Back 4 Blood, in case you’ve missed it, is the spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead, developed by the original developers of the zombie shooter classic, Turtle Rock Studios, and releasing this year on October 12th.
The original Left 4 Dead released in 2008, a whole year after Halo 3, yet both games were hugely influential to me and formed some of the fondest co-op gaming memories from my childhood. Needless to say, there was no doubt in my mind that having both Halo Infinite and Back 4 Blood in 2021 would let me relive some of the same fun I remember from those classic titles, and in this knowledge I pre-ordered Back 4 Blood last year.
While the announcement of Back 4 Blood coming to Xbox Game Pass was bittersweet, having already purchased the pre-order meant I got to play the early access beta from August 5th-9th, and again on the open beta from the 12th-16th. So, what does a modern Left 4 Dead play like? How has the formula aged in 13 years? My mind was rife with questions as I pressed start.
Welcome to Fort Hope
The game starts you in the survivor camp, Fort Hope. At first, I didn’t know what to make of the game, graphically. The environments and overall polish weren’t outstanding, but the character models were a noticeable improvement from previous NPCs in first-person titles and looked convincingly real in appearance.
Wandering around Fort Hope, I talked to a military general studying a territory map who would prompt a campaign game. There was also a coach beside a boxing ring who would send me into a versus match, and different characters at tables who would allow me to build decks or purchase cards for Back 4 Blood’s new and unique deck-building system. It was then that it hit me: this was the menu. They had done away with text and selection boxes: every option in the menu had a tangible place or person in the game world, with the settings accessible from the pause menu.
It felt remarkably modern, but I hope that they implement more activities to be done in Fort Hope. The worldbuilding potential of the faux-open world feel that Fort Hope gives, as if you’re living in an episode of The Walking Dead, could be built out with minigames and ways to interact socially with your friends, and I hope they double down on it.
The main thing to do in Fort Hope – apart from spend time in menus – is to try out the guns on the firing range. Excited as I was to see what the gunplay felt like, I tested every weapon from pistol to shotgun, submachine gun to sniper. While each weapon sounded accurate and faithful to how it would fire in real life, I wish the audio clarity was better. Coming off from the Halo Infinite multiplayer tech preview, I was expecting the same level of attention to sound design, and some of the weapons just don’t sound punchy or beefy enough. When I’m wearing headphones, I want the .357 Magnum or the Desert Eagle to blow my ears off (by a reasonable amount), but instead they sound like peashooters. There are exceptions, such as the growling UMP45, but mostly I was unimpressed and ready to shoot some zombies* to see how it really felt to pop some undead heads.
*Or ‘Ridden’, as they’re called in Back 4 Blood – humans turned zombies by a parasitic worm, and therefore worm-ridden. A bit more elaborate than the Horde of Left 4 Dead.
First Match Blues
Unfortunately, my very first match of Back 4 Blood was an outlier in my overall experience. I expect that this particular game was ridden (please pardon the pun) with bugs. I had to walk through the whole level, from starting safe room to end safe room, without encountering a single zombie, only to get to the end and discover that one of the bots on my team was still at the beginning. Trekking all the way back, I discovered that she was overly fond of (indeed obsessed with) a mounted minigun, and would not part with it however much I kicked her off.
While this was surely a disappointment, I managed to enjoy the scenery of the mission having no Ridden to defeat, and I have to say that each environment is creepy but also beautiful in its cinematic presentation.
Crumbling concrete bridges created waterlogged tunnels with overturned cars set alight, giving the claustrophobic spaces an orange glow. Graveyards with white light seeping through the mists as the silhouette of a belltower stands ominously in the distance – the set pieces were distracting in their atmosphere. Also, the way the different lightings of the environments reflected off the hands and gun of the player’s character model made what previously looked unimpressive to me quite a gorgeous game overall. ‘But,’ I thought, ‘I’d really like to shoot something now, please.’
Of Blood and Bots
When I finally got to shoot my first zombie, my impression is that this game is very bloody, and gloriously so. The heads of the Ridden burst with blood and shooting them is like shooting water balloons. The blood then sticks to your gun and hands, and also the floor, walls, and environment where it lands.
