After a few days of early access, Back 4 Blood is now available to all and sundry, bringing hordes of zombies Ridden to battle against in a spiritual successor to the endlessly popular Left 4 Dead series. It puts a few new twists on the formula, with new special enemies, a deck-building card system and more. So, does it live up to its legacy?
Right away, it feels like there’s a lot of game to battle your way through. There’s three main acts in the game, each subdivided into chapters and then further into the stages between each safe room. It’s a familiar structure, with levels both big and small joined together as you battle your way through the environments, often scrapping hard to get to the fortified room at the end of the stage, dealing with both regular Ridden and special enemies as you go.
However, what Back 4 Blood does differently is that, in addition to having the AI director control the flow of zombie waves your way, mixing up the lock boxes and pick ups you can find, and keeping you on your toes with special zombie spawns, you also have game-wide modifiers. Between each level, you see the new modifier cards that the AI has drawn to augment its own abilities and throw different challenges at your team.
It could be that you will now face common enemies in bullet proof vests, meaning that you really need to go for headshots. Alternatively, all the special enemies are now tougher with shielded weakspots that you need to put more damage into. They can also give you different optional objectives, like finding a vial and successfully getting it to the exit, beating a boss Ridden and running through in a certain time limit, or simply making it through to the end with all four players surviving. In addition to there being three difficulty levels, the easiest of which – Recruit – will still provide you with a stern test.
It’s how the game provides you with that test that we’ve felt is a little bit off at the game’s launch. It’s almost like the game’s AI director has taken it upon itself to one-up the Left 4 Dead AI director in how it throws special zombies at you. In that game, you’d typically be accosted by a few specials at a time, the telltale coughing or whining making you look to the rooftops and scouring for blindspots that they and their ilk might be hiding in waiting for an ambush. In Back 4 Blood, it always throws waves of them at you, doubling up on particular special zombie types, which have often been augmented by the game’s card system so that they need much more concerted gunfire to take down.
Honestly that would be fine if it didn’t feel like this was the lynchpin for the game’s difficulty. The second act also has levels where you face off against a huge wave of these special enemies, backed up by the game’s boss zombie types, the Ogre and the Breaker. Where these were towering monstrosities that you simply had to run away from in what was shown prior to the game’s release, here concerted fire on their weak points will take them down pretty quickly. It’s telling that the game again throws multiples of these enemies, diluting their initial impact in a video game equivalent to the shift from Alien to Aliens.
That weight being placed on the special enemies can also invalidate some of the options found in the deck building card system. This effectively lets you tailor your character’s growth as you run through an act of the story, each level letting you choose from one of five randomly drawn cards. What cards you can choose from are determined by your deck, and you can unlock more and more cards through play. It’s an intriguing system, as it could let you nullify ammo type scarcity by bumping up your max capacity, or lean into being a group’s healer. But if you’re a front-line melee fighter who heals themselves with kills, you can be cancelled out and forced to play more conventionally by certain situations.
There’s also just the difficulty of who you play with. With even one other party member that you don’t know, it’s frustrating to see them run and bumble around, alerting the amusingly basic pools of crows that then trigger a wave of the horde. They feels a bit too easy to trigger even if you’re being careful and attentive to what you’re doing, especially as one stray bullet from 50m away will kick them off.
And yet, despite this, I quite like what I’ve played of Back 4 Blood. I’m not wowed by it, and I worry that for all but the most heavily engaged players it will be a one and done experience, but it’s a solid experience if you wade through it with friends and there is certainly potential for long-term play.
Expect our full Back 4 Blood review in the coming days. The survival shooter is out now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.