It won’t win many awards for originality, and it could never honestly be described as unique. But even at an early stage, it’s clear that Back 4 Blood offers an exciting, tense, and balanced series of co-operative missions pitting your squad of four against hundreds of onrushing zombies. Sorry, ‘Ridden’.
New mechanics are thrown in, like the card system (see box, opposite), and your team of survivors is, this time around, less about running for their lives and more about taking on missions to help what’s left of humanity get the upper hand. Of course, visually, it’s a huge step up from 2009’s Left 4 Dead 2, but then that’s mostly because time happened.
All the same, Back 4 Blood enjoys a moody, muted palette that helps the brief flashes of colour – blood coating your gun, the flash of a Ridden’s eyes – pop all the more. It’s effectively stylish in its presentation.
But probably best of all, what we gathered from playing Back 4 Blood’s beta is that your team of misfit horde-blasters is nowhere near as riddled with verbal diarrhoea as they appeared to be in trailers when the game was first released. Legitimately, it was a concern that Turtle Rock would have opted to make your squad a bunch of quippy quipsters, full of unnecessary anti-comedy lines and the sort of ‘cool’ writing that actively sets the cause of cool back 35 years. Instead, what we have is a group of four people – selected from a roster of eight – working as ‘cleaners’ through a series of levels, nattering away, hitting us with walls of exposition as you reach lulls in the action and – or ‘but’, if you will – being easy to ignore and not really annoying with it. Bliss.
It helps that the moment-to-moment action is the right side of great fun – that really does help take the emphasis off any quips and puts it squarely on focus, reactions, and situational awareness. Wherever you go, you will meet zombies – sorry, ‘Ridden’ – so it’s rare, outside of safe houses, to have anything more than a few seconds without seeing the shambling gits moving. As such, this creates a distinct ebb and flow to the action; you move into a level and start picking off one or two enemies, which becomes a dozen or so, a teammate activates an objective before you’re actually ready and, suddenly, you’re swarmed by dozens of the blighters. But you’re OK – you’re picking them off, and you’re working through it. The Ridden keep coming, though, and you start getting backed into a corner. Then the bigger ones turn up – enemies that can poison you, or hold you stuck in place until a teammate rescues you, or ones that just have giant hands with which to batter you to death. Before you know it, you’re on the verge of being overwhelmed, shots are firing non-stop both from you and your team, ammunition is starting to run low, and there’s a hint of desperation on the horizon. It’s intense. And, from what we’ve played, it’s well-balanced too, with the action threatening to overwhelm you – even doing so at times – but never feeling like it’s constantly too much, or like it’s being unfair. If you work together, if you pick your shots, if you’re in any way smart about it, you have a fighting chance. And that’s the sign of very good design.
How Back 4 Blood holds up across its whole package, well that’s up to the gods now. Well, the gods and the developers, at least. There’s every chance the experience will be dulled over an extended campaign, that the cards system will operate as nothing more than a gimmick, or that, actually, the Witty Banter between teammates will become a big focus and ruin everything for anyone who can hear or read the dialogue. It’s up in the air; this is based on a beta version of a game.
At the same time, though, Back 4 Blood is out not very long at all after you’ll be reading this – it may have been pushed as an early, unfinished beta, but really the sly pooches at Warner were pushing out a pre-release demo; a version of the game much closer to the final released game than they’re likely to let on. And as such, it’s hard not to be excited.
Format PC / PS5 / XB S/X / PS4 / XBO
Developer Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release 12 October