Back 4 Blood review — Stick with the old, make it feel new

Turtle Rock Studios tries to reach back into its history and grab the joy of shooting zombies and retool it as a modern-day spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead, and for the most part, Back 4 Blood is a fun multiplayer game with friends or randoms, but it can get boring. Most of what makes Back 4 Blood feel tired comes from a repetitive first half of the game, a useless story, and a solo mode that doesn’t challenge you enough or reward you at all. But by the end, you see the best levels Back 4 Blood has to offer and I had fun shooting zombies with guns that feel great. I couldn’t wait to start up another run or occasionally jump in competitive multiplayer to become what I’ve set out to destroy.

A card system is what makes Back 4 Blood go. You’re able to carry a reasonable 15 cards, but you’re stuck with choosing default cards if you happen to do extended runs, and there’s plenty of times I needed for than 15. It’s an intricate, fun system to mess around with. They can make your bullets penetrate, your guns hit harder, give you more health and stamina, increase your luck, increase your ammo, or any number of combinations, plus some. It’s like an elaborate skill tree that you get to modify after every level. It’s fun trying to tinker with a deck and figure out which cards are going to give you the best advantage over the Ridden. Deck-building experience in games like Hearthstone comes in handy as you’re rewarded for avoiding slotting any random combination of cards in whatever order. Even though cards aren’t dealt randomly (they are given to you in the order you place them in your deck), you can only choose one out of five available cards, and if the card you need isn’t available when you need it, it can make your run a lot harder. The game (known as The Director) is also throwing its own cards at you called “Corruption cards.” They modify Ridden and levels by giving Ridden armor, for example, or creating a thick fog on the level. So you have to think about what the director might do to make your life harder and order your cards appropriately. It’s a unique take on the first-person shooter loadout concept and it works well in creating variation and different styles of play.

Cleaners also come with cards, which work as their perks, and they buff themselves and their team. My favorite is Mom who gives the team an extra life, gives herself an added healing inventory, and can instantly revive one teammate per level. By understanding those perks, you can build a deck around her strengths, which certainly improves your quality of life. Cleaners also come with specific weapons that you can swap out for others, and most times I did swap them out because they don’t fit my playstyle, but you’ll find all the weapons are viable to slay anything and they’re fun to shoot. The Beretta M9 pops with a satisfying recoil and it’s fun to see how fast you can pull the trigger, and, my personal favorite, the Barrett M95 sniper rifle sounds like you can blow the head off Greek gods.

Back 4 Blood Gameplay - The Hag Haunts You [4K60 Xbox Series X]

I have to mention how difficult aiming a gun can be on console, though. The aim assist is awful. Headshots are an important staple to any zombie game and the aim assist annoyingly targets center mass. If you’re aiming just at the head level, when you aim down your sight, you’ll see the aim assist frustratingly fighting your preferred target spot. Changing the settings hardly eliminates the issue so I found it best to turn off target snapping and that seemed to do the trick. You really don’t need aim assist in this game, though. It only took a few shots before I was flinging my gun around hitting headshots almost as cleanly as I could on PC. Almost.

The Ridden come with their own disgusting sounds and looks. It’s hard to tell most of the special Ridden apart but there are some giveaways like how the Tallboy Bruiser has his weak spot on his shoulder while the Crusher variant has a weak spot on its neck. You’ll hear Ridden laugh menacingly when it’s quiet, and Sleepers, in particular, have quite a gross, salivate sound to them. None of the Ridden are particularly terrifying except one: the Hag. I don’t know if this is a bipedal horse with a parasitic mouth, but whatever it is, when it is about to show up it gives off this haunting music, then appears out of nowhere trotting through the masses. If you startle it, which you likely will, it relentlessly chases down whoever startled it. If it catches you, it picks you up with tiny hands that jut out its mouth and swallows you headfirst after a disgusting animation, then it tries to run away as it digests you and buries itself underground. It’s horrifying.

Not every level contains the excitement or dread of running from a Hag, though. Most of the earliest levels are boring. You don’t realize it until you’ve reached the latter half of Act 2 levels because relentlessly running and shooting hordes of zombies is all you’ve known at that point. The entire game has a repeated loop of finding small amounts of zombies, trigger a horde, back to small amounts of zombies, and possibly trigger an accidental horde somewhere between. What makes that repeated process boring comes from the layouts of the early levels. You’ll crawl through cities, libraries, and buildings, but most of them are flat and hardly offer any interesting twists to increase the tension beyond the established loop. There’s even a point where Turtle Rock decides it’s a good idea to fight a horde in a stationary position for five minutes. That kind of sequence might work in a movie but it doesn’t work here. By the time you reach the second half of Act 2, Turtle Rock starts flexing their ideas and diversifying the tension. One mission makes you navigate a bush maze while trying to avoid creating a horde. Another level drops a horde on you while you’re trying to find six briefcases scattered around a mansion. In another level, you’re trying to press through a Ridden containment facility with narrow hallways and a mass of Ridden chasing you. Those kinds of levels – and there are more – are fantastic to play on any difficulty, and remember, the game itself will have its own modifiers to make things more interesting as well.

It’s a little unfortunate that the best way to play Back 4 Blood is on, at least, Veteran because starting there puts you at a major disadvantage since you won’t have adequate cards to help yourself, so you’re forced to play Recruit until you’ve earned enough points to unlock cards. You’ll earn Supply Points as you finish levels and complete in-game challenges, but if you can’t complete levels on higher difficulties, you’ll continue to struggle.

