Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Format: PC (Played), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X & S
Releases: 12th of October, 2021
Time played: 4 hours, 37 minutes
Beta access key provided by Warner Bros.
Who else remembers the zombie video game craze, circa 2008 to 2012? I know I do! It all started with the release of Capcom’s 2006 survival horror zombie brawler: Dead Rising. This innovative title from the first year of the Xbox 360’s lifespan was creative, deeply interactive, had a silly yet compelling storyline, and above all else, was aimed at mature audiences with its excessively gory zombie slashing ways. Besides cult classic ‘Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse,’ nothing had quite come close to matching the layers of Dead Rising’s undead brutality. So, when the entire gaming industry finally witnessed the overt success of the game’s release, plenty of developers (both AAA and Indie teams alike) began tinkering away with their own takes on the subgenre.
By 2008, many of these undead-themed projects had finally finished development and were ready to be released, leading to five long years of none-stop zombie-killing experiences. Call of Duty: World at War’s secret Nazi Zombie mode took the gaming world by storm, whilst Plants vs. Zombies cornered the mobile gaming market. Gearbox Software released the first DLC for Borderlands, ‘The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned,’ to tremendous reviews. Then, a little under a year later, Rockstar San Diego released the Undead Nightmare standalone expansion for Red Dead Redemption. The gaming community even joined together in somber contemplation as we collectively teared up at this trailer for Techland’s Dead Island (trigger warning for animated blood, gore, zombies, and the tragic deaths of a family, including a child), though the full release wasn’t quite as emotional as the trailer had lead us to believe.
Ultimately, this gaming trend came to a close around 2012 with the releases of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Ubisoft Montpellier’s Wii U launch title: ZombiU… Many zombie games have come out since 2012 (The Last of Us, State of Decay, and How to Survive, to name a few), though they were released much less frequently from that moment onwards. By that point, global audiences had become rather tired of the oversaturated zombie media across those 5 prolonged years, and just about everybody had started voicing it. If you’ve ever wondered what a real zombie groan sounds like, picture the combined wails and whimpers of a million exhausted gamers, desperate for any new concept at all, as they viewed the unveiling of yet another ‘Early Access’ clone of DayZ; An unfortunately frequent occurrence within the years that followed this zombie game epidemic.
Now that I’ve had the opportunity to name-drop a dozen zombie game examples, let’s get to the point. Key amongst this long-winded set of releases was Turtle Rock Studio’s Left 4 Dead, a game released in collaboration with Valve in late 2008, towards the very beginning of this fiendish trend. Can you imagine that? A first-person shooter that let us face off against horde after horde of Infected, brought to us – in part – by the company that created Half-Life, one of the most successful games of all time! And on top of that, Left 4 Dead was a brutal game that we could play with or against our friends, that also had an element of randomization, leading to infinite potential for replayability! To say that the hype surrounding Left 4 Dead was intense would be to downplay the situation dramatically.
Left 4 Dead was a huge success, yet Valve felt that interactions between themselves and Turtle Rock Studios, (known as Valve South at the time), were being hindered greatly by the vast physical distance between the two companies. So Valve shut Turtle Rock Studios down, all whilst retaining the rights to the Left 4 Dead franchise, to make a direct sequel the following year.
Thankfully, Turtle Rock Studios restarted as an independent company in March of 2010 and continued to work closely with Valve on both Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the post-launch content for both Left 4 Dead and its sequel. They also developed an asymmetrical monster-hunting co-op game known as Evolve, though a large number of issues caused it to fail quite quickly, including but not limited to a dwindling player base and a large amount of controversy surrounding its microtransactions and season pass monetization.
Following the failure of Evolve, Turtle Rock Studios became relatively silent besides releasing a small number of VR games, but now they’re finally back for blood with… Back 4 Blood. Surprise, surprise: It’s a first-person shooter where you face off against horde after horde of “the Ridden”, (note: Zombies), which on the whole is extremely reminiscent and directly comparable to Left 4 Dead. It’s part love letter, part tribute, and part Turtle Rock Studios simply returning to what they know best. But, with all of this preamble finally out of the way, how does the game seem to fare? Does it live up to the dazzling highs of Left 4 Dead or does it fall to the crushing lows of Evolve? Let’s take a look, shall we?
The first thing to note is that Back 4 Blood exhibits several game modes that should be familiar to just about any Left 4 Dead fan. Having recently gotten hands-on with the game via a Beta build, I only managed to try out two of the game modes due to the build’s limitations, but rest assured that I’ve also done my research into the several other available methods of play. First up are the Campaign modes, which include both Solo and Multiplayer options, along with the ability to join a Quick Match.
