We’ve been shooting, slashing, and exploding digital zombies for nearly 4 decades. Zombie video games date back to 1984 with Zombie Zombie on the ZX Spectrum. Since then, we’ve had a slew of every conceivable permutation on the genre, and yet, like the insatiable appetite of our enemy, we still want more. One of the high points of this apocalyptic category was Turtle Rock Studio’s Left 4 Dead in 2008. Since then, the studio has fought to find the same success culminating in the short-lived and tepid response to Evolve in 2015. Though the game received critical praise, the payer base evaporated quickly leaving the studio to ponder, what’s next? Their answer is to make a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead appropriately named Back 4 Blood.
You will play as a “cleaner” in a squad of four. Each member has some unique stats and brings in modification cards that can help the team. In each of the campaign’s acts, you’ll move from point A to B, kill swarms of the undead, and occasionally complete a simple task. While the story is relatively simple, the player hub is Fort Hope where you’ll take orders from a crusty military leader named Phillips. As you finish levels, you’ll be able to draw more modification cards from your custom-built deck. The deckbuilding system acts to produce unique experiences in the hopes to alleviate the fatigue of playing levels repeatedly. It’s a great idea, I just wish there were more cards with more extreme changes. I appreciate the buff to reloading my gun faster, but it would have been fun to have a higher risk/reward card in my deck.
The game is strongly designed to be played with three friends. However, you can jump in with computer-controlled allies, as well as matchmaking, to equip solo players to experience the full campaign. Overall, you should be able to complete the campaign in about 6-8 hours if you try to move through the levels quickly. During your time, you’ll purchase equipment and upgrades, discover steadily improving guns, and even purchase attachments to make sure you feel like you’re always picking up new weapons.
The gun variety is great with dozens of weapons to choose from and hundreds of permutations when you consider the attachments. Each gun feels distinct and sounds great, but I wish there was more utility for longer-range rifles. I found myself using an SMG for the bulk of my playthrough and I always felt like using a sniping rifle put me at a disadvantage. Instead, I found myself maxing out my player’s speed and reload times with SMGs via the card system as they are disproportionately the easiest way to move quickly and spray bullets. The guns feel great, I just wish it were more practical to use all of them.
The art and level design are top-notch. You’ll wind through apartment buildings, wade through swamps, navigate through downtowns, and much more. This dangerous and bleak world is underscored by a great soundtrack and solid sound design. I was able to hear the direction of one of the specialist zombies and even enjoyed the voice acting for the most part. In a game that is largely sold on shooting as many living dead as possible, the attention to detail raises the overall experience and made me want to play as different characters to see what dialogue I had missed. It is also worth noting, this game has the best fire animation I have ever seen. I know it’s not exactly a marketing bullet point, but I spent a generous amount of time examining this game’s lighting and fire visuals. My hat is off to whoever designed and made that system.
After you’ve built your modification deck, and had your fill of the campaign, the game also features competitive multiplayer in Swarm mode. Teams of four square off with one group as cleaners and the other as Ridden. The basic zombies act as a distraction while you sneak or sprint at your human opponents. While this serves as a welcome distraction from a repetitive campaign, the combat isn’t deep enough to spend too much time in. I always appreciate games trying to add multiple modes to add value to the purchase, but I would have preferred one more story act rather than competitive mode.
I did not experience much of any game-breaking bugs. The game largely runs at a steady framerate and has plenty of polish. The biggest disappointment was matchmaking for both campaign and Swarm. It took six or seven tries to get into a lobby of Swarm with players who didn’t back out or kicking me back to the matchmaking screen. Likewise, finding players in the campaign was fast, but teammates frequently backed out. Hopefully, offering private matches and lobbies will alleviate this for people playing with friends, but for those looking to fill a slot or solo players; it can be frustrating to find a solid match.
It’s also worth noting that the cross-save and play-anywhere functions on Xbox worked like a dream. I started it on my console, then fired it up on my laptop, and finished on my desktop, all without a hitch. I certainly hope other platforms adopt this style of allowing me to be flexible where I play the content I own. Furthermore, the day-one patch and release on Game Pass should alleviate the matchmaking woes.
The Ultimate Edition provided for this review sells for $100 and includes the base game, an Annual Pass ($40) that will include three upcoming downloadable content drops with New Story, Playable Characters, Special Mutated Ridden, and more, four Character Battle Hardened Skin Pack, and additional digital in-game items: Rare Banner, Emblem, Spray, Title.
Back 4 Blood unapologetically is a reconstruction of Left 4 Dead’s formula in a modern package. While even the name gives a wink to their previous projects, I wanted Turtle Rock to shake up the formula more. While I don’t believe the game’s merits are strong enough to attract anyone who isn’t already a fan of the formula, I’m sure Back 4 Blood is strong enough to hold players’ attention for a while. It is a solid package and a good game. I hope that sales are strong enough to warrant large content drops down the road and more for players to sink their teeth into. Until then, this is a fine way to shoot zombies, but just not enough to stand out from the hoard of other games in the genre.