Back 4 Blood presents itself like a game where the characters and the story matter, but that’s not how it feels. You’re given some dialogue at the start and end of each level that helps contextualize why you’re doing what you’re doing, but a lot of times names are thrown around like you should know who they are, and you never figure out who they are. You mostly don’t get any plot development and you don’t get any character development. I mean, I know Holly is in college; I know Mom lost her son; I know Hoffman has skeletons in his closet, but you don’t learn more about these intriguing backstories, so everyone feels like just another character with some not-so-funny quips.

A big point of contention during the betas was how clumsy the bots were. Let me declare that Turtle Rock listened. To suggest that anyone plays like a bot would be an insult to the bots. They quickly get zombies off your back, they drop an endless supply of ammo, and they’re good about healing you. They even revive you. They’re so good that sometimes I’m disappointed when a player takes over a bot. Don’t get the impression they’re perfect – they enjoy getting stuck on geometry and happily jumping about for no reason – but they’re far from the useless loitering bodies they were during the betas.  However, I believe how good the bots are directly influenced Turtle Rock’s odd decision with solo play.

Back 4 Blood Gameplay - Solo campaign bots on Nightmare difficulty [4K60 Xbox Series X]

You can’t earn achievements or supply points, and that decision seems to comes down to how good the bots are. Supply points are how you earn cards that are used when playing online, but bots make playing solo ridiculously easy thanks to their buffs. They’re actually stronger in solo play than online. I tried playing Nightmare, the hardest difficulty, and purposely played fairly recklessly and I almost finished the first level. If I played recklessly with randoms, we wouldn’t have even reached the rooftop. Turtle Rock shouldn’t have designed their solo play that way though, or, at the very least, should have allowed points and achievements to be earned while playing Veteran and Nightmare. Bots still take a ton of damage from Ridden so it still takes some skill. Otherwise, it feels pointless to play solo since you’re not getting the satisfaction of earning anything including achievements. Even allowing a small amount of supply points while playing Recruit is better than nothing. I get wanting people to earn everything – I’m certainly not suggesting make the bots less intelligent – but even adding separate achievements for solo play and online play would be a better solution.

I have to take a moment to praise the accessibility options. This was one of the first games I have seen – particularly during the first beta – that included every single audio cue as a caption. I don’t have a disability so I can’t speak for how effective the color options are and such, but Back 4 Blood includes a lot of listening, so it’s great that all the Ridden sounds are labeled. Text-to-speech voice, speech to text, color blind mode, captioning, menu subtitles, caption font size, and a number of other options are available to use as well.

A strange inclusion that feels disparate from everything else is the competitive multiplayer mode Swarm. Don’t be mistaken, though, it’s a fun mode. One side plays as the Cleaners and the other side plays as the Ridden. You win by surviving as the Cleaners while a Swarm encroaches on the field like a battle royale. It’s nice that neither side feels like they have a better advantage. Playing as Ridden means throwing yourself at the Cleaners attempting to wear them down. Playing as a Cleaner means trying to stay alive and keep your teammates alive. The contrast between playstyles keeps each round fresh, especially since you can switch between Ridden when you die. Both teams can upgrade their respective sides to try to overwhelm their opponent and it makes for some great back and forth combat and tactics. That makes it especially frustrating when randoms run off on their own and get decimated, but to me, that shows thought was put into it and it wasn’t just thrown in.

Back 4 Blood Gameplay - Swarm - A Close Battle [4K60 Xbox Series X]

I did have one recurring thought concerning Back 4 Blood’s aesthetic: it feels like a modern game with an old soul. The graphics look great in 4K and the framerate is steady, but at times it feels older. There’s a moment when the general is talking to the group and he’s just staring into the void like an NPC would in 2002. There’s no kind of light refraction on mirrors. If you were to knife a solid object, the animation is a stab, but it leaves a slash mark in wild directions. None of these things affect gameplay or make the game any worse, but it’s those kinds of details that help make an already hard-to-believe world a little less believable. And it’s just distracting while also a bit amusing. But if the trade-off was so that they could make blood splatter everywhere – on your gun, on your hands, on everyone – then I guess that part is worth it, but you can’t help but chuckle at some of the little quirks you’ll find.

You’ll find a lot of fun in Back 4 Blood. Turtle Rock Studios managed to take something that was old and give it enough of a touch-up to make sure we recognized it but played with it differently. It’s fun to hop on with your friends and blast away the zombies and compete to potentially take out the Cleaners, but you have to get past the first half of the game to get to the best parts. It doesn’t help that the story gives you nothing to cling to, but once you get past those parts, the tension and excitement kick in. But sadly, playing solo hardly gives you anything like what you get playing online and with friends.



Back 4 Blood

Review Guidelines

You'll find a lot of fun in Back 4 Blood. Turtle Rock Studios managed to take something that was old and give it enough of a touch-up to make sure we recognized it but played with it differently. It's fun to hop on with your friends and blast away the zombies and compete to potentially take out the Cleaners, but you have to get past the first half of the game to get to the best parts. It doesn't help that the story gives you nothing to cling to, but once you get past those parts, the tension and excitement kick in. But sadly, playing solo hardly gives you anything like what you get playing online and with friends.

Anthony Shelton started his journey in games media reading Nintendo Power, writing mock reviews, and writing E3 exposes. For fun. He grew up in the arcades playing with strangers and friends, and in the garage with his Commodore 64. He loves playing co-op and multiplayer games, but has no problem crushing your soul in any competitive game he enjoys.
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