Back 4 Blood is a curious game developed by Turtle Rock Studios that is, in all but name, another Left 4 Dead game. It isn’t some generic clone, however, as the developers are those who had once worked on Left 4 Dead but who could not create another instillation to the franchise because Valve own the rights to it. So they ripped off their own product as far as they could, added a neat new progression system, set of characters, equipment and objectives, and Back 4 Blood was the result.
And as far as the campaign goes, it’s actually pretty disappointing. My main gripe is that, out of the game’s many levels, I can only recall a handful of memorable moments. Among them are fighting zombies while a jukebox played Ace of Spades, blowing up mineshafts that zombies were crawling from, throwing overpowered grenades that made bosses extremely weak and fighting a big worm thing at the end. A big problem is the environments; while graphically very beautiful, their designs all feel so generic. The majority of Act 1 takes place in a concrete town, while act 2 and 3 take place in rural areas and thus all the environments blur together in my mind, to the point where I can’t call upon my memory to distinguish anyone level from the rest, and would struggle to tell you which levels belonged to which act. And sure, while there are positive exceptions that I listed above, there are also less positive exceptions.
One level I recall very well because it was the finale to a section of the campaign that frequently involved walking through movement slowing water in flooded terrain and underground zombie hives, only to die because I jumped in water that the game made no indication was deeper than any other water I had previously been walking through. It wasn’t like I jumped into the ocean, it was a small pool by a boat surrounded by stuff I could walk on and I just instantly died. So at best the environments aren’t memorable, and at worst their designs are inconsistent.
It’s a stark contrast to Left 4 Dead – which is a fair comparison given the context – where I can recall most of the levels from each campaign; No Mercy starts in an apartment complex, then you go into a subway, then into the sewers, then into a hospital before the finale which takes place on the roof of the hospital. Like Act 1 of Back 4 Blood, each level takes place in a generic concrete town but, unlike Back 4 Blood, each level ensures you navigate different parts of it so that they’re all easy to tell apart. It gives the game a heightened sense of identity in its environments that Back 4 Blood lacks.
Another problem I have with the campaign is that the transitions in the finales from gameplay to cuteness are some of the most amateurish I’ve seen from a game of this size and budget. One moment you’re literally fighting a fifty-foot ogre that’s halfway through an attack animation, and the next you’re in a cutscene and the ogre is gone because the game thought you did good enough, I guess – That’s something that actually happened on my playthrough. It’s not so bad when you have to rush to an escape vehicle and the cutscene starts when everyone’s inside, but there are instances where you’ll just be in the heat of the moment fighting tooth and nail only to be hoisted out of the immersion without warning. The cutscenes don’t bridge the gap between themselves and the gameplay at all. Left 4 Dead did also have its abrupt moments, but at least when it cut to the escape sequence it showed the vehicle you escaped in being pursued by the very same enemies you were fighting moments earlier. You didn’t cut to a CGI rendered cutscene, but saw everything happening in-game from a new perspective. It gave the game a sense of continuity before it gently faded to black and gave you your post-game stats. Meanwhile, in the new Back 4 Blood, the last mission takes place at night and finishes underground after you shoot some glowing bits on a big worm boss, only for it to cut to daytime aboveground for a cutscene when you finish. It’s so jarring and inconsistent in so many ways. And that is ignoring how utterly anti-climactic and weirdly easy the finale was compared to the levels that came before it.
All this amounts to a game that lacks heart. You may notice I haven’t complained about gameplay or graphics because both of those things are smooth and engaging, but they take place inside of a product that feels as though the passion was sucked out of it. Take, for instance, the characters: Like Left 4 Dead it tries to give you a diverse set of archetypal characters who look and speak differently, and even gives the added bonus of making each character give the team passive buffs that can affect your playstyle. But because pretty much everyone in the game has an edgy personality, and all lack the exaggerated voice acting and mannerisms of the Left 4 Dead cast, there’s nothing but the passive abilities that differentiate these characters from one and other. I’m not complaining about the buffs – they’re a good addition. And while giving the character’s more personality is hardly the height of this game’s problems, it would have gone a long way to making it feel as though it had some soul put into it – as though the game wasn’t souly made to be optomised, but also to have fun within.
I mean there’s nothing like hearing Left 4 Dead’s Louis scream “do I look like one of them” when he gets hit by friendly fire, or Left 4 Dead 2’s Coach telling fellow survivor Nick he can “just stay right in this damn safe room yourself” after hearing complaints about the risky escape plan. There’s banter, playfulness and a tongue-in-cheek attitude that solely rests on the survivors in those games to give the player some indication they’re not just generic grizzled gun-warriors, which is basically all you are in Back 4 Blood.
