Left 4 Dead’s legacy has long outlasted the flash in the pan that the series has been under Valve’s stewardship. The original was a big hit in 2008, with sequel controversially following just a year later, but since then? Well, there’s been innumerable patches, a handful of additional campaigns (some community-made), but most importantly there’s been no direct sequel.
Arguably, it’s still the king of its particular style of adaptive co-op horde shooter, though that hasn’t stopped several pretenders to the crown from emerging over the past few years, Warhammer: Vermintide and World War Z perhaps the best known of these. Now there’s a new challenger, a true heir to the throne that even follows the ‘something 4 something else’ naming. Back 4 Blood is probably the closest thing we’ll see to Left 4 Dead 3 in quite some time.
Of course, there’s a good reason for that: Back 4 Blood comes from the creators of Left 4 Dead. Turtle Rock’s short time as part of Valve spawned this co-op shooter, their regained independence in 2010 now seeming like a death knell for the series, but leaving the rights to the game title and world behind them. Back 4 Blood has an awful lot of the trappings and feel of Left 4 Dead, but it is a distinct entity.
The fundamentals of the co-op shooter remain. There’s up to four human players (AI characters will sub in to back you up if needed), trying to work their way through levels, get from safe house to safe house and fend off the hordes of fast-moving zombies. Oh, sorry… not zombies, not ‘infected’, but ‘Ridden’.
There aren’t just regular zo…. Ridden, but also special enemies that turn up. Left 4 Dead fans will almost immediately recognise the silhouettes of that game’s Boomber, Charger, Hunter and others, but it’s all a ruse. These aren’t the specials you remember and act rather differently. The Retch has the bulk of a Boomer, but it can now also projectile vomit like the L4D Spitter; the Hocker leaps around a little like the Hunter, but it fires a binding web from afar that will pin one of you in place; the Bruiser might have the Charger’s single giant clubbed arm, but it’s much more about its devastating melee and isn’t lured into ill-fated charges to nothingness. All of them now have highlighted weak spots, pushing you to more finessed play when trying to take them down.
Then there’s the Orge, a vast monstrosity that’s literally the size of a house. It will dominate any level or area that it spawn in, and while it does have a health bar, your only real option is to run and escape to a little island of safety. You can practically guarantee that a campaign showdown will be about actually trying to stand and fight against this Tank2.
All of this is thrown at you dynamically by the game, waves of enemies swelling into hordes that threaten to overwhelm you in different areas each time you play. You might not have an Ogre dig its way out of the ground on one play through, only to be confronted by it and forced to play very differently on your next go. One thing that feels quite clear is that Back 4 Blood is much happier to throw its special Ridden at you in greater numbers, amidst hordes that feel a bit thicker than you saw a decade ago. You can pop one Retch into a wet acidic explosion, only to see another one rounding a corner to take its place.
It’s at least in part thanks to the card system that has been woven into Back 4 Blood. The AI is dealt Corruption cards at the start of the game and as you reach each safe house, adding more enemies and specials into the mix, making ammo more difficult to find, generating fog through the world, and more.
To counter this, you have your own player cards, that give you particular bonuses. These can be built into decks, allowing you to channel your chosen character into a particular style of play over time, perhaps giving you fire resistance, modding your team’s survivability by giving you an extra life at the cost of health, amping up melee damage and giving you a short boost to speed for each melee kill. They boil down to percentage stat boosts a little too often, but there’s the potential for a really interesting system here, especially as the game aims to have the same kind of replay value as Left 4 Dead did back in the day.
Running through the closed alpha’s campaign – a battle to reach a bridge and blow up a river boat that is connecting the two sides of the river – the scarcity of ammunition and weapons was something that we keenly felt. There’s now weapon type specific ammo pick ups instead of universal ammo piles, and it became a running joke that we’d always find sniper ammo on one play, but never saw a sniper rifle to use it with. Safe houses have also stopped being a place to fully kit yourself out with new weapons, and feature a store to spend coins you’ve earnt through the level. You can buy grenades, partial ammo refills, scopes and attachments, though the pricing puts some of these out of reach until the very end.
Arguably, the balance was just right, though. Playing on the basic difficulty, we made it through a few hairy situations – one Ogre appearance nearly wiped out both of our retries – and while we might have all run out of ammo at various points, we made it to the next safe house or stumbled upon one of the scarce weapon pick ups to swap to a different ammo type.
There’s obviously a way for this game to go from closed alpha to its full release in June 2021, and Turtle Rock will be rebalancing all of these elements over time, but Back 4 Blood immediately feels like a natural and modernised successor to the greatness of Left 4 Dead.
The Tank is dead, long live the Ogre!