As for the actual feeling of shooting the Ridden, it almost feels like my bullets aren’t connecting with the bodies of the horde. Instead, the zombies seem to drop when the game has registered that I’ve shot in their direction. Maybe it’s my rose-tinted glasses, but the gunplay of Left 4 Dead in my mind felt weighty, as if each pump from your shotgun sent the horde flying back, chunks of their flesh being blown out of them.
Perhaps this “lag” was due to the fact that the beta was multiplayer-only, and that there was no option to play alone with bots offline. If there is no offline single player, this is certainly a worrying premise for Back 4 Blood, as Turtle Rock Studios has already announced that the game cannot be played without an internet connection (as revealed in their FAQ).
Personally, I was looking forward to playing Back 4 Blood’s main campaign by myself with bots to enjoy any narrative the game has, and to appreciate the level design for myself before heading online. Without an offline single player, the game certainly loses some appeal to me – while I think I could never reject an invitation from friends to hop on and play with them, I’d be spending a lot less time on the game if forced to deal with online servers and random players.
Alternatively, Turtle Rock may not have included a single player option in the beta due to not wanting to draw attention to its AI, which have appeared useless throughout my gameplay with bots. While none of them did anything as egregious as the minigun-loving Holly, they never seemed to be helpful during the missions. The AI in Left 4 Dead would heal you, follow you, and prioritise the right targets. While Back 4 Blood includes in-game direction options for your team, the bots never seemed to listen or comply with it.
Other elements that I feel need a shout-out is the fact that you can now finish reloading your weapon whilst meleeing to keep the Ridden off you – this felt a bit like cheating at first but, once I got used to it, it actually made the gameplay very fluid. Furthermore, I appreciated the accessibility options in Back 4 Blood, as I felt I could play my way. My first instinct was to turn aim assist off completely, as I’ve never liked having my crosshair snap straight to an enemy, preferring my own control over it. Next, I turned hitmarkers off and changed my crosshair to a white dot to allow for minimal intrusion to my HUD. Options like these ultimately get rid of some of those annoyances that can distract from the game, and a noticeable decision to start with text-to-speech enabled shows that the developers have gone to some efforts to make the game accessible to as many as possible – I hope the availability of Game Pass means that more players will pick Back 4 Blood up and see if it accommodates them.
Time for a Reshuffle
Back 4 Blood’s innovation upon Left 4 Dead is its deck system, which assists the game director (the AI that controls the action each match) to make the game seem different every time you play. You start off by building your deck – cards for which can be bought at Fort Hope for a currency you earn in game. At the start of each match, you choose corruption cards – which add a bonus challenge to each mission for a reward – and a set of cards to add on top of your existing deck – such as faster reload speed, melee weapon abilities, or general stat boosts.
While it appears intimidating to start off with, the deckbuilding and card management is actually very simple. Most of it will tailor easily around how you like to play, as I prioritised fast reload speeds and accuracy for my playthroughs. However, what’s more prominent in Back 4 Blood is the gap (or gulf) between the easiest difficulty and the next one up.
The easiest difficulty, Survivor, I found far too easy. The Ridden and special infected drop before they even get to you, you can run through the level with most of your health intact, and there isn’t nearly enough hordes to even render the gameplay that enjoyable. The great swarms of Left 4 Dead’s Horde are missing, instead only appearing now in drips and drabs, posing no real threat to the player.
The next difficulty up, Veteran, is a whole other story. The amount of damage a single zombie does in its melee attack seems downright unfair for the middle difficulty. It is severely punishing, with my team of random players online barely being able to get to the end of each mission. I walked through each environment wanting to headshot each zombie before it even got close to me – that’s how concerned I was over the damage they did. In truth, I didn’t even search for a game on Nightmare difficulty – I didn’t want to attempt it. It occurred to me that Back 4 Blood, upon release, would be a game where you and your team would have to play strategically. You will have to communicate, manage your resources, and distribute ammunition appropriately amongst the team to stay alive.
