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. For the most part, Back 4 Blood is a fun multiplayer game with friends or randoms, but it can get unusually boring. Most of what makes Back 4 Blood end up feeling tired comes from a repetitive, plodding 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.
A card system is the engine that makes Back 4 Blood go. You’re able to carry a reasonable 15 cards and create decks that you can adapt to a certain playstyle. Individual cards can make your bullets penetrate enemies, make your guns hit harder, give you more health and stamina, increase your luck or ammo, and even buff your team. It’s great you can equip cards that suit specific playstyles like a melee focused style. Choosing cards adds an interesting layer of strategy and molding your character into one that more easily fits your style of play delightfully enhances the chaotic shooting. Even where you place your cards in your deck takes strategy. Every level, you’re able to choose one card among five. It looks like they’re pulled randomly, but they’re not. It’s based on the order you placed the cards in your deck. At first that was a little disappointing as it took away the excitement of more complex deck building like in card games like Hearthstone, but it was clear the control you’re given is more important as you progress further into levels. If you place a card too deep into your deck when you need it, it can make your run much harder. The game itself (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 lot of front-end prep work that does slow the action down from level-to-level, especially if you’re waiting on a teammate to figure out their strategy, but the payoff is worth it when everyone is firing on all cylinders. That downside to all this preparation is you won’t feel many of the buffs until much later, making it hard to know when a card is impacting your build.
Cleaners also come with cards which function as perks, and they give one buff to themselves and on one to the team. My favorite is Mom who gives the team an extra life, gives herself an added healing inventory slot, and can instantly revive one teammate per level. These buffs feel much more evident and can greatly change the flow of a level and create added considerations that compound all the other strategies involved. Something as simple as using Mom’s instant revive to early can have a major impact later. Cleaners also come with specific weapons but you can swap them out for others your find as you play. Most times I swapped them out but it’s not because they’re bad. I can’t think of many guns that are downright unusable but because surviving is so important, I found myself sticking with guns I was familiar with. You’ll find guns and attachments scattered around the levels and they’ll come with color-coded attachments in the same style as your favorite looter-shooter (green, blue, purple, orange) but you’re stuck with whatever scope you’re given. It wasn’t uncommon to pick up a great carbine but had a scope that zoomed in too far. You also can’t detach attachments you buy or find and place them on any new gun you find, which is unfortunate since money to buy new weapons can be hard to find and what’s available in the shop is randomized per level. One thing that’s undeniable though, the guns sound great and feel just as great to shoot. I love firing the Barrett M95 sniper rifle and hearing the massive bang that sounds like you can blow the head off a Greek god.
I have to mention how difficult aiming a gun can be on console. 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 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. I did review Back 4 Blood on PC and aiming feels superb. Snapping my mouse back and forth and nailing headshots on Ridden made me feel like a pro. It’s simply satisfying.
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: the Tallboy Bruiser has a weak spot on his shoulder while the Crusher variant has a weak spot on its neck, for example. 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 though, 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 triggers ambient, haunting music, then appears out of nowhere, eagerly trotting through the stage. If you startle it, which you likely will, it relentlessly chases down whoever scared it. If it catches you, it picks you up with tiny hands that jut out its mouth and swallows you headfirst, 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. But that’s all the first set of levels are: relentlessly running and shooting hordes of zombies. It’s fun in the same way going to the firing range is fun, but it doesn’t last. 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. There isn’t much to discover except for a few secret rooms. Everything else is objective-based which makes the genuinely wide-open spaces feel much smaller. This is especially true in the early levels. You’ll tread 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 zone for five minutes. That sort of design is lazy and works against a card system that doesn’t account for that kind of extreme tanking. 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 unfortunate the best way to play Back 4 Blood is on Veteran, but you won’t be able to start there because it’s very difficult without a good set of cards. You’ll earn Supply Points as you finish levels and complete in-game challenges, but if you can’t complete levels, you won’t earn Supply Points and you’ll continue to struggle. So, you’re forced to play Recruit until you’ve earned enough points to unlock cards and Recruit exacerbates many of the problems of the boring levels in Act 1.
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 as if you know who they are, and you never figure out who they are. Most plot and character development is limited to the rare instances of dialogue. 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 saying unfunny quips.
A big point of contention during the betas was how clumsy bots were. I will declare this: saying someone 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 jump in place 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.
In solo play, you can’t earn achievements or supply points, and that decision seems to come 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 a quarter of the way. 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, 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. 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. 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.
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 even if it’s 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.
Back 4 Blood
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 in the PvP, 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.