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February 2023

Back 4 Blood

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Turtle Rock
Release Date: Oct. 12, 2021


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PC Review - 'Back 4 Blood'

by Cody Medellin on Oct. 12, 2021 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Back 4 Blood is a co-operative FPS designed from the ground-up as an original, premium title and marries the best of what made Left 4 Dead so successful, with new features and state-of-the-art technology.

Buy Back 4 Blood

The duo of Left 4 Dead games has left quite an impression on the gaming landscape, so much so that there are several titles that have tried to emulate its success with their own spin. World War Z applied a well-known license while letting you travel to different locales. Earthfall had you battling aliens on Earth while, GTFO made you do the same in space. Warhammer: Vermintide changed the enemy to giant ratmen and went with a medieval fantasy setting. There's still some magic in the original series, as evidenced by people who are still playing Left 4 Dead 2 more than a decade later. After taking a break from zombies with Evolve, the team behind the original title returns to the undead with what can be regarded as the spiritual sequel to the series in Back 4 Blood.

Like many games of this type, there's less of a story and more of a setup. The world has fallen to parasites that have taken over human bodies. With society in shambles, you and your small crew are using guerrilla warfare tactics to fight the zombies and protect the few remaining human settlements. The names may have changed, with the zombies now being referred to as the Ridden and the survivors being a loosely trained group known as Cleaners, but that's all you need to know. Like its predecessors, Back 4 Blood produces some lore through radio broadcasts, safehouse graffiti, and even the appearance of a stray person or two, so the world doesn't feel that devoid of life.

The core mechanics should be very familiar to those who have played these types of games. When playing in the online campaign, you gather a party of four players in any configuration of humans and bots, and you fight through the zombie hordes to reach the next safehouse. Your characters can carry up to two guns at a time and throwable weapons, and they can carry one healing item. You have a limited amount of ammo per gun, but going completely defenseless is rare since ammo is plentiful in the environment and you can at least punch a Ridden.

Aside from the normal Ridden, which is only dangerous when they gather in groups, there are special ones, such as hulking brutes with powerful one-armed smashes, ones that explode when they die, spitters that can leap great distances, and towering behemoths. There are a few new ones, like the more powerful Ridden that emerges from the walls, but expect the bulk of them to be familiar when compared to the title's inspiration. All of this is wrapped around a system that can be considered a bit roguelite, as the level layouts and objectives may be static, but item content and Ridden makeup vary every time you run through the stages.

The core gameplay loop may be familiar, but there are plenty of changes that make the game feel like an evolution to the formula. For starters, your heroes have buffs instead of acting like interchangeable skins. Select Hoffman, for example, and not only do you get ammo to spawn in for every kill, but you also give the team a 10% boost in ammo capacity. Have Mom on the squad, and not only does everyone have an extra revive in their back pocket, but she can also get that revive going instantly. It's akin to a class system, which adds some depth to the zombie shooter.

The levels are also different in that they're not all sprints to the safehouse. You have a few stages where you may need to take a stand and hold off an invasion. Others have you killing a giant Ridden or planting bombs for a giant explosion to keep Ridden at bay. One of the more infamous missions has you attracting a horde with a jukebox and keeping it on while refugees escape; this creates some awesome moments where real songs like "Tick Tick Boom" by The Hives plays alongside the carnage. You've seen some of this before, but what makes this stand out is how often it occurs.

The increase in objective variety is joined by an increase of special Ridden. You still have to worry about the regular Ridden — mobs of them can tear you apart — but the special ones show up much more frequently, so your team alerts you of their presence almost constantly. Even on the lowest difficulty level, it's common to see at least two different ones appear simultaneously or consecutively, making the stages seem more perilous. The special Ridden also have more tricks up their sleeves, such as cocooning you with slime or knocking you back several feet when they explode.

While you have a variety of standard guns with several different types in each category, attachments are a new addition. Barrels, scopes and stocks can provide a bunch of stat augments, along with a rarity assigned to each one. Like many modern shooters, the presence of stats makes this very RPG-like, but it means that you'll be reluctant to change out guns if you have the perfect setup, since the attachments don't transfer to different guns, even if they're the same type.

Currency is now a thing, as you'll find copper coins in abundance, and that becomes important since safehouses contain marketplace chests. As in titles like Counter-Strike, you can use coins at every safehouse to buy attachments, consumables (e.g., barricades, health packs), guns, and perks (e.g., increased ammo count, stamina). You can find many items in the safehouses and on the field, so this is more of a bonus rather than something game-changing, but it's still a welcome addition.

Governing all of this is a card system that isn't daunting, in case you're not a fan of cards. Before starting a campaign run, you select a deck of cards that contains several perks, such as increased health, better accuracy, or a knife that can deliver one-hit kills. Before each level, you can select some cards from the set, and the AI selects some cards of their own to thwart your progress. You choose after they do, so you can counter smaller weak points on larger Ridden with increased accuracy or increased Ridden speed with more stamina for your team. It adds strategy to the process, and even if you can't counter the enemy cards, at least you'll know what to expect.

Completing any of the levels gives you supply points, which is currency that can be spent in the fort. The currency can be spent on more cards for your deck, profile customization parts, skins for weapons, and different costume pieces. One drawback is that you spend the supply points on tracks of items, as opposed to specific items. It feels like the old Battle Pass method from Fortnite, but at least this prevents microtransactions from creeping in (for now).

