Although it came out when I was a full fledged adult, some of the best gaming memories I ever made came from Left 4 Dead. As a big fan of both horror and first-person shooters, I counted down the days until Valve’s now iconic zombie game launched. Then, after it had, I couldn’t stop playing it, and took it places with me. That’s something I hadn’t done since childhood.
I’m not exactly sure why, but Left 4 Dead 2 didn’t do as much for me. From the sounds of things, most people prefer it to the original, but I never did. The cast of characters, new gameplay additions and additional ‘movies’ just didn’t click with me the same way as the original’s had. However, this is something that I cannot quantify easily, because there’s no real reason as to why they shouldn’t have. Either way, I still liked and enjoyed Left 4 Dead 2 quite a bit. The original was simply always my favourite, and continues to be.
Twelve years have passed since Left 4 Dead 2, and thirteen have come and gone since the first game debuted. In that time we’ve never received a third entry, and it seemed like the series’ addictive gameplay would remain locked within those two titles. Thankfully, Turtle Rock Studios — which was once part of Valve, and still employs folks who worked on L4D — decided to do something about this, with the result being Back 4 Blood; a spiritual successor to a series that many of us have wanted to see return.
Left 4 Dead 3 in almost all but name, Back 4 Blood is a follow-up that borrows heavily from those which came before it, before adding some of its own new elements into the mix. The result is a fun, fast-paced, addictive and team-focused experience, albeit one that can be very cheap and frustrating. It’s something that should have you returning for more, even after you’ve finished its several hour long campaign, assuming its uneven difficulty doesn’t turn you off.
This time around, most of the world’s population has been infected and turned into zombie-like creatures by a parasite that is considered to be alien in origin. Few remain, and those that do are mostly working together to rid the planet of these Ridden. However, as is always the case, doing so will be very difficult. After all, there are many Ridden, which outnumber the Cleaners by a large margin, and some of them have evolved into hideous monstrosities.
Up to four players begin by picking their Cleaner of choice, out of a roster that includes eight unique characters. At first, only four are available, and those are Walker (a veteran wearing a vest and a baseball cap), Holly (a readheaded college student, who’s bubbly and outgoing), Evangelo (a loyal, but young male character, who doesn’t mind the new way of life as much as the others) and Mom (a tough but caring older woman, who’s second in command at the survivors’ base of Fort Hope). Progressing through the campaign’s several acts and numerous chapters will then unlock several others. All of them, though, have their own unique characteristics, weapons and boosts. One improves team speed, another helps with team trauma resistance, and a third gives them an extra life. Those are just their team boosts, though, and they’re included on top of their individual boosts, like better grapple avoidance, increased accuracy, or added stamina.
While it is true that the characters’ boosts aren’t massive game changers, they can certainly be very helpful, and picking a team that suits your play style(s) is only ever beneficial. It’s hard to argue with Mom, though, because she offers an extra life that is always nice to have.
As mentioned above, this is also a one campaign experience, which differs in comparison to Left 4 Dead and its sequel.
Instead of featuring numerous short movie campaigns, Back 4 Blood contains just one story mode that is made up of several acts. Depending on the difficulty you play on, how well you do, and how much you search for things, it could take you several to close to ten hours to beat. This can be done either by your lonesome or with friends or strangers.
If you hope to play through this thing solo, with the help of three pretty helpful bots, you should know that the game currently punishes people who don’t play with other human beings. Why? I don’t know. It’s silly. However, it is the truth.
Those who play Back 4 Blood in single player will not receive the skins, cards, achievements and unlocks that those who play multiplayer do. This is apparently being looked at and rectified, but we’re left wondering why it was ever thought of, let alone implemented. Not all people like to play online multiplayer, especially if they’re forced to deal with randoms who can be unpredictable, and might drop out after one chapter. In my case, I generally prefer to play alone, because my schedule is all over the place and I don’t like having to be online at a set time. Furthermore, it’s more peaceful and less distracting playing alone.
That wasn’t necessarily the case back when Left 4 Dead came out, but people change.
I originally started Back 4 Blood in single player, during its early access phase. Then I saw the news and decided to change my tactics. Granted, I never planned to just play alone. I simply wanted to beat the game solo, without having to worry about people dropping out, before trying it out with randoms. Maybe, by then, some of my friends would have picked it up or downloaded it from Game Pass.
After playing online for a while, I eventually jumped back into single player, because I was frustrated. The people I played with were generally okay, but having to wait, seeing people drop out and continually being decimated on recruit (easy) difficulty had me wondering what was going on.
For whatever reason, the game seems easier and more stable in solo. I wasn’t swarmed near as much.
Needless to say, this will be a big issue for some and a non-issue for others. It was a black mark on my experience, but I still really enjoyed the game.
Getting back to gameplay, it’s important to note that the game’s ‘zombies’ are faster than many of the ones featured in classic movies. There’s also more than one type, which is to be expected from this type of title.
You’ll come across the base type most often, but will also encounter special creatures that cause more damage, have unique abilities and are obviously tougher to take down. For starters, there’s the Stingers, which are four-armed creatures that can stick to walls and shoot projectiles at you. Next up is the obese Reeker, which explodes when destroyed, meaning you’ll want to steer clear of its vicinity. On top of these, you’ll come across Tallboys (which are tall and skinny, and pack quite a punch) and Snitchers, which can alert the horde if you don’t kill them quickly enough. The same is true of flocks of birds, which can also awaken the horde.
