During our hands-on with the Back 4 Blood beta a few months ago, I spoke glowingly about the four-player monster mash that this game promised to be. It managed to be gruesomely satisfying, it handled like a dream, and held a firm connection—a must for a game like this. I’ve spent the last weekend with the full game and I’ve got to say, the results are less than convincing. The game’s core experience remains much the same and provides a four-player co-op experience like no other when at full flight, it’s all of the other insane design choices that should have been discarded on the cutting room floor.
As a spiritual successor to the Left 4 Dead series, Back 4 Blood adheres to a lot of the concepts those games established over a decade ago. This time around, Turtle Rock has endeavoured to shoehorn a bit more story in and, save for a few moments, it’s a largely forgettable tale. I feel having eight Cleaners was to the story’s detriment, as the personality and charm wound up spread far too thin. I would have rathered a story following Mom’s quartet, which would have allowed them to shine a little more.
With act lengths that range from one to nine levels, as well as everywhere in between, Back 4 Blood’s campaign never hits a steady rhythm. Though chapters are segmented by set-pieces which, for the most part, are well thought out, the pacing here is kind of all over the place. The campaign tends to recycle areas a bit—albeit with minor changes to pathing—which is another spanner in the works for a story clawing for coherence. I found that constantly winding up at the gruff sergeant’s outpost was jarring and threw any hope I was getting anywhere out the window.
Even with great moments like the Bar Room Blitz peppered throughout the campaign, I found the moments I truly hated throughout my time with the game outweighed the good moments five-to-one.
The moment-to-moment gameplay of Back 4 Blood is as tight as it was during its beta period, the gunplay is responsive and, despite a little bit of getting bogged down in menus on console, the co-op necessities like resource-sharing are all present and accounted for. It really is a game that’s best when playing with friends you know. I noticed a significant drop-off in enthusiasm playing with strangers who’d either take it too seriously or would just lay down as soon as the horde descended, so if you’ve got a solid crew then this game is sure to sing for you.
For all intents and purposes, this game is a reskinned and renamed threequel in the Left 4 Dead series, it’s got the archetypal enemy classes we’re all familiar with, it has hazards that’ll alert the horde when tripped. Name a gameplay beat from Left 4 Dead, and this game has an analogue for it.
In an effort to stand out, Turtle Rock added a few contemporary tweaks to Back 4 Blood. Although I didn’t expect to vibe with it, I particularly loved the deck-building aspect of the game. Without an exorbitant amount of player input, decks manage to profoundly mess with the moment-to-moment and give each run a bit of particular flavour. I found that the director-dealt cards, which wreak havoc with the level itself, held more value in terms of mixing things up, but I certainly had a few trump cards in my personal deck I’d lean on when things got tough.
And the game is tough.
As someone who’d frequently solo run campaigns in Left 4 Dead, I found this game, even on its lowest setting, to be quite a trial. It’s not unusual for the game to spike in difficulty during the act-closing climaxes when you’re back-to-back in a bottleneck as hordes pour at you infinitely. As a power fantasy, where you’re straddling a bar as “Black Betty” roars from a jukebox and claret is coating every surface, it’s the game at its most rewarding. But it’s so frustrating to have a run snuffed out during its closing moments because the game ratchets up the heat, it’s moments like this where the game is at its worst.
And while I applaud the sheer volume of enemy variants, I never quite got a handle on which was which, and it all became a case of hosing it down with bullets until it toppled. Any strategic thought I had exited my body like vapour and it became desperate hope. And where it felt like a fleeting inconvenience to get ensnared by a special in Left 4 Dead, this game hurls them at you with such infuriating regularity. With a focused team, it wouldn’t be an issue, but the game’s partner A.I. is so daft that these moments quickly become overwhelming and it’s just not fun for solo players.
But there’s a lot of evidence that suggests this game isn’t for lone wolves.
For some indefensible reason, Turtle Rock decided somewhere along the way that the efforts of solo campaigners won’t matter. Any tangible markers of progression—cosmetics unlocked by finishing all acts on Nightmare, a dealing of new cards to help combat the horde, and even achievements—are all gated behind the online play. In response to the understandable outcry, the developer has promised they’ll fix the issue but it’s an absolutely egregious choice to begin with.
As far as the online experience goes, Back 4 Blood is all things between smooth and a jittering mess, it all depends on who you’re paired with at the time. Obviously, playing with mates around the corner yields a pretty positive result and I’ll continue to preach that stacking four-strong against the Ridden is the only way to get the best of what this game offers. I do think it could handle matchmaking a little better, so often I was thrown into a run-in-progress only to take over the bot, who’d been flogged within an inch of its last life, and die immediately.
Though the multiplayer suite doesn’t exactly run deep, Swarm is a fun enough distraction that isn’t vastly different from the inverse Horde mode, called Beast, introduced a few Gears games ago. In comparison, Swarm is a more shallow experience but is a good alternative to switch over to, and is a part of the same package, when you’ve had enough campaign for the night.
Although the entire game is a looker, the gore in this game is sensational and is the showpiece in terms of visuals. Seeing chunks of flesh rip from bone and seeing the layered damage models on the undead ads was a grisly treat. To this day, over a decade removed from Left 4 Dead, there’s nothing quite like having a bunch of brain-dead baddies crowd around a pipe bomb only for them to disappear into a blood mist. Selling the barbarism of survival in this world, and making it believable, is one thing the game does extremely well.
As someone who adored the Left 4 Dead games, it shatters me to feel this way about a game I hoped would relight that torch and take me back to a time in my life I remember fondly. The bouts of fun, mindless shooting remain, it’s a shame that the mindless seeps into, and corrodes, the remainder of the product.
It’s hard to fault the moment-to-moment gameplay of Back 4 Blood when all of its pistons are working in tandem and you’re running with a good crew. Though the effort to contemporise and grow beyond its roots is commendable, just about every other aspect of the game feels like a misfire. The campaign isn’t fun and, more offensively, it pays no regard to solo players.
Moment-to-moment gameplay remains great
The gore will please horror fans
I do like the addition of deck-building
No progression path for solo players
The campaign isn't great
Swarm lacks the depth to be a long-term proposition