It’s not all bogged in crap though, as there are things I enjoy about the game.
What I most enjoy is the Swarm game mode, which is where I spent at least 85% of my playtime. It’s a survival game mode where one team plays as the survivors and the others as special zombie types. The aim of the game is for the survivors to survive for as long as they can against the zombies, who can upgrade their abilities and their horde, before the teams switch around and it becomes the goal of the new survivors to beat the previous team’s time. It is in this part of the game where I feel the progression is at it’s strongest.
The progression is the unlocking of cards that give you new passive and active abilities. I personally like to play with cards that give me health for melee kills, stack them with cards that give me even more health when I’m below 25% and seeing myself heal more damage than the generic horde can do to me. It might sound overpowered, but the zombie players can upgrade the horde to directly counter this playstyle – volatile infected explode with acid in a small area upon death, which greatly negates how much melee players will be healing from zombie kills. I also have another set of cards that just stacks my movement and use speed, so I can outrun the majority of close-combat infected variants, heal myself and revive injured teammates quicker. If I ever find myself as the last survivor using this deck, I can usually run around without shooting for a solid 10 seconds or so just to increase how long the enemy team will have to survive thereafter. Again, it sounds overpowered, but infected variants like the hocker have a ranged attack to pin survivors in place, and the retch can cover the ground in acid, both of which limit or entirely stop my incredible mobility.
It’s a genuinely fun game mode and, in my opinion, an improvement upon Left 4 Dead 2’s survival and versus mode. I do think there are a couple of balancing issues, however, such as how infected players can spawn unfairly close to survivors. Picking the exploder, tallboy, or other high-health melee infected types feels a bit cheap when you can just pop into existence around the corner from them. Hell, despite infected needing to be hidden in order to spawn, there have been more than several occasions where I have overtly seen special’s pop into existence. But none of this is game breaking; I think a decent balancing patch could easily fix this stuff.
But the biggest of Swarm’s problems lie outside of the gameplay; It is absolutely insane how many people quit this mode before the match even starts. Like, why did they even bother queuing? Did they leave because someone picked the survivor they wanted to be? Because they couldn’t play as their proffered infected variant? Who knows? The developers really need to integrate a harsher punishment for people leaving this mode because of how severe the issue is at the time of writing this. As of now, early leavers get a 5 minute ban, which is basically no punishment at all – I once left early because my friend invited me to join his party. By the time I joined his party, my ban was over. I personally think repeat leavers should have their ban time increased for each time they do it, or earn less supply points in the next couple of games they play (supply points being a currency used to unlock new cards). That might sound a bit harsh, but when you’re queuing for a game mode that more often than not ends before the match begins due to too many people leaving the lobby, or fighting with uneven teams to the point where a fair match is a rarity, I feel it’s nothing but necessary.
Ultimately Back 4 Blood is a little sad because it’s evident that a lot of work went into it, but it feels like a lesser rip off of a game that already got as close to perfection as it could with it’s formula – That game being Left 4 Dead 2. And yeah, Left 4 Dead 2 is flawed in many ways too, like how so much of its difficulty is derived from RNG, but there’s a simplicity to that game that Back 4 Blood lacks. You don’t have to worry about being weaker than everyone else because of the progression system, the objectives are simpler and special infected easier to tell apart from one and other. Seriously, there are like nine different special infected types in Back 4 Blood, but six are just varients of the other models with different weak points so it’s near impossible to immediately identify the threat level special infected pose to you in the heat of the moment. Urgh, but that’s a whole other can of worms… Don’t even start me on how the game frequently slawns 5-8 of the the specials on top of you in higher difficulties. Then there’s the lack of vote-to-kick, so greifers can teamkill or refuse to let a level end without consequences. And since you cannot yet get through the game’s progression system by playing solo, you’re going to have to just hope the randoms you match with aren’t assholes unless you’re able to get a friend online every time you wany to play. This game is riddled with issues that 100% should have – and could have – been resolved before launch.
Unless you are a diehard fan of Left 4 Dead then I wouldn’t recommend this game, I’d just tell you to play Left 4 Dead instead. Hell, even if you are a diehard fan, you might just want to stick with the old reliable. Because while anyone who disagrees with me could argue all day about whether Back 4 Blood is better or worse than I said it is, I don’t think anyone can deny that it’s just lacking in character, personality, heart and soul. And honestly, despite being derived from something so enjoyable, Back 4 Blood’s biggest problem is that it isn’t very fun.