Back 4 Blood is a game that I’ve been hammering my head against for the last fortnight, and mainly in frustration. Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Left 4 Dead and the formula of this co-op shooter genre in general, so why don’t I love Back 4 Blood? Turtle Rock is close, so close to recapturing Left 4 Dead’s magic, but there’s something missing from their spiritual successor.
Back 4 Blood takes the familiar form of Left 4 Dead and spices it up with a bunch of new mechanics meant to make every run unique. You’ll still be playing with four people in co-op, running a post-apocalyptic gauntlet from safe room to safe room, fending of AI directed hordes of zombies with some special enemies thrown into the mix. Except Back 4 Blood takes the randomisation further than ever before, in a way that can be cruelly punishing even on the lowest difficulty setting.
That’s all thanks to the card system. Each run has a pool of Corruption Cards which are thrown into the mix between each level, adding bonuses for the Ridden (this game’s name for zombies). The Charred card, for instance, means that some of the Ridden will simply be on fire, meaning you can’t get too close or you risk catching yourself alight. More cards are added through a run, leading up to the crescendo of the act and making for some very tough final levels. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The Cleaners that you play as also get cards, picking from a deck that you can customise.
The cards you get boost various stats, such as bullet damage, weapon swap speed, ammo count, health, and so much more. Some of the more exotic ones give specific bonuses based on conditions met, like teammates going down giving you all players a health boost. Others have massive gains on stats but at the cost of something else.
I do like this feature because it means you can tailor your deck to amplify a particular style of play, a character’s passive perks and secondary weapon, or switch things up for an act’s specific challenges. Unfortunately, the first build I tried was geared toward melee. I made a character that could get in close, swing wildly and heal the damage while I do so. This worked for the first few levels, but was quickly invalidated by the special Ridden that either exploded on me or set me on fire when I got close. After constantly getting pummelled in close quarters I switched to gunplay for the remainder of the run, persisting albeit a little deflated.
In general, the difficulty feels a little too high, even taking into account that Turtle Rock has already tweaked difficulty with their first patches. The number of monsters and modifiers thrown at you on Recruit difficulty is stilla bit ridiculous, and that’s without friendly fire and other difficulty bumps that Veteran adds.
I struggled with a lot of the levels, with some parts leaving me with me stunned. There’s one point where you are traveling down a prison corridor, but there’s a hole in the wall that just spills endless zombies at you. Even with four people, you will barely make it through. In fact, only two of my team made it. The rest died in the chaos. It just wasn’t fun and I kept reminding myself that I was playing on the easiest difficulty level.
Related to this, the fact that I was often playing with randoms did not help. Players will often run off and do their own thing with little regard for you or the zombie-alerting birds that are scattered around, summoning hoards just because it’s kind of funny, or something. On the other hand, the buddy AI that can fill their slots is often as dumb as a doornail, mainly good for dropping ammo refills, spotting enemies and then getting stuck on scenery and juddering in place.
Playing with friends is where this game is at its strongest, but while it is a touch easier when you can talk to your team, it’s still absurdly difficult at points. You need to have a good team who knows what they are doing or you will get in trouble, real fast.
Curiosity got the better of me after finishing the main campaign on Recruit. What’s Nightmare difficulty like? The change of pace was immediate. Playing alongside a friend (hi, Tef!), we noticed that the other players were mostly taking it slower, being careful not to trigger hordes. Of course, the moment one was triggered, we were annihilated in seconds by the special Ridden. We stuck with it and managed to finish the level with one remaining survivor… before having our run abruptly ended at the start of the second level.
The intention is obviously that you play the game enough to earn Supply Points and buy cards to create a deck to combat the higher difficulties. Given the slow rate at which you earn them and the initial difficulty on Recruit, that really doesn’t feel like a lot of fun to me.
All of this is frustrating as all hell, because I really feel Back 4 Blood has potential.
Shooting and maneuvering both feel great, aside from missing a slide option that’s now common in shooters. The guns all feel good, even if snipers seem a little out of place, and the progression of finding more powerful guns and attachments through a run works well. Along with some card combinations, you can create some quite frightening builds that have you reloading in the snap of a finger, dealing some horrendous damage.
The story is fairly throwaway. It’s your typical survivors romping through the apocalypse, spewing one-liners and shooting the undead, though the twist compared to Left 4 Dead is that you’re looking for a way to fight back against the zombies. There are eight characters to choose from which are fairly diverse, if lacking much real character. Then again, this is the kind of game where you don’t really care about the narrative all that much.
There are some nice set pieces, though. One particular level sees you activating a jukebox in a bar to attract the attention of a nearby horde so innocent civilians can escape. It’s all done with some licensed rock music in the background and it felt pretty good to play through.
You can run through the campaign solo if you like, but you’ll earn no supply points for it, something which Turtle Rock has already received backlash for. In this mode you do have access to every card in the game though, so if you fancy experimenting with builds, this is the place to do it.
Swarm mode, I must say, was one of my favourite things about Back 4 Blood. Two teams face off, one as the Cleaners whose objective is to survive and the other team play as the special variants of the Ridden. You take turns, seeing who can survive longer, and while it’s no Versus campaign mode, it’s surprisingly fun.