The concept of Back 4 Blood is a slam dunk. Give the team responsible for the groundbreaking zombie co-op shooter Left 4 Dead another shot at the genre, adding a plethora of modern trappings and a new wrinkle to set it apart from Turtle Rock Studios’ past work . But can the frenetic first-person shooter recapture the magic after countless technical tests and some huge shoes to fill? While not perfect, Back 4 Blood is a really fun time with friends, and it has plenty of new tricks to keep fans coming back for more.
Back 4 Blood’s gunfight is a big highlight. The weapons should be familiar to anyone who’s played titles like Left 4 Dead before, but the thrilling moment-to-moment battles with the undead are satisfying. Everything from crushing mounted skulls with your spiked bat to mowing down zombie hordes with an LMG has the right weight, controller rumble and sound effects to immerse you in an intense experience.
Back 4 Blood is hard, especially in the beginning, and I was surprised by the relentless hostile mobs. While I liked the heated moments where victory is in question, the difficulty is not good. The changes in challenge come from the Game Director. This system tinkers with players’ experiences from level to level, throwing everything at you from fog to flaming infested, meaning two playthroughs of the same level can be completely different. There were too many times where I would get through a level with minor stutters, only to be overpowered within minutes of the next segment and vice versa. The director also seems to overcorrect after zombies got too stuffy, and my team would easily walk through the rest of a level with little more than a scratch after a big fight. The game can strike the right balance, but I wish those highs and lows were tuned to provide a more consistent experience.
That difficulty is more manageable thanks to the card system, Turtle Rock’s wrinkle on the classic formula. As players progress through the co-op campaign, they gain resupply points that can be spent on upgrade cards for each Cleaner. These range from a small boost of 10 percent to vital abilities, such as recovering health from kills to an extra life if your team doesn’t meet its target.
The experience started to click for me as I started building lessons that fit my situation. In the third act, I had collected enough cards to make a tank with a gun that could sprint into the fray, mow down dozens of zombies and run back without losing much HP, thanks to a card that gave me health for landing hits with my boom. Another time, my team and I failed to finish off a boss, only to knock him over when we all added a card that added 20 percent damage to the special ridden’s weak spot. The more my team varied our decks and gear, the less we had to drop ammunition for each other, and we became a more efficient unit. Even after facing the final boss, I still had plenty of cards to unlock and new reasons to return to the earlier levels.
As with most co-op oriented games, B4B shines brightest when you have a full squad ripping through the special Ridden. Whether we were shouting orders at each other or laughing when someone screamed after being tackled by one of the wall-hugging Sleepers, Back 4 Blood reminded me why I’ve spent so many hours fighting the undead in the past and why I’m excited to to do everything again in 2021.
On the other hand, solo players may have fewer reasons to be excited. Back 4 Blood’s AI companions are skilled and helpful when you need an extra health boost or ammo. But the lack of stats, stock points, or even achievement unlocks kept me far from the solo action. This is disappointing for players who just want to enjoy the game.
Finally, I passively enjoyed Back 4 Blood’s Swarm mode, which pits Cleaners against the Ridden in subsections of the campaign to compete in round-based encounters. Teams take turns playing as riders or cleaners, and whoever lasts the longest as the people wins the round. I liked playing as the undead, but I don’t like how some of the special Ridden like the Tallboy control and longed for the intense matches of the campaign. The mode isn’t offensively bad, but pales in comparison to the rest of the game’s engaging co-op pack, and after a few rounds of this PvP mode, I was content to put it down to go back to PvE.
Back 4 Blood is one of my comfort food games of 2021. It’s an excellent time with friends who have the itch I’ve had since the glory days of Left 4 Dead. While it never reaches the heights of its inspiration, the addition of cards makes me hungry to play more, even when the game isn’t at its strongest.