I don’t need to sell you on the brilliance of Left 4 Dead, especially when half the industry seems to be drawing inspiration from it right now. But after two hours with Back 4 Blood‘s verses and campaign modes, does it have the same genre-defining charm? That’s hard to say.
Back 4 Blood is made by Turtle Rock Studios, a company that largely defined itself through its success with the original Left 4 Dead and its sequel. So it’s no surprise that Turtle Rock — after a half-decade dalliance with VR projects and the unsuccessful Evolve — is back in the zombie horde genre they know and love.
Let’s get the common traits out of the way. The trash infected (read: zombies) will typically go down in a single hit, with the more specialised foes — which are also playable in the multiplayer mode — absorbing substantially more bullets. Back 4 Blood incorporates a whole suite of stats and attachments for each gun, ranging from handling, mobility, accuracy, range and firepower. It felt a fraction unnecessary: a bit of aim, coordination and common sense are really all that’s needed to not get overwhelmed.
The Ridden are split into four “families,” or at least that’s what is accessible so far: Stingers, Reekers, Tallboys and Common foes. Stingers are your ranged attackers that stick to walls, leaping to awkward angles and firing weak projectiles to buy time for weaker zombies to close the gap. Reekers are basically the Chargers and Tanks from Left 4 Dead, while the Common are the trash mobs, the characters you play when all the other choices are taken.
Each class has three choices. In the Stinger family, for instance, you can play as a Hocker, Stalker or Stinger, each with slightly different playstyles. Players can also spend mutation points on offensive, defensive or supportive upgrades for each class.
These could be bonuses like improved damage while hanging on a wall, a reduction in movement penalties under certain conditions, or flat health upgrades. The Common class also gets really interesting after a bit of investment: its upgrades are based on horde, power and evolution, improving not only their attacks but more useful common zombies.
Fundamentally, however, there wasn’t enough time to fully explore any advanced strategies. The structure of our preview session — not helped by a delay at the start with matchmaking — meant we only had time for a single PvP game. The first of the three rounds was largely awash as people got to grips with the map, the spawns, how the Ridden’s controls work, trying to quickly understand what cards do what, and then a frantic search for slightly better weapons.
The card system is the first thing that really stands out in Back 4 Blood. When you pick a character, you’ll also be given the option to choose a deck of aggressive, defensive and supporting powers. All of these offer various boosts — small, but not insignificant amounts — to various actions like shooting, healing, stamina regeneration, and so on.
The first four default decks are tuned to obvious roles: Medic, Soldier, Squad Leader (team-wide buffs, basically) and Operator. Those names are just symbolic, though, as all cards come from one of four classes: offence, defence, mobility and utility.
People will naturally make their own custom decks pretty quickly. You can equip, for instance, a card that gives you 10 per cent faster movement speed, reload and weapon swap speed for 30 seconds whenever you use pain meds. Or a team-wide 10 per cent boost to stamina. Offensive cards include one that boosts your damage the longer you aim down the sights. There are flat buffs to accuracy, stamina regen, healing efficiency, and a doubling to explosive damage and resistance.
More than 60 cards are equippable. But the real trick is in how they’re deployed. When you start a match, you immediately draw and activate the first card — and in between rounds, you’ll get to equip and activate three cards from your deck, randomly drawn from a set of 5. Your deck is only a maximum of 15 cards, so getting the draws you want, statistically, is pretty good. Each character will have their own unique card that comes into play too: Holly, for instance, boosts the team’s stamina, can take more hits and regains health every time she kills a Ridden.
While it’s hard to really evaluate the multiplayer from such a short playthrough, it was enough to give a taste of how the cards could influence gameplay. Cards are used in the PvE campaign as well, although your decks don’t carry over. It’s also where the game tries to dynamically add its own touch, progressively adding “corruption” cards.
But in the first few levels I played — about half of the entirety of the first act — the corruption deck didn’t really try to rebalance the scales for the horde. Instead, it offered a series of dynamic challenges, like an extra 500 copper if the team completed the mission without raising any alarms.
