I love co-op games, especially of the four player variety. I spent a lot of time playing Left 4 Dead, which is the game that invented the formula. Originally developed by Turtle Rock Studios under the banner of Valve (they were known as “Valve South” at the time), the four player co-op formula went on to dominate my playtime with video games. I’m still knee deep in that style of game, and play Deep Rock Galactic and Vermintide 2 with friends a few times a week. Our group absolutely loved the asymmetrical multiplayer in Turtle Rock Studios’ Evolve, and we still mourn the end of that game’s support. Back 4 Blood, when announced, seemed like a step back from that, however. But it takes a new look at the four player co-op formula, and changes some aspects significantly.
Back 4 Blood is a four player co-op game in which you and a team of three others take on the role of Cleaners in a struggle against zombies, known as the “Ridden.” It feels like zombie stories are running out of names to call their particular brand of undead, and “Ridden” may be one of the worst I’ve seen. But it doesn’t matter what you call them, as long as it’s fun to kill them. You would think that the originator of the franchise would know how to make a great co-op zombie shooter—but that’s not entirely the case. Back 4 Blood has some great ideas, but I don’t know if it’s going to enter into my group’s rotation of games for a few reasons.
Back 4 Blood has an incredibly generic feeling, which is ironic, since the developer essentially originated this type of game. However, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s nothing that stands out. There are no really defining characters, or moments. All of the gameplay elements feel plucked from other games, and carefully put together. Mimicry is by no means bad, and Turtle Rock did poach some of the best ideas—but putting them all together in Back 4 Blood ends up feeling sterile, and “sterile” is a strange feeling to have when dealing with so much gore and fleshy growths. It’s like when you listen to your favorite indie band years after they’ve signed onto a major record deal, and all of their new stuff just sounds so over produced.
Even the enemies suffer from a bit of that generic feeling. Back 4 Blood, of course, has their own version of “special infected” called “mutated.” You know: the one that jumps on you, the one that spits on you, the one that explodes zombie attracting bile onto you, etc. As with any of these action co-op games, you can jump into them and have an idea of what to expect—but Back 4 Blood is almost cookie cutter, with only a few exceptions.
On top of that, combat-wise, the generic style of the enemies make them hard to distinguish them from each other. Gone are the clean, clear silhouettes of specific specialized baddies that work so well in other games (including Left 4 Dead) and instead there are a few infected variants that are hard to tell apart. In fact, I thought the characters were just calling certain enemies nicknames alongside their “official” name—and it wasn’t until I got a perk that showed me their names that I realized that wasn’t the case.
But there are some highlights to Back 4 Blood’s style of zombie fighting. First of all, the weapons feel great. Shooting in Back 4 Blood is less run and gun, and more deliberate—discharging a firearm slows you down a bit. There is also a finite amount of stamina, so you are forced to save stamina for times when it’s important. Therefore, having a tight team moving in tandem can be important. Zombies also don’t sprint at you—but they aren’t slow, either. It’s like a satisfying middle point between shambling and running that makes the George Romero fan in me happy.
The firearms available in Back 4 Blood are more a mirror of what you could find in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2. Weapons have attachments that can be swapped off for other attachments to increase a number of different stats like mobility, damage, accuracy, etc. Unfortunately, weapon attachments can only be swapped, and not removed—so you can’t take your overpowered attachments off. I suppose that’s good, since it helps preserve the forward flow of gameplay, and you don’t have to be stuck too long as your teammates swap out attachments at every opportunity. It also makes getting to safe rooms feel more fun instead of just being the end of the level—you can expect a chance to buy improvements for the whole team, your specific weapon, and even get a new card to enhance your (or your team’s) abilities.
I really like the idea behind Back 4 Blood’s card system, but it took me a while to become convinced. There are truly an amazing amount of different cards available to you that can use to create a synergistic build. Cards aren’t available to you all at once, so it can potentially be thrilling to finally see your powerful card pop up in the cards that are available.
Earning new cards is done through a system that is a bit convoluted, and traps you into spending in-game currency on items you don’t’ necessarily want. It really gives you that card feeling—but I would have almost preferred blind packs than a progression like is currently implemented. As it is, you’ll get a series of cards you can unlock—but you have to spend supply points on unlocking each card in order to finish the set. It makes Back 4 Blood feel like a grind to gamble—and I prefer more deliberate progression.
Back 4 Blood has some great looking graphics, and some pretty solid voice talent to add to its impressive production values. Back 4 Blood can be an impressively pretty game, and it has some great atmospheric sections.
The level design in Back 4 Blood feels a bit middling, however. There are your normal finale set pieces, but none of these feels particularly inspired—and I struggle to think of one that is unique to Back 4 Blood, with every scenario having been in another co-op game at one point or another.
It’s hard to find genuine, tangible criticism in Back 4 Blood beyond the hard to shake generic feeling. Perhaps Back 4 Blood would have been better if there were more memorable character interactions, but only a few characters really stand out. Maybe I’ll feel differently the longer I play, however. My biggest gripe is Back 4 Blood right now is the network matchmaking. For some reason, whenever I try to get a game together with my friends—even when we’re all on the same platform—I have to enable cross play, and then cross my fingers and hope it works. It’s a frustrating experience more times than not.
And what makes it worse is that Back 4 Blood isn’t really a solo experience. At all. You can play solo (but not offline), but the bots are abysmally bad. You also don’t earn supply points solo, which is a bummer for those who can’t have their friends around to play reliably—and would rather not suffer with groups of strangers.
Back 4 Blood is a good game. There’s no doubt. It has great shooting mechanics, and a fun card system—even if it does take a bit to get used to. I wish I could shake off how generic it all feels, and perhaps that’s due to familiarity. I just wish there was more care into creating visually distinctive “mutated” classes, and some more fun finale to participate in. Despite my complaints, I’ll probably be playing Back 4 Blood for a while to come, and I’m sure it’ll have a solid playerbase even when the initial wave wears off. It’s just damn fun.
A Windows key was provided to us for this review.
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