After the monster-misstep that was Evolve, Turtle Rock Studios has managed to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Left 4 Dead. They achieve this by ditching the asymmetric formula and returning to the tried and true four-player, co-op monster mash, while including a few modern touches. It’s clear that Left 4 Dead walked so that Back 4 Blood could run.
With a campaign structure that is a near carbon copy of Valve’s, from the level-to-level pacing to the spectacular finales that punctuate each of the game’s acts, the grizzled march through the Ridden — this game’s zombie equivalent — hits like it used to back in the day. As we bashed our way through several tremendous set-pieces, including a tense tunnel-chase that saw a statuesque Ogre pursue us with murderous intent as well as the act-capping detonation of a cruise liner, I had the purest flashbacks of late-game runs of Mercy Hospital. Back 4 Blood feels like an honest love letter to the golden age of team-up survival horror which, in many ways, all began with Left 4 Dead.
Although the moment-to-moment gameplay screams Left 4 Dead, Turtle Rock has injected plenty of modern charm into this spiritual successor. Popularised by games like Counter-Strike, survivors earn scrap which can be spent at the beginning of each stage on big-ticket items like weapons, as well as consumables like first-aid, ammo, and tool kits which can be used to open locked doors throughout the map.
Although each of the survivors already come kitted out with passive perks that are both team and self-focused, this gives players a little bit of further flexibility to play their own way. Don’t like Mom’s default sawn-off? Buy an assault rifle from the communal trunk, it’s a pretty simple and elegant solution to falling into a load-out rut. Regardless of what you choose, I found all of the weapons to feel tight and responsive — I particularly adore the bolt-action rifle which made popping heads barely an inconvenience. The gruesome pop is marked by big red hit markers which helped trigger the good chemicals in my lizard brain.
In an unexpected turn for a game built entirely around killing hordes of gruesome, mutated nasties, there’s a deck-building element that actually goes a long way to giving Back 4 Blood a roguelike feel. Being able to build a deck that is dealt out to you throughout a chapter and provide small, helpful boons is handy, but it’s the world-effect cards that are dealt prior to a chapter that really gives each attempt a unique feel. On a level that saw us wade through a stretch of swampland, we drew a ‘Fog’ card that blanketed the level in a thick, dense fog and served to severely limited visibility — it turned a textbook killing floor into a tense, uncomfortable dredge through knee-deep muck. I expect there are countless permutations that’ll keep the game fresh and keep survivors on their toes.
Turtle Rock does a fine job in fleshing out the game world by including the haven of Fort Hope, a hub where survivors can party up to hit the shooting range, tinker with their decks, and kick off a run. It feels a little bare-bones at the moment, though I expect as the game balloons with content, it’ll become more populated. Several chuckles were had as Shannon kept managing to bop my head with his hatchet in the shooting range — the corner of Fort Hope where friendly fire is a-okay.
The cast of survivors aside, there’s no doubt the stars of Back 4 Blood are the special mutated Ridden that continually grief players and, in our experience, regularly hampered our efforts to remain alive. There are so many variants to encounter, including three variations of a swole bile-slinger, not dissimilar from the Boomer from Left 4 Dead. More than once I was caught yelling expletives at the strong-armed Bruisers which, in terms of serving up a challenge, should be taken as a good thing. Further to that, their designs are so gruesome and twisted, the body gore is exceptionally unsettling and serves to counteract the largely uninspired cast of heroes.
Except for Mom, we love her.
We briefly got a chance to also play the Swarm PvP mode which sees four of the aforementioned special Ridden go up against four of the game’s Cleaners in a best of three mode. The way to win a round is by lasting as long as possible as the Cleaners. Once all four players have been downed at once, teams will swap and you’ll have to outlast the time set by the other team. Whilst it felt a little bit more chaotic and a tad less polished than the campaign, playing as both the Cleaners and Ridden required a really great level of team work to either make sure that you’re always picking your team mates up, or that you’re working with your other Ridden team mates to go in all at once.
Turtle Rock clearly used their past work on Left 4 Dead as a reference for much of the game’s presentation. The maps are expansive, they’re well-considered for large-scale scrambles, and are adaptable when it comes to cards being drawn to alter the mood. I also loved how reminiscent much of the sound design felt. It’s atmospheric, haunting, and crescendos when it’s required, and like the Witch’s sobbing or the Boomer’s gurgle, the unmistakable clatter of an impending Bruiser will soon imprint itself in the recess of your mind and act as a dread-trigger for all of your days.
In a lot of ways, Back 4 Blood is a fitting title for this game. It’s deliciously alliterative, and it alludes to the unmatched four-player experience at the heart of the game. But best of all, Turtle Rock is back. Or at least they’ve arrived at last to fulfil the reputation that followed them out of the door as they left Valve South behind.
Back 4 Blood is out on October 12th for Xbox Series X|S. Xbox One, PS5, PS4 and PC.