For me, playing with strangers, this felt hopeless. However, with three friends, I expect the challenge to be genuinely exciting and tense. The variety of deck options available will come into play here, and I think the game could turn out to involve far more tactics and co-operation than Left 4 Dead ever made players engage with. At least, you’re going to have to if you want to keep off the floor.
Old Versus New (Versus)
Left 4 Dead fans will remember the joys of campaign versus mode, where four players assume the role of the survivors, and four players assume the roles of special infected – the Boomer, Hunter, Smoker, and Tank. The infected team have to kill the team of survivors before they get to the safe room door.
This was genuinely one of my favourite things to do in any game when I was younger. To spawn in where I choose, see the structural weaknesses and know which walls to bust through at the right time to surprise the survivors, find the right fire escape as a Smoker to choke an unsuspecting survivor, or leap through a forest as a Hunter to catch up to the survivors was a masterclass in horror role-playing. However, if you are a fan of the classic campaign versus, prepare for disappointment: it’s not to be found here.
Campaign versus has been replaced by a team deathmatch-like mode where survivors battle it out against infected in an enclosed map. You alternate teams, and the time survived as the survivors is pitted against your opponents for the win. As the humans, survival depends upon scavenging weapons, ammo, and health before the horde hits you.
The unique thing about the enclosed map is the narrowing, encroaching boundary called the swarm – a raging tornado of insects that kill you if you venture into it. The longer you survive, the more space this swarm engulfs of the map until you are battling it out on the roof of a car. Or in my case, a tiny section of a crop field.
Playing as the infected includes far more strategy than you might expect. You can upgrade how deadly the Ridden horde is with earnt currency – their numbers, whether they include armoured zombies, and what damage they do. Furthermore, the variety of special infected to choose from provides some gameplay options which can make or break the round.
The choice of whether I wanted to vomit over the humans to cause minor but widespread damage, or charge and self-explode amongst a group of them to disorientate and knock their health down kept me engaged and made me feel as if each infected type I chose cost me – and my team – time on the opponent’s clock. There were also long-range types which could damage or trap a survivor on the spot, or close-combat types which could similarly damage or choke a stranded human out.
The tension to survive longer than the enemy team, or kill the survivors before they outlast you, is reminiscent of Search and Destroy or high-intensity game modes from other games. I have no doubt that many players will find the game mode competitive and challenging, but I don’t feel it’s an adequate replacement for campaign versus which, with it’s large and intricate maps, was infinitely more interesting.
The prevailing thought of my time with Back 4 Blood is that it’s missing something. In Left 4 Dead, it was always very clear that you were supposed to be playing a character in a campy horror film. At the end of each act, the credits would roll with the cast (Gamertag123 as Louis) and have an ‘In Memory Of’ for any character who didn’t make it. Every time you were grabbed by a special infected, a spotlight would shine down from the heavens and a dramatic choir would sing to your demise.
It also helped that Left 4 Dead’s score had an intimately unique sound and has since become revered as one of the most recognisable videogame soundtracks. The implementation of music also helped the game to become vividly lodged in the mind of the player. Every time a special infected spawned, a unique music cue would signal their arrival in the dark alleys of the world. It was as if the whole of the game was being composed for the individual playthrough.
Back 4 Blood, on the other hand, doesn’t have as unique or as recognisable a selling point. Yes, it’s the more modern, updated version and I’d sooner play it than go back to its 2008 ancestor. Yes, it’s the more competitive, challenging, and strategic version. But that feeling of something missing, when Left 4 Dead had so much soul in the synthesis of its components, is prominent when playing Back 4 Blood. It’s almost as if they’ve taken the most successful and functional elements of Left 4 Dead, improved and polished them up for a modern audience, but have lost sight of the thread that pulled its predecessor together: the novelty of playing a character in a horror film.
Back 4 Blood may be a gorgeous renovation, but I can’t escape the feeling that this game serves as a melancholy monument to what Left 4 Dead was. I’m extremely happy that they have reprised the formula, but it feels like an evolution half-envisaged.
Despite all that, I’m looking forward to Back 4 Blood’s release. While I don’t feel it has quite the lasting appeal I had hoped for, it’s certainly going to be a bloody blast with a few friends.
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