Left 4 Dead was a sensation so successful that, even as I write this, the sequel has over 14,000 concurrent players on Steam — though it came out over a decade ago. But Valve isn’t in the business of making games for the most part, so WB partnered with Turtle Rock Studios, the team behind the original L4D, to make a spiritual successor. Back 4 Blood has most of what people love about the classic series, plus plenty of new things. It’s a damn good time with friends, but the balance is somehow worse than it was during the beta, giving the game a bit of a rough launch.
Back 4 Blood is divided into four acts. The fourth one is just a single boss battle, effectively giving the game three campaigns, versus the four and five of L4D and L4D2, respectively. They’re beefy, though, and will often take more than two hours to get through each. The game features four-player, cross-play matchmaking, a solo mode, and a PvP mode that pits survivors against player-controlled Ridden, what the game calls its zombies. There are also three difficulties, but they’re far more questionable here than they were in the beta.
You have a choice between eight survivors, each with their own personal buff and team buff. My favorite, Holly, gets a 10% damage reduction and boosts the team’s stamina. Other characters, such as Doc, can heal teammates a certain number of times per match. Giving characters these types of boons was a good choice, as Back 4 Blood has a great focus on beefing stats through careful choices. These picks feel valuable and can make a noticeable difference, further incentivizing putting some extra thought into many facets of gameplay. It definitely feels like a step up in terms of allotting greater player agency than in the past.
Guns and glory
By default, each character can carry a primary weapon and a sidearm. Primaries come in assault rifles, light machine guns, submachine guns, sniper rifles, and shotguns. Sidearms are your pistols and melee weapons. Due to the huge number of special Ridden spawning, I never saw much reason to use melee weapons, however, but individual tastes will vary. As for the shooting, it’s damn good. Guns are responsive and punchy. Bullets hit their targets with gusto and enemies react well to damage.
That being said, I’m still underwhelmed by the gore. You can blow limbs off here and there, but Back 4 Blood feels tamer on this front than I’d prefer. On the topic of visuals, the game’s color palette is monotonous. Outside of the rare daytime sections, almost all of the levels are so blue that they can border on obnoxious.
The default weapon spawn still doesn’t feel quite where it needs to be. If you’re kitted out for shotguns, I saw far fewer than I’d like. Entire runs would often see me finding next to nothing, making my deck notably less useful. One awesome addition is that you can equip weapons with attachments, but you can only swap these out for others. If you switch to a new gun, you can’t put any of your old gun’s attachments on it, which is weird and limiting, in addition to not making much sense.
The biggest form of customization, however, is Back 4 Blood‘s card system. For every level you complete or Swarm match you take part in, you receive supply points. These points are used to unlock supply lines, which are like card packs, although there’s no randomness to it. You unlock a predetermined stream of cards, gun and character skins, and other little trinkets like icons and sprays. Each deck can have up to 15 cards and you’ll be able to draw from a random pool at the start of each level.
There are an absolute ton of cards, so building decks is more laborious than you may imagine. Bizarrely, solo players won’t receive any supply points at all, nor can they get achievements. While, yes, this is a multiplayer game, that seems unnecessarily harsh to me.
Heart of the cards
The benefits gained from using the right cards cannot be overstated. Many of them feature more basic increases, such as granting more health, stamina, or ammo capacity. But others can seriously change up your playstyle; there’s a lot of variety. Some can buff the strength of healing items. One card lets you carry a second primary weapon in your sidearm spot in exchange for lowering your weapon swap speed. Many of the stronger cards carry a similar downside, often lowering your damage resistance or stamina regen. There’s a hell of a lot to keep in mind, especially since those penalties can sink you in the end.
You’re going to want every advantage you can get, too, as Back 4 Blood doesn’t fuck around. Simply put, the game is much harder than it was during the beta. The AI Director controlling things behind the scenes is often far more aggressive, throwing multiple special Ridden at you in close proximity with alarming frequency. Veteran, which felt pretty good during the beta, can be shockingly hard now. The first time my colleagues and I attempted it, we were wiped in minutes. Even on Recruit (the game’s easy mode), things can get horribly unbalanced. It needs some serious work because it absolutely doesn’t feel right.
It doesn’t end there. The Director will go from being overzealous to seemingly falling asleep. Sometimes you’ll do a section and it’ll just be a total shitshow. Other runs, it’ll be completely quiet and the level will take no time at all. It’s horribly jarring. While it’s good to have runs feel different, Back 4 Blood is just kind of haphazard at the moment. It also has some technical issues that need some tweaking. One colleague had the game crash half a dozen times and had repeated trouble getting dropped during matches. I crashed once, the exact second my team beat the final boss. Figures. Cross-playing with console players would also often lead to literal minutes of waiting for them to load in.
The hand we’re dealt
Overall, I really like Back 4 Blood and am going to continue playing it. It’s a great option for L4D players looking for a new fix and it has a lot of value and and a wealth of options. But the strange regressions from the beta and confusing choices made with the difficulty have the game starting off on some uneven ground. I have no doubt whatsoever that it’ll be a destination for years to come once the kinks are worked out, but that might take a bit of doing.