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Back 4 Blood Beta Preview – Left for Legacy

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