Along the way, special boss types will also appear, causing you to stop and attempt to kill them before they do the same to you. These can be massive beasts with large health bars, but they’re not always as daunting as they look. As with any type of Ridden, your best plan is to steer clear of them and shoot from afar.
Generally speaking, the core gameplay loop found within Back 4 Blood is very reminiscent of Left 4 Dead‘s. As such, I felt instantly at home upon jumping into this thing for the first time. The gunplay is fluid and polished, the characters are all unique, the action is fast and disturbing, and there are quite a few weapons to choose and customize. While I prefer a mix of an assault rifle and a melee weapon or a pistol, you may prefer carrying a shotgun, an SMG, a sniper rifle or something else.
I also liked how characters would call out when they found something, the amount of hidden areas that I could discover and unlock using a specific tool, and how competent the AI was. Is it perfect? No. That’s a lot to ask, though. It’s definitely well above average, so that made me happy.
Whenever you feel like taking a break, you can do so by leaving the campaign and exploring Fort Hope. This walled encampment is where you’ll customize weapons, talk to fellow survivors and customize your Cleaners. This is also where Back 4 Blood‘s most notable change is dealt with.
You may have already heard, but the biggest addition to this spiritual successor comes in the form of cards. The general idea behind them is that some cards are good and some cards are bad. You can create your own decks from available and purchased cards, but will only be able to choose a select amount. It’s also possible that your game may be corrupted by a negative card, which can turn things on their head and create chaos.
Corruption cards can add challenges, but they can also mess with things. The end result could be a more difficult, or more annoying, experience. This can come from cards that add dense fog, cut the power, unleash added hordes, or litter the area with crows or different types of Ridden. Some will like this, but I wasn’t a big fan, and didn’t appreciate the unpredictability. Then again, I’m not really into mods or roguelike experiences.
On the flip side, players can unlock and use upwards of one hundred and fifty different Active cards. These come in several different varieties, including Reflex (blue), Discipline (red), Brawn (green) and Fortune (yellow), and can be made into customized decks. Expect benefits like faster reloading, better aiming, improved usage (of medical kits, grenades or flashbangs), and other team boosts. Not all cards are perfectly nice, though, because some have pros and cons. By that I mean that you’ll get one or three improvements, but will suffer a loss in another category, like reduced stamina.
The card system definitely changes things up and adds a new wrinkle to the experience. I just wish it wasn’t forced on us. I’m of the opinion that if something isn’t broken you shouldn’t try to fix it, and have a hard time saying that Back 4 Blood is better with cards. I honestly miss the simplicity of the original games.
Then again, the cards aren’t always noticeable, or major game changers. There will just be times where a Corruption card will make things more difficult, change something and/or annoy you. Don’t skip this game because of them, though.
Moving on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this package also contains a multiplayer mode. Known as Swarm, this PVP scenario drops players into an arena of sorts, wherein one team of humans attempts to survive against a team of player-controlled Ridden. This is once again similar to Left 4 Dead, but you’re not playing any sort of campaign against one another.
Back in 2008 and 2009, I would occasionally play the PvP mode(s), but never really stuck with them. I don’t see myself playing this one a lot either. That’s not to say it isn’t important, fun or engaging, though. It’s just not the kind of mode I play a lot.
Of course, more than a decade has passed since the first two games in this ‘series’ released. We’ve lived through a whole console generation in that time, as well as a large part of a worldwide pandemic that has most of us staying home as much as possible. In that time, technology has evolved quite a bit. The result is a cross-generation experience that generally looks and sounds better than either of the Left 4 Dead games did, at least in most scenarios. Back 4 Blood is a decent looking, appreciatively detailed and sometimes even colourful game. It’s also got numerous Easter eggs pertaining to classic horror movies, memes and other things.
The game’s characters all also have their own personalities, voices and techniques, which keeps things fresh. So, too, does the ever changing gameplay, whose director can decide to throw a special enemy at you at random.
At first, I thought the game director was good, stable and a fan of fun. Then, as I progressed, I started to dislike it. There were too many times where we were slammed by horde after horde, or up to three or four special enemies at once. It was worse in co-op (and yes, even on easy), but wasn’t exclusive to online play. This made the game feel very uneven, made it frustratingly cheap and annoyed me. Hell, I even considered quitting until it was (hopefully) patched.
Why even have difficulty modes if the game is just going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at players? It shouldn’t be doing this so often, especially early on.
Moving on, there’s even some licensed music to kill the many ‘zombies’ to. Not to mention messages to read in each of the many safe houses you’ll enter.
If you were a big fan of Left 4 Dead and/or its sequel, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from Back 4 Blood, outside of its card system and new types of Ridden. This is very much a spiritual successor to those games, which borrows graciously from their bloated corpses but doesn’t reach the same heights as they did. The result is a somewhat fun, addictive and appreciated experience, which could be great once it’s fixed.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with.
- Feels like it could be called Left 4 Dead 3
- Action packed, and can be addictive
- No splitscreen or couch co-op options
- Punishes solo players by preventing unlocks and achievements
- The new card system doesn't make things better