Since this is first and foremost a cooperative game, the Multiplayer Campaign is Back 4 Blood’s primary focus, and thankfully, that’s a mode I got to experience within the Beta. It’s here that you select one of eight playable characters, (each sporting a different starting weapon, special ability, and three passive buffs), before playing through an act of the game’s campaign, either by starting from the beginning or by resuming at the last chapter you played in a previous run. Whilst setting this up you can also adjust your settings to create a private lobby with your friends, matchmake with other random players, or allow for drop-in/drop-out cooperative play. It’s all fairly basic stuff, really.
Back 4 Blood seems to have some great net code. The Multiplayer mode runs very smoothly with players joining and leaving without a single drop in performance; Plus, lag is pretty much non-existent, which is always key to this game style. Alongside this, matchmaking within the Beta was incredibly quick at all times, which is very reassuring for the full game’s quality when it releases this October. With that said: If the player base for the game dwindles too quickly then these modes won’t be of much use in the long run, as there’ll be so few people left to play with. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a game like this truly lives and dies by the quantity of its player base, so for now, we’ll have to hope that it doesn’t meet the same fate as Evolve.
Moving on, Quick Play is a fairly simple model to explain. As you’d expect: Selecting this option from the main menu will drop you straight into somebody else’s currently ongoing playthrough, provided their privacy settings allow for it. The Solo Campaign is just as straightforward to explain, as it functions exactly like the Multiplayer component but with AI partners rather than online teammates. It’s safe to assume that this will play smoothly in the full release, given that I did get the opportunity to play two chapters of the game exclusively with AI partners, and they still seemed to be highly intelligent and useful, even when compared to their human counterparts.
Last is Versus mode, a PvP option that pits a team of 4 survivors against 4 special infected in a fight to the death. These matches are a little unusual compared to the other game modes, given that they don’t play out within the standard campaign maps. They instead opt for self-contained miniature arenas where the survivors attempt to hold off the Ridden for as long as they possibly can before swapping with the enemy team to compete for the best time.
Whilst Versus mode makes for a very entertaining change of pace (doubly so given just how fun it is to play as a special infected in Back 4 Blood), I can’t help but feel that this mode loses some of the charm found within Left 4 Dead’s counterpart. In the Versus Campaign mode found in Left 4 Dead: Playing out a whole campaign, knowing that you’re being stalked by powerful enemy players was legitimately rather terrifying at times. It created a lot of tension as you tried to survive from start to finish whilst remaining as unscathed as possible.
At the same time, it was very thrilling to play as a special infected and utilize strategy and timing to take down a crew of blissfully unaware humans. But that thrill and tension are nowhere to be found within this small, combat-oriented mode of Back 4 Blood. There’s something about knowing that you’re destined to die and swap sides each match that honestly feels just a little bit lackluster by comparison. It causes Versus mode to feel like it’s missing a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi,’ so to speak, regardless of how entertaining the mode itself can be.
At long last, let’s get to the key part of these first impressions! In any of the available modes on offer, save for the self-contained Versus mode, you’ll be moving from safe house to safe house whilst slaying anything and everything that stands in your way. But how exactly does that feel? Well, I’m happy to say that the core gameplay is extremely satisfying, more often than not. You’ll be going up against dozens of zombies at almost any given moment in Back 4 Blood, and killing them feels intrinsically satisfying, regardless of whether you’re picking them off one by one at a distance with a sniper rifle or mowing down entire hordes with a light machine gun.
The weapons on offer here are vast and varied, consisting of at least 18 primary weapons, 9 side-arms, and 5 melee weapons, depending on whether or not this Beta build contained every weapon that the game has to offer. In other words: The full release may well contain an even bigger arsenal for you to utilize whilst laying waste to the living dead. Every single one of the primary weapons feels effective and gratifying, and although the side-arms may not pack much of a punch against the stronger special infected, they still manage to feel good to use and serve the helpful purpose of picking off stragglers when you’re low on ammunition.
Unfortunately, though, I can’t quite say the same thing when it comes to the game’s melee weapons. Whilst they certainly rival the side-arms in terms of damage, I must admit that they feel rather inconsequential at times. This is mostly because they never make much contact with your enemies due to their simplistic sweeping animations. Plus, the lack of any distinct giblets scattering from Ridden body parts also leaves much to be desired. They certainly don’t measure up to the impact found in Dying Light’s first-person melee weapons, that’s for sure.
