrotting and eating indoors while us, the working stiffs, can’t even use a post office without a hazmat suit? When the survivors muse that the rich and powerful are probably nice and safe somewhere in a bunker, waiting for the apocalypse to blow over, it can hit home in a surprisingly real way. Big corporations are thriving in a locked-down world, while many, many small businesses have been wiped out, never to return.
The tone and plot fit the game’s world well. In a zombie apocalypse, of course, there would be something like “undead commandos,” who specialize in traversing the zombie-infested wastes. It’s equally nice to get a hub world where you can hit the shooting range, unlock upgrades, and customize your deck of perk cards.
Zombie combat and other systems
The cards system is perhaps the biggest and best addition to the four-player zombie slay-a-thon formula. You’ll build a deck of cards that give you certain buffs or abilities that will help you endure the game’s more challenging levels and difficulties. You can swap your melee for a hunting knife, slap on some body armor for better protection, or carry more ammo at the cost of stamina.
The system is easy to use but difficult to master and adds a welcome element of pursuit to the game. Without it, you’d have a fine time mowing down zombie hordes and then shelf the game after about twenty hours. With the cards system, however, there’s an almost RPG-like element to the experience where you can build up your cleaner into an ultra-efficient, zombie-slaying machine.
This feels especially satisfying when it comes to weapons. In Left 4 Dead, the guns weren’t much more than bullet dispensers. The substantial armory in B4B completely changes that and brings a much-needed depth to the gunplay. Choosing from snipers, assault rifles, to shotguns and melee weapons gives the player an incredible amount of choice when it comes to playstyle, and every approach feels viable. SMGs are great for close quarters, semi-auto snipers with silencers make for head-popping, long-distance shooting, and LMGs and ARs bring the lead when you need a bunch of ridden dead.
The fact that they didn’t just make the assault rifle the best weapon and call it a day speaks volumes for the quality of the game and the vision behind it. The developers did something truly remarkable – they made shooting zombies feel great again. Compared to the spray-and-pray style of L4D’s shooting and that game’s limited arsenal, there isn’t much of a comparison, truly. B4B is just so much better in every way you could imagine.
Melee weapons deserve a shout-out, as in the beta they felt like a liability as you’d take more damage using them than you’d dish out. This has fortunately been fixed and going with one of the melee-oriented characters (with cards to support them) feels and plays great. It’s a simple thing, but you’ll need to master the timing of your swings to crack some zombie heads. Once you get the hang of it, it feels like a really satisfying (and addicting) game of whack-a-mole.
Each cleaner comes with their own perks to match their character. The soldier’s better at shooting, the prepper has deeper pockets for ammo, and you can probably guess what the doc does. Choosing a mix of characters just adds a nice, optional layer of strategy to your cleaner team while not relegating players to the generic tank, healer, ranged setup.
B4B has so much potential and if it does end up getting the classic versus mode so many L4D fans want so badly then it will end up being a near-perfect game. For the time being, it’s a solid bit of zombie slaying fun that’s a cut above some of the other undead shooting gallery games out there.
It’s also worth mentioning the characters are all likeable and well-voiced. Each one has a unique personality and backstory, and you genuinely feel like this group of strangers became something like a family at the end of the world. They also have great, unique dialogue depending on which characters are in the group. It’s a nice touch, but it really makes it feel like they all have a unique history and report with each other.
Graphically, the game looks great. The environments are varied, the creature design is sufficiently creepy, and the look and feel of the world is all on-point. It also runs like a charm at launch, which is a rare thing these days. Other than having one or two matchmaking issues I had zero connection problems and zero graphical bugs.
So, with so much going right, something is bound to be wrong. While I don’t have a crystal ball, I can sense Turtle Rock came to a crossroads in development when it came to PvP. Ultimately, it seems, they chose to focus on making a rock-solid PvE game – which is all fine – but given that L4D was a damn near perfect PvP experience, it’s very sad to see them not nail both. The game certainly has room for both in it, so the stumble here is particularly disheartening.
There is a PvP mode, but it feels more like a bad prototype that should have been scrapped – I honestly have no idea how this mode made it into the final game. “Swarm” has you facing off as cleaners and infected, switching off between rounds rather than have you duke it out across campaign missions a la L4D.
This, unfortunately, doesn’t work – at all – and actively drags down my final score by two full points. Maps are tiny, there’s no strategy to the game, and infected always win. The fact that there isn’t a card system for the special infected is an even greater mystery as it’s practically begging to be implemented there. B4B in its current state is a 7/10. But it easily could have been a 9/10, which is a huge shame for anyone who loved L4D’s PvP and was hoping to see it not just return, but break out to a whole new level.
There’s also the issue of single-player progression – you just simply can’t do it. If you play solo, experiencing the campaign is the only thrust. Difficulty also needs some balancing as going from recruit to veteran is way too hard in its current form. There’s also a bit of a mystery as to why there’s something like 40 different guns, but you only ever come across a handful of the same ones. You also can’t choose your loadout and start completely from scratch on each run.
It would make sense to allow people who’ve beaten the campaign and tried all the different weapons to let them choose which guns they want, but maybe that’s just an improvement waiting for us in an update. It’s hard to be definitive when reviewing a game these days – the devs can always just drop an update that totally changes the experience.
And that is my hope for what’s to come. B4B has so much potential and if it does end up getting the classic versus mode so many L4D fans want so badly then it will end up being a near-perfect game. For the time being, it’s a solid bit of zombie slaying fun that’s a cut above some of the other undead shooting gallery games out there. I just hope Turtle Rock gets the message and brings classic versus mode back from the grave, because the current incarnation of PvP is dead on arrival.
Our reviews are featured on Metacritic.
Alexander Eriksen | Gamepressure.com