I was hoping the corruption deck would be a little more aggressive, if only to highlight just how dynamic a modern Left 4 Dead director could be. The amount of forethought into managing the game’s pace, and the amount of threat facing the players at any given time.
But the early Back 4 Blood campaign missions — probably guided by the fact that they are the first missions — didn’t have that same foreboding aura. Instead, more of my time was occupied with the game’s systems: scouring the map for copper to unlock upgrades on the next map, looking for higher tiers of shotguns, pistols, assault rifles and such, and trying to one-shot as many Ridden as possible so it’d show I’d done the most damage on the scoreboard at the end.
What I wasn’t doing was worrying about communicating with teammates or coordinating holds in certain chokepoints. Progress never felt difficult. There was one mission involving a cruise ship that involved a restart, but that was down to human error navigating the map rather than any threat from the horde. Even the rise of the Ogre, the enormous boss-like creature teased in Back 4 Blood‘s early trailers, offered little resistance. One member of the group took a few hits, but nobody was ever really threatened.
That’s not really the experience I remember from Left 4 Dead. But it’s also supremely early days. Three, four, five maps just aren’t enough to judge the number of interlocking systems at play here. It’s also not the same experience playing with strangers as it would be playing with friends. (seven in the morning also isn’t the most conducive time for top-notch communication, but living in Australia, you take what preview windows you can get.)
The maps are large enough that you’d certainly have plenty of downtime with mates. Not downtime in the traditional sense that you’re not shooting zombies — Back 4 Blood will always throw some Ridden your way to keep you mechanically engaged.
But the waves, even the largest hordes that triggered on major mission objectives, always felt completely manageable. I was never ruing for one second that it was early in the morning, that people weren’t talking or that we needed a particular strategy to deal with a certain area. You ran forward, cleared the path in front, shot anything that spawned behind you, and carried on.
It was target practice, not survival.
Later maps started to introduce more interesting objectives that at hinted at what Back 4 Blood might throw at players. You also get a small snippet of story when each map begins, told through ambient voice lines instead of more interruptive cut scenes. The lore all seemed wedged at the start of the story, though. None of the characters seemed to banter much in-between levels, not unless there was a bit of friendly fire or the occasional quip tied to an in-game action like reloading, firing, and so on.
What my two hours with the game left me with was a lot of questions. There’s a lot of potential and directions for all of the interlocking systems to go. Corruption cards could obviously become more severe, directly impacting the players instead of putting the onus on them to challenge themselves. The story and banter in the campaign mode will obviously deepen as the acts progress, and there’s no technical reason why some of those levels can’t and won’t be heavier on the dialogue. The PvP element, naturally, will be transformed when organised groups start getting accustomed to the maps and some shred of a meta forms.
Also, and crucially for a lot of people, the gunplay is really good. That’s not really a surprise if you consider Turtle Rock’s history: apart from their work on Left 4 Dead and Evolve, the studio first cut their teeth on Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and Counter-Strike: Source. Back 4 Blood‘s guns don’t have CS‘s notoriously heavy recoil, of course, but the studio knows how to make guns shoot, sound and feel satisfying.
The beta’s performance was solid too, and supporting DLSS out of the gate meant my system had no issues running smoothly at 4K. I don’t usually look to zombie shooters for their visuals, but it’s a pretty clean-looking game. It doesn’t lean into, say, fog or volumetric lighting — Back 4 Blood isn’t really a horror game, after all. It’s an action shooter with zombies. The priority is visibility and visibility at long distances, but even in close-quarter scenarios, everything looks pretty good.
I’m keen to spend more time with Back 4 Blood, if only so I can answer to one nagging question: can Back 4 Blood recapture the same magic that Left 4 Dead had?
I’m no closer to answering that question after two hours of gameplay. If pressed at gunpoint, I’d tell you Back 4 Blood was simply fine. But while fine might have worked a couple of years ago when the market wasn’t so co-op friendly, Back 4 Blood doesn’t have that luxury. A lot of co-op centric shooters, zombified or not, are just around the corner. And if Back 4 Blood wants to stand out, fine isn’t enough.