Back 4 Blood is basically the 2.0 version of a 10-year old series. But when that series is Left 4 Dead, you may end up as the best co-op game of the year. I put in over six hours during the beta for Back 4 Blood, and came away excited to play more.
Back 4 Blood is a first-person shooter and co-op survival game. Up to four players (or 8 with PvP) survive the zombie apocalypse by journeying from point A to point B in a series of levels with randomized enemies, hazards, and items. The fast-running zombies are plentiful but mostly manageable, until a horde arrives. Special infected posses unique abilities to harass, disable, and kill survivors, including charging, grappling, spitting, and pouncing. Players have to be organized, stay together, and help one another to survive to the end.
Everything I just described in the previous paragraph could be directly attributed to the Left 4 Dead series, which was developed by Turtle Rock Studios in 2008, with a sequel in 2009. The series was immensely popular thanks to its unique AI Director creating a dynamic, unique playing field of challenges with every run.
Back 4 Blood, also developed by Turtle Rock Studios a decade later, mostly follows the same formula, with a few important additions.
Meet the Cleaners
While the playable survivors in the Left 4 Dead series had plenty of personality thanks to their quippy call-outs, Back 4 Blood’s are a big improvement. There are eight different “cleaners” to choose from, and each has their own special traits and team synergy. The no-nonsense, bandana wearing Mom can instantly revive an ally once per level, and adds an additional life for each player. The nerdy Hoffman can generate his own ammo and provide his team with expanded ammo capacity, while Holly gains a stamina bonus that makes her more adept at wielding melee weapons.
The cleaners are also bursting with personality, yelling at each other for friendly fire and occasionally launching into their own tragic backstories, like Hoffman’s search for his dad. As you can only take four players on a mission (with bots filling fewer players), having eight to choose from adds a lot of different combinations and replayability.
It’s in the Cards
The other major change are the cards. Back 4 Blood uses a unique card-based upgrade system. Between games players unlock new cards for their decks, with each card providing an upgrade or new ability, such as changing the melee bash into a combat knife attack or improving healing efficiency. When you start a new game, and every time a new level begins, you can choose a new card from a randomly drawn hand of your deck to add to your loadout.
Some cards are minor upgrades such as +5 health, but the more you play the more interesting cards you can unlock (or find as loot) that add entirely new abilities, such as a melee charge attack, or the ability to regenerate health with melee attacks. At the same time, the enemy draws corruption cards that affect that level. Sometimes these cards act as quests, offering optional objectives with bonus payouts, such as not setting off any alarms. Other times they grant a significant boost to the Ridden, making that level much more challenging.
It’s a neat system that I wasn’t able to dive too far into, but I’m a big fan of adding a rewarding progression system to a co-op shooter.
Between and during levels it’s also possible to purchase weapons, items, and weapon mods using the new currency, which literally look like gold pieces in a fantasy RPG. Weapons now have stats such as accuracy, recoil, damage, and range, and weapon mods can modify each weapon in interesting ways, including multiple kinds of scopes.
Like Left 4 Dead, I’m still limited to carrying one big weapon and one small weapon. Finding and kitting out my favorite weapons is an ongoing process throughout each run. It’s also important to diversify between different weapon styles to help conserve ammo. While lots of loot can be found, it’s never enough for all four players.
This should be obvious, but Back 4 Blood is built for four players, and shines when playing with friends. The co-op multiplayer ran smoothly, and it was easy connecting with friends. I enjoyed loading a run where we left off, including multiple runs at different spots and difficulty levels. I also played with a few random folks, including one who hilariously (and frustratingly) ran forward on their own and jeopardized themselves and the team.
Only three difficulty options were available during the beta, and they feel a bit too over-tuned. Easy was too easy, Normal was too hard, and I didn’t even try the hard mode as normal difficulty frankly kicked our butts. We had to retry several missions multiple times, with a certain mid-way finale on cruise ship creating the perfect amount of stressful chaos. It’s tough to say whether we need more practice, or if Back 4 Blood expects us to fail a lot before unlocking more powerful cards in order to survive later levels.
It’s taken over ten years for a proper successor to one of the most enjoyable co-op shooters of all time. Back 4 Blood doesn’t stray too far from the action-zombie tree, and I couldn’t be happier.