Of course, the biggest draw to games like Left 4 Dead and Back 4 Blood is found within their replayability. Both games bolster a brilliant AI game director, which is a mechanic that randomizes the spawn points of enemies, weapons, and hazards each time you play a chapter, leading to the game feeling slightly different every time you load it up. It may not be as innovative as it was the first time around with Left 4 Dead, but it still leads to a wide array of unique scenarios.
Because of this: One run may find you creeping silently through an abandoned house, quietly dispatching individual zombies in the hopes of not alerting a horde outside. Meanwhile, in another run of the same chapter, you may find yourself sprinting through a building as quickly as you possibly can, with a horde and multiple special infected hot on your heels, only for your squad to run straight into a second horde as soon as you return to the street. It all lends the game a nice bit of tonal variety, weaving neatly between action and horror genres.
Having referenced the special infected a handful of times now, I feel it’s worth going into a bit more detail about them. These are a small selection of mutations to the standard infected types, which are much more powerful and armed with many unique skills to hinder your progress. First up are the Snitches, which can alert a horde to your location if you don’t take them down quickly enough. Secondly, there are the Retches, which will either spit acid in your direction (causing temporary blindness) or will explode upon death, causing a large amount of AoE damage.
Bruisers will also stand in your way, who can knock you and your fellow Cleaners back through the air, causing significant damage thanks to their gigantic tentacle-esque arms. Finally, last but not least are the Stingers, a variant that can drag you away from your teammates, pin you in place for continued damage, and leap through the air with some nasty slashing attacks by way of their four gnarled arms. It’s worth mentioning that the Beta also featured a distinct and formidable boss, but that feels like a significant enough encounter for me to keep under wraps, as a surprise for those of you who go on to play the full game… Suffice to say that each of these horrifying opponents does a good job of keeping the tension high, and the encounters varied.
But what does Back 4 Blood’s gameplay do to set itself aside from Left 4 Dead..? Honestly, not much… There’s a somewhat unique card system which we’ll get to in just a moment, but besides some neat (albeit fairly generic) mechanics for alerting hordes to your whereabouts (including but not limited to accidentally scaring groups of crows, activating car alarms, or opening doors that have alarms linked to them), there isn’t much unique to be found here. The special infected may be interesting, and the guns may feel superb, but I really didn’t find all that much that truly evolves upon the Left 4 Dead formulae.
Now we’ve arrived at what is the most worrisome aspect of Back 4 Blood… The Card System. It’s a new core component of the game that tries to give each run a little bit more variety than the last. From the get-go, you’ll be able to build varied decks of cards, which you can equip before playing in order to customize your character’s build in specific ways. These cards and their associated stats, however, won’t be equipped to your character immediately. Instead, you’ll be given a chance to play a single card every time you start a new chapter, throughout each of the 90 minute long acts; Gradually building your strength as a result. Every time a new card is played, each member of your squad will receive the benefits associated with it unless you play a character-specific card, which will only affect a single player.
The effects of these cards vary wildly but rarely have much creativity behind them. More often than not, the buffs they provide grant extremely minimal benefits, primarily in the form of stat changes rather than core gameplay variations. For example, most of the cards I encountered in the Beta consisted of 10% increases to basic mechanics like ammo capacity, maximum stamina bars, or the spawn rate of currency. Every now and again, you’ll find a card that makes more of a difference, such as your standard bash attack being replaced with a stronger stabbing attack through the use of a survival knife. Cards like these do seem to be quite the rarity, though, so I wouldn’t recommend going into Back 4 Blood with any significant rogue-like expectations.
One of the more entertaining aspects of this card system is that the AI Game Director also gets the opportunity to play a single “Corruption Card” or “Challenge Card” depending on your progression throughout the campaign. Respectively, these card variants either increase the difficulty of the campaign or give you more chances to gain currency. I found that the challenge cards added a lot to the experience by varying how your team must cooperate. Some of them may need you to rush through a level within a time limit, whilst others may require you to take a specimen container from one safe house to another in order to earn your reward. This system is immensely enjoyable and I hope to see far more variety in their full card collection at launch.
Yet, despite the enjoyment that has come from the card mechanic, all of this feels like cause for concern… The card system would be very easy to exploit via the introduction of microtransactions or unnecessary battle passes. In Beta, you acquired new cards for your decks by using a special currency to unlock more supply lines within the game’s hub area. These supply lines are presented in a familiar way for players of certain “Free to Play” multiplayer games, including but not limited to: Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Call of Duty: Warzone. Visually, they’re presented as a large menu screen with a long straight line that connects a number of nodes, each of which represents a new emblem, spray, or card that you can unlock by spending a specific in-game currency.