In the end, the changes and tweaks to the formula don't interfere with what made the original duo of games so fun. Back 4 Blood is still a frantic chase to complete the objectives, with very little time to relax unless you're in a safehouse. Even then, the randomness and constant action is almost guaranteed to create moments that need to be shared due to miraculous saves or how you barely survived what felt like an inevitable demise. The new additions don't interfere greatly with the experience if you're used to the classic experience, but you can go to the classic mode to ensure that most of the new stuff doesn't show up. Either way, the experience is fun, and the online play is spotless, while cross-platform play ensures that a large player pool. The game only features four acts, but the first three are long enough that it feels like it has more levels than either of the Left 4 Dead entries. There's already a plan where only the hosts need to have the new DLC for everyone to play new levels.

If there is one complaint about the campaign, it would be the AI of your fellow Cleaners. They're pretty good about taking care of the Ridden hordes and the special ones. They won't place themselves in situations where they'll get knocked down in an instant, and they're good about healing teammates at appropriate times. They'll even do a good job of judging whether someone needs a revival, and they'll never get lost when you need to run somewhere important. However, they never help you in completing objectives. The ferry mission is a good example, as you need to take two explosive charges to the downed ferry's fuel tanks and get away before they explode. You can carry one explosive at a time, so a proper multiplayer match will see each person go for an explosive and split up briefly to place the bombs or go to each site as a group to plant them. If you find yourself with nothing but bots, none of them will grab an explosive, leaving it to you to get one bomb, plant it, run back to grab another bomb, and run back to the ferry to plant it at the other site. It's frustrating, but at least you can take solace in knowing that they'll never break stealth or trigger alarms that cause hordes to appear.

The game has a PvP mode called Swarm, which plays a little differently than expected. Instead of being a direct PvP mode where it's a team of Cleaners versus a team of Ridden, you both take turns as Cleaners to see who can survive the longest against a team of player-controlled Ridden in a best-of-three scenario. Like the main campaign, cards can be used by Cleaners to tilt things their way, but the Ridden have some advantages in the form of environmental hazards that they're immune against. The matches don't take too long to finish, and you gain a small amount of supply points from public matches, making this more of a curiosity than something worthwhile.

For those who don't want to play with the possibility of anyone dropping in or out of the game, there is an offline mode. The difficulty is toned down to compensate for the lack of other human players and the increased presence of decent AI allies, but even on the lowest difficulty level, it won't be a cakewalk. You can unlock new starting points for the online campaign, but you can't unlock anything else while playing offline since you can't earn the supply points needed for that. Stats are also disabled, so you can't see how you did online versus offline. Achievement and Trophy hunters will also lament that you can't earn those offline, either. You get to create decks out of every card the game offers, so that's a consolation prize, but those hoping for split-screen like in both Left 4 Dead games for the Xbox 360 are out of luck. In short, offline mode serves as a practice mode for the campaign, minus infinite continues to make it feel like a practice mode.

Aside from the issues brought up in the solo campaign, there are only a few other hang-ups. It's nice that you have the fort as a fully explorable hub world, but it feels superfluous when you can handle those actions much quicker through a menu. Except for the target range, there's little reason for players to run around the fort. The text is another problem because it's too small to read. You can alter the size of the subtitles, and the menu text is very easy to read, but the more important stuff — card text, character perks, and weapon information — can't be adjusted, which seems like a massive oversight on a game with lots of other accessibility features. On the PC, there was an issue where a cut scene played without any audio before the whole game crashed to the desktop. While it didn't happen again after rebooting the game, it's something to watch out for.

As seen in the previous betas, the presentation is quite good. The backgrounds look nice, and even though you can see that some textures are pretty low-resolution when viewed up close, that seems to happen mostly with pictures in safehouses and other objects that people don't normally spend much time gazing at. The human models are good, albeit standard-looking for an Unreal Engine 4 game, while the Ridden are grotesque, especially when you blast one and see the parasites wiggling around. The animations add an extra layer of creepiness, but other animations (e.g., healing, planting objects on surfaces) haven't improved since the last decade, making the pantomiming unintentionally hilarious. The PC version can easily hit 60fps, especially with the inclusion of DLSS, but it's good to see that the Series X can do the same, which is a vast improvement over Left 4 Dead 2, which capped out on via backward compatibility at a very smooth 30fps.

For sound, the music beyond the licensed stuff maintains a solid level of dread throughout, with the crescendos saved for escapes to safe zones. The sound effects are just as loud and boisterous as expected, while the voices remain a highlight. Shooting someone by accident is funnier now that you get a response from your own character about it, but expect lots of other notices for every ammo cache and pickup.

Back 4 Blood is a fun blend of the classic Left 4 Dead template with a reasonable inclusion of modern traits. The basic zombie shooting brings forth just as many memorable and chaotic moments as the developer's original series, and the game absolutely sings in multiplayer, but the solo experience remains engaging for those who only get along with bots. The modern touches add some depth that doesn't detract from what makes this kind of game so fun in the first place. The steps to increase replayability accomplish that without feeling forced. Despite a few minor issues here and there, Back 4 Blood is a solid debut, and those who wanted some progress in the genre are going to find it in buckets here.

Score: 8.5/10

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