Review: Back 4 Blood
By: Chad Christian (TapRackBang)
Publisher: Warner Bros. Games
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4|5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
It’s here. It has finally arrived. Left 4 Dead 3. I mean... Back 4 Blood! When the original Left 4 Dead dropped on November 17th, 2008, I was just past my one-year mark in the Marine Corps and still a fresh little bootcamper with no combat experience. Other than hiding from the senior Marines of the company and racing to increase our alcohol tolerance, Left 4 Dead was the main game we played in the barracks. It was the perfect time in my life for it. All of us young bucks were amped up on being part of the world’s greatest fighting force, getting physically and verbally abused all day every day, and we needed to channel all that aggression.
We were already passing the time and distracting ourselves by debating the best course of action in the inevitable zombie apocalypse. “What will you do when the zombie apocalypse goes down?” Fast forward to my first deployment to Iraq in ‘09, where we had hours in Left 4 Dead but no way to scratch that itch for seven months, and that debate of, “what will you do when…?” was a daily discussion. Left 4 Dead 2 released at the tail end of that first deployment, and once I heard the news that it would be waiting for us back home, it was all I could think about when it came to games. I dumped even more time into that second installment, riding out the rest of my enlistment and facilitating those memories for years after EAS (End of Active Service). A storm would roll through, and I’d boot up my Xbox, throw on The Devil Wears Prada’s Zombie EP, and slay bodies with my friends.
While it’s a bit frustrating that Valve refuses to release third installments of their games, this is what I would’ve wanted barring a Left 4 Dead 3 release: the developers saying, “You know what? People love this and want more. We can’t not give them Left 4 Dead 3, so if we can’t do it their way, we’ll do it ourselves.” The world needed that. Not even just the game itself, but amid all the doom and despair of the last couple of years and every game announcement followed up with the inevitable delay or cancellation, Turtle Rock said, “We got you.” In just about every way but name, Back 4 Blood is the next Left 4 Dead. “Spiritual successor” is an accurate understatement. When the time came for preorders to gain early access, you can feel free to chuckle, but I was downright emotional.
In many cases, things that remind us of service are triggering for us - setting off our PTSD, anxiety, and depression. It’s certainly bittersweet, thinking back on where I was when the last two games were released and where I am now...but that kind of stuff just hits you right in the feels and brings back the good memories. Back 4 Blood immediately brought back those feelings for me, and getting to squad up with my friends once more to take down the horde felt like getting the A-Team back together again. These are the moments in gaming that I live for.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Back 4 Blood is a cooperative first-person shooter for up to four players, set in its version of the zombie apocalypse. The Campaign mode is linear by definition but does not suffer any for it. It takes the survivors, called “Cleaners,” through several levels of unique settings that organize the campaign into four Acts. It does follow a narrative if you’re paying attention but is not heavily reliant on a storyline compared to story-driven RPGs. However, some well-made, intense cutscenes set the tone for each major section. In Swarm mode, players are pitted against each other in PvP arenas based on locations from the campaign. Players take turns in alternating rounds as Cleaners and Ridden, basically seeing who can survive the longest.
Now, how does the game stack up? Again, for all intents and purposes, it is the next in the Left 4 Dead series. It plays almost identically regarding movement, weapons, mechanics, etc. Of course, many of these things have been improved upon as well. For one, the visuals are on point and on par with our time. One thing I immediately noticed was the sound design. From the squeals and gurgles of the regular Ridden to the hocking, belching growls of the special infected, the sounds in this game are top-shelf. Special infected in Back 4 Blood also now have tumorous weak spots that allow you to inflict extra damage and take down the heavy hitters much faster. Unlike the Left 4 Dead installments that take the players through standalone settings, Back 4 Blood takes the approach of a centralized base, sending the Cleaners out from that central hub to “clean” the surrounding area of impending Ridden. No complaints here; if we’re talking “realism,” that actually makes sense, and familiarly, they still have you running from one safe room to the next to divide up each level. They’ve also implemented a currency system where you collect copper throughout each level and earn more upon its completion. In the starting safe room of every level, players can spend copper on weapons, upgrades, health, ammo, and more.
The biggest difference Back 4 Blood claims versus its predecessors is the card/supply point system. In Left 4 Dead, the only real abilities the survivors had was immunity to the virus. Back 4 Blood not only gives each character unique perks (such as an extra item slot of a certain type or a boost to ammo capacity or damage) but bases your encounters and additional abilities off of cards earned through supply points. You begin the game with a starting deck of cards, and each round you play in the campaign has you draw cards from that deck, granting you bonuses to items, damage resistance, abilities, and more. Each new level also introduces its own set of random corruption cards that stock the level with different enemies and hazards. Earning supply points throughout the Campaign and Swarm modes allows you to advance supply lines that grant you more cards. Before long, you will be able to tailor decks around your preferred playstyle, whether ranged, melee, health, and resistance focused, or you just want to collect heaps of copper. As you spend supply points to unlock cards, you’ll also unlock unique outfits, sprays, and skins through each supply line. The card/supply point/copper currency systems sound like they’re in danger of falling into the everyday tedium of microtransactions and grinding for skins, but I don’t feel overly pressured in those areas. They seem paced very reasonably, and the copper currency isn’t carried over or collected outside campaign play.
Let’s get some downsides out of the way. For one, there aren't many for me. I was happy to see that there is solo campaign play - but as of right now, solo mode lets you play with all cards unlocked and doesn’t earn you any supply points. I would like to see them just roll that into regular campaign play where you can earn supply points and just choose to play with bots rather than others. I know they want to encourage online cooperation, but I typically despise teaming up with randoms on the internet. Sometimes, I don’t even feel like being personable with my own friends and just want to zone out alone to some zombie killin'. You can still do that, of course, but when there are things out there to be earned, it kind of feels like you’re wasting your time in solo mode. Back 4 Blood also tosses in different attachments for your weapons, but choose carefully. Once you choose an attachment, there’s no swapping it out on a better weapon unless you have some extra attachments lying around so you can pull the ol’ switcheroo. I would also like to see them allow you to sell items back to the store in each safe room. Sometimes you pick up an extra first aid kit and realize you would’ve rather snagged a pipe bomb, but now you’re out of copper. Lastly, and this is me just being greedy, I would love to see more uniquely iconic settings. Left 4 Dead had some great levels: the carnival, that plank-country swamp with the downed airplane, the mall, the airport...There are a few cool locations so far, and the game is far from bland, but I hope to see them add more in the coming DLCs.
Overall, I’m extremely happy with the game. Yes, nostalgia plays a large role in this, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and I think it’s something Turtle Rock recognized and approached with respect. At its core, it runs smoothly, I have yet to see any major or game-breaking bugs, and it’s a blast to play, especially if you have your own A-Team to roll with. My only question now is: what will you do in the zombie apocalypse?