I know I shouldn’t leap to conclusions here, as it may well be that the full release features a large number of new cards without the looming threat of additional costs, but I can’t help feeling a little bit worried… There’s just something about the presentation of it all that feels wrong. It’s so damn familiar and feels incredibly suspicious, making me feel rather concerned about how future content releases may occur. Realistically, this is a game that costs a AAA price of £49.99 at launch, (or $59.99 in America), just for the standard edition!
So what if somebody goes ahead with this substantial purchase, only to find out that in order to remain equal with the multiplayer community, they’ll have to keep purchasing additional battle passes or microtransactions as time goes on? It just feels like such a sleazy and easily exploitable mechanic which has me rather on edge, and I’d be remiss if I avoided talking about it. Even if the potential microtransactions ended up being purely cosmetic and unrelated to the card system, I feel it would still be extremely inappropriate to include them in this full-price release. Yet this issue has occurred before in Turtle Rock Studio’s Evolve, which is causing enough for concern in and of itself.
Taking a step back from the depressingly exploitable supply line system, let’s take a look at Back 4 Blood’s visuals and the quality of their soundtrack accompaniment. From the time I spent within the Beta, the graphics appear to be very good with some great attention to detail, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a visually appealing game. The first act featured a plentiful supply of dreary apartment buildings, rain-drenched rooftops, grimy alleyways, and gritty streets. Alongside this, I got to explore some construction sites, an abandoned train yard, a dimly lit highway tunnel area, and some reasonably muddied farmlands…
Yet, besides one small set-piece of discovering a grounded ferry, I didn’t find any of Back 4 Blood’s visuals to be particularly striking. The game does look good; Perhaps not as detailed and immersive as some relatively recent titles like The Last of Us Part II or Returnal, but it is still well made. It just doesn’t feature anything that really stands out as of yet. I’m a firm believer of the idea that with a distinct enough style, even a game with low-resolution textures and underwhelming models can still look good because being eye-catching and unique is becoming more and more important in this era of consistently high graphical fidelity. But this doesn’t manage that; For all of its high-quality textures, models, and particle effects, there isn’t much to captivate the audience in terms of visuals. At the end of the day, it looks like a slightly higher fidelity version of Left 4 Dead, as is expected. It’s dark and gritty, but just a little bit generic…
On the soundtrack side of things, there’s really not much to say. The actual sound effects in the game are phenomenal thanks to the authenticity of each weapon’s audio design, along with the variety put into every horrifying screech that the Ridden produces, so you can color me impressed on that front. Music, however, is a bit of a scarcity throughout Back 4 Blood as it is only heard on occasion, amidst a horde’s attack or upon reaching a safe house. It certainly is nicely handled music that fits the tone of these intense or calming moments, but it isn’t particularly noticeable and is infrequent enough to be quite forgettable. Hopefully, a wide selection of new tracks will be present in the full release, but only time will tell on this topic.
Back 4 Blood is a lot of fun, based on my limited time trying out the Beta. It’s just as easy to drop in and play with your friends for a short session as it is to sink in a plentiful amount of solo time. Whether you’re wanting to play through the campaign or go up against others in its self-contained PvP mode: You’re likely to have a rollicking good time with enough replayability to keep coming back to the game. But, if you’ve played Left 4 Dead before, you may be disappointed by the lack of evolution in this title.
Besides the new card system, there really isn’t much to set Back 4 Blood apart from the titles that inspired it, with most of the core mechanics re-treading some well-worn ground in a number of ways. In addition: There doesn’t seem to be much here in terms of striking visual set-pieces, so if you’re only looking to do a single playthrough of the campaign then you may find the experience somewhat forgettable or lacking; An issue that isn’t helped by the game’s heavy emphasis on replayability.
You should also bear the aforementioned card system in mind due to its potential for microtransaction exploitation, and really consider whether the game will still be worth investing in if you have to pay even higher prices further down the line in order to keep up with potential content releases. You may end up rather disappointed otherwise, and that’s not exactly an ideal outcome.
Still, if you know what you’re getting into and really are yearning for some more of that satisfying Left 4 Dead experience, then this will definitely scratch that itch in one way or another. Be warned though that scratching an itch too much may be a sign that you’re already infected, in which case: Board up the windows and get searching for that cure!