Back 4 Blood is a glorious co-op shooter, shot through with fantastic FPS action, a brilliantly realised world, and enough personality to keep players coming back for more. Its single-player and Swarm modes aren't up to the same standard as the core experience, but really, players are here to blast through the zombie apocalypse with friends, and in this regard, it delivers with aplomb.
When Back 4 Blood was announced at The Game Awards last year, a subsect of players who revelled in Turtle Rock’s last zombie-shooter series, Left 4 Dead, hit the roof with joy. Nearly a decade after the studio split from Valve and ran into a brick wall with its next game, the ill-fated Evolve, here was Turtle Rock announcing that it was going back to the zombie-apocalypse co-op template that made it a household name.
Naturally, this anticipation was cautious – once again, players all remember what happened with Evolve – and while the faithful were optimistic, one had to wonder how Back 4 Blood was going to be received by an audience who were never members of the cult Turtle Rock had created with Valve in the past.
Another zombie-shooter? How novel.
Back 4 Blood upgrades the template
It’s likely the two aforementioned camps will meet somewhere in the middle. Veterans will slot right into Back 4 Blood’s slick shooter action and its co-op requirement to act as a team — like Left 4 Dead, if players don’t have each other’s backs, they will die.
The aspects that may cause them to pause, at least initially, are the game’s lighting and soundtrack — which sacrifice a lot of the atmosphere they may expect — and its progression systems; character unlocks, weapon upgrades, supply lines, and a card deck-building system, to name but a few. All of these will seem weird to players who were used to having a game toss them some guns, projectiles, and health packs, and then let them get on with the task of survival.
But essentially, all of this is Turtle Rock upgrading its zombie-shooter template with all the accoutrements players who sink hours into modern shooters — Fortnite, Apex Legends, Call Of Duty, Overwatch, and the like — expect from this genre. This means that newcomers who are looking for a fantastic co-op experience with plenty of zombies (in this game they’re known as “The Ridden”) to mow down with their mates or strangers will take to this game like ducks to water. It’s inarguably one of the best games of its type from this (or any other) year, frankly.
Assemble the Cleaners
Players take on the role of one of four “Ridden” hunters called Cleaners. Far from being simple avatars for players to gravitate to on aesthetic grounds, each one has their own perks and personalities starting out; that latter aspect is one of the game’s strongest suits because while the lion’s share of activity here is blasting the undead, it’s peppered with some fantastic writing. The verbal exchanges and one-liners come as thick and fast as the bullets. The Cleaners are more fun to hang out with than the entire cast of The Walking Dead (although one could argue that’s something of a low bar).
The Cleaners’ collective zaniness underpins the game’s atmosphere, which breaks significantly with that of the Left 4 Dead series; instead of a dour, hopeless world in which the Slender Man would probably be right at home, Back 4 Blood presents a reality in which the frenetic need for survival is as palpable as the ridiculousness of the surroundings The Cleaners often find themselves in. Really, this is the only game of recent memory in which firing up a tune on a jukebox complements the visceral gunfight that’s about to follow, while being a tactical necessity to boot.
Play your cards right
Speaking of tactical necessities, players have a bunch of progression mechanics to help them in their fight against the undead — weapon upgrades, supply lines, and the like — but the biggest game-changer here is the game’s card-and-deck-building mechanic.
Initially, this can be intimidating, especially for those players who have never played (or have no interest in) games that involve deck-building. But for those diving into a game that sports this feature for the first time, Back 4 Blood makes things easy by providing a pre-set deck. It’s a decent tutorial for players, giving them an insight into how the feature works – and how their cards can be countered by the AI Director (the shadowy in-game force behind the ‘Ridden’ horde – and how the game can open up new avenues, depending on their playing style.
The cards can gift players anything from increased stamina (handy if you’re one for sprinting at long stretches) to providing health from melee attacks to increasing reload speeds and more. These are countered by Corruption cards played by the AI Director, which ensures that every ‘Run’ (read: contest) in the game doesn’t land up a one-sided affair, no matter how deft players are with their deck-building skills. It also provides a unique spin on charging through maps players may have conquered dozens of times before.
It’s rough outside the core
The game does have a single-player campaign for those lone wolves who want to test the waters on their own, but once they rack the difficulty up beyond ‘Rookie’, the inconsistent nature of the game’s AI bot’s become a chore. Non-human compatriots have a nasty habit of being hit-and-miss and their drawbacks can range from not healing each other in a timely fashion to failing to keep up with the team, to accidentally clipping the player with friendly fire (which, admittedly is something players need to watch out for when they’re playing with human teammates), and more.
On top of that, there’s a Swarm mode, which pits a team of Cleaners against the Horde, with both sides populated by humans, but it’s lopsided at best because playing as the ‘Ridden’ is way more fun. And way more effective.
There are members of the horde that feel slightly overpowered in this contest; Hockers, for example, who can spit out the gunk that pins Cleaners to the ground. Toss in a couple of players on the ‘Ridden’ side who know what they’re doing, and you’re looking at matches that can turn into walk-overs pretty quickly.
Back 4 Blood – Verdict
But these are small considerations that don’t detract from Back 4 Blood’s core experience and the superb way in which it has been implemented. This is no retread of Turtle Rock’s past glories, and while it builds on solid foundations, Back 4 Blood boasts fantastic additions, slick shooting action, and enough personality and gameplay variation to keep players revisiting its maps over and over again.
- Back 4 Blood was reviewed on an Xbox Series X
- A review copy was provided by Gamefinity