The spiritual sequel to Left 4 Dead, from the original creators of the series, returns to make co-op zombie killing cool again.
The phrase spiritual successor seems like it was invented just for Back 4 Blood. It’s rare that a new franchise exists so largely in the shadow of another but Left 4 Dead looms over Turtle Rock Studio’s co-op zombie shooter like, well… an undead monster. That’s entirely fitting, as it is the studio and team that brought the original classic to life (but not the sequel), just now with 12 years of extra experience and without the involvement of Valve.
If there is a short version of this review it’s this: Back 4 Blood is as close to Left 4 Dead 3 as we are ever likely to get. The game’s trappings and mannerisms are so closely tied to Left 4 Dead it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a direct sequel. Even so, there is nuance here, with Back 4 Blood bringing more than a few new ideas to help modernise the vintage formula.
The pitch is this: the world has been infected by a parasite that has already wiped out much of the human population. In their place, Ridden (aka zombies) shamble around causing havoc wherever they go. You play as a Cleaner, a member of a small group tasked with going out into the world to complete essential tasks and kill a whole bunch of undead.
How that translates into the game is you and three others play as characters who whack, shoot, and dismember hordes of zombies, as you hop from safehouse to safehouse. Making your job harder are special variant zombies that are tougher to beat than the normal horde and require teamwork to take down. This game doesn’t just pay homage to Left 4 Dead, it’s swimming in its identity.
The story campaign is split up into four acts. Those acts are broken up into subchapters, that are then split up again into several missions. Missions can take anywhere from 15-25 minutes on a normal run, and there are 33 in total. If you want something to work through with your friends, Back 4 Blood offers more than enough to get lost in over multiple play sessions.
However, while it hops between a number of different locations – from schools, libraries, military bases, town centres, lakeside retreat, and spooky quarantine sites – in longer play sessions it can all begin to feel a little samey. The colour palette remains similar throughout and no matter where you are it’s all plastered in pus-filled, noodly entrails. While you and your team are always moving around from location to location, it can sometimes fail to feel truly distinct.
There’s a story leading through each of the missions, chapters, and acts but it’s so incidental, it’s hard to remember what’s supposed to be going on. However, that seems partially by design. The game has a quickplay mode where it will just throw you into a game at a random point, often into an ongoing match where someone had previously left.
The drop in/drop out approach is very accommodating and in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter where you are going or why, you just want a gun in your hand and zombies to plough through. That does make some of the quite lengthy cut scenes seem a little out of place, but they are thankfully few and far between.
One new addition Back 4 Blood brings is a collectible card system, which turns out to be one of the best new ideas in the game. While it might seem overwhelming at the beginning, or an impediment to getting into the zombie killing, it adds depth and on-the-fly build crafting that helps to differentiate your play style.
As you play more and more, you’ll unlock cards that offer in-game bonuses. Some might be as simple as getting a straight buff to your health or deeper ammo pockets but there are more novel and utility-based cards too – things like melee kills giving you health or being able to shoot while you run. There is a boatload of these cards too, that you can then put together into distinct decks before a mission.
After every subsequent mission you’ll draw three cards and choose one new one to bring with you. You can put together melee decks or decks that make you into a walking armoury, or maybe you want to be nimble and speedy or able to take a ton of punishment. They change the way you play and give a good sense of progression through a play session.
This system gives you something to replay for too. Getting more cards enables new, more powerful builds, which in turn will allow you to take on higher difficulties. Even on the game’s easiest mode it’s not uncommon for teams to fail, especially in the early going. This is a decently challenging game and it will take some really good decks and teamwork to succeed at the game’s highest difficulty levels.
Because of this system, Back 4 Blood has a real sense of replayability. That’s not new to the Left 4 Dead formula, but with subtle things changing each run and the promise of concrete character progression every time you play, it’s always rewarding to just jump in and get to the zombie killing.
Somewhere else Back 4 Blood modernises the formula is in its weapon customisation. Not unlike the deck system, weapons are now extremely modular and you will be able to build them to your specific preferences through a run. There are now a ton of attachments that can be shared between weapons, allowing you to create some bizarre but fun weapons along the way.
A shotgun with maxed range and a sniper scope on it? Sure. An automatic Glock that vomits bullets with a compensator to help control its wildness? Of course. Just a plain old assault rifle with good perks that’s decent in any situation? It’s a little boring, but yeah. The weapon building is quietly compelling and allows you to pick up a gun you like early in a run and then keep attaching mods and improving it. What was once a peashooter can evolve into something that can take out a special zombie in no time.
There are some areas where the game does stumble though, and a lot of it has to do with one of the game’s core tenets, its co-op. If you have three friends to play with at all times, the game’s a dream. You’ll have a great time. The game’s extensive cross-play is seamless and opens up the experience a whole lot. It’s impressive how easy it is to play with others on other platforms.
However, if you have any less than a full team, you might hit some issues. Back 4 Blood really wants you to play with other players, to the point of it being somewhat of a chore not to. There is a ‘matchmaking off’ option in a menu but it’s well hidden and an issue several groups we played with hit due to bizarre interface choices. As a result, even closing the party has the game filling the team with strangers you may not want to deal with.
That’s not the only multiplayer gripe either. While Back 4 Blood allows you to keep your progress if you leave halfway through a run, getting a game at that specific point in the campaign can be tricky. Even since the game’s full release, trying to jump into a previous save can take 10 to 20 minutes. Being able to start with bots that then fill out with real players over time would be nice. However, the game seems adverse to you interacting with it in a way that doesn’t involve three other human beings.
Things get even worse if you have any intention of playing the game solo. You can play Back 4 Blood on your own, but you are desperately hamstringing your experience if you do. Not just because working with other players is one of the Back 4 Blood’s key strengths, but because the game literally holds you back. When playing alone, you don’t gain rewards, like the points needed to buy new cards for decks, and you won’t get progress towards triumphs. You get the experience of playing the game, but it is stripped of all sense of long-term progression.
Despite these grumbles, Back 4 Blood has a ton to offer. The fun of you and three friends just tearing your way through hordes of zombies is as compelling as ever and this pseudo-sequel adds some wonderful new systems like the deck building and modular weapons. You could easily get lost in the deep end, trying to earn and construct the perfect deck for your favourite play style, adding extra replayability to a formula that already has it in spades.
Back 4 Blood doesn’t quite do enough to get out of the shadow of its spiritual predecessor though and it never really feels like it establishes its own identity. However, in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t really matter. Many games have tried to recapture the magic of Left 4 Dead but Back 4 Blood is one of the few that manages it. With so many modern competitive games becoming so complex the Back 4 Blood formula feels like a welcome alternative, where mowing down zombie hordes almost feels fresh again.
Back 4 Blood review summary
In Short: While it never forges its own identity, or escapes the shadow of Left 4 Dead, Back 4 Blood provides a great cover act, that captures all of the original series’ magic.
Pros: With a full team of friends the co-op action is at least as good as Left 4 Dead. Modular weapons and deck building system are welcome additions and important progression systems to the formula.
Cons: The game seems to hate you playing with anything other than three other people, with an almost pointless single-player. Locations can begin to feel a little samey.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Warner Bros. Games
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Release Date: 12th October 2021
Age Rating: 18
By Patrick Dane
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