When I saw that Back 4 Blood was getting a Closed Alpha during The Game Awards, my excitement for this game shifted into overdrive. I’ve been looking forward to it for years, so to get a release date (June 22, 2021) and the opportunity to play it within the week made me ecstatic.
To give you some context, I’ve played more than 300 hours of Left 4 Dead 2 since its release in 2009. I still play the game’s Versus mode regularly on PC with my friends. I feel like I know the game back to front, but not more than Back 4 Blood’s development team Turtle Rock Studios, who created Left 4 Dead way back when. Turtle Rock used to be known as Valve South before they became an independent studio in 2008. Following 2015’s asymmetrical multiplayer Evolve, they’re now working on a spiritual successor to their long-dormant franchise.
Hopefully, you can see where my excitement stems from then… given Valve’s lack of vested interest in the franchise over the past decade, this is the closest we’re going to get to Left 4 Dead 3 for the time being. Out of interest and what felt like an obligation, I’ve played a lot of it over the weekend, and I have plenty of thoughts. I must preface all of them by saying that this is an Alpha so everything is subject to change – but the full game is out in seven months, so I imagine quite a lot of the design is set in stone.
Back 4 Blood makes a great first impression. First of all, it looks fantastic. The art style is a bit more cartoony than Left 4 Dead but it’s very effective. I love the character designs. Hoffman looks like the ultimate disgruntled curmudgeon. Before you kick things off, you can pick him or one of the other ‘Cleaners’ who have designated perks tied to their character.
This feeds into the game’s most inventive and controversial system, which throws randomised cards at the player before every match. You have your own deck, kind of like Hearthstone, and between rounds, you can draw cards to try and curate a build over the course of a campaign.
If you pull a lot of melee skill cards it might change how you approach combat, for example. There are definitely some balance issues with the cards at the moment, which is to be expected. A lot of them are more like “what if” variables that end up feeling out of place or overpowered. One of them changes your bash into a knife, which feels so essential to the flow of the game that I try to get it every time I play – but more on the melee later.
Similarly, the zombie hordes arrive as randomised cards, so you might get a ‘Bruiser Swarm’ or a boss-like Ogre in one round and then hordes of armoured and common infected in the next. This adds variety, but it feels like more of a replacement than a compliment to one of Left 4 Dead’s most essential hallmarks — the ‘game director’ system that dynamically tweaks the intensity of a round as you play through it.
The magic of Left 4 Dead is that the omnipotent director ensures that you’re in the dark about what might happen in any given round. But Back 4 Blood unmasks them – you know precisely what you’re getting into because of the cards. So I haven’t yet encountered any meaningful surprises in my repeat campaign playthroughs, beyond loot variety and the location of secret doors.
As you press through each level you’ll encounter stashes of Copper, which you must collect between rounds to upgrade your guns in the safe room, purchase equipment and refill your ammo. This creates a decent incentive to explore, but I’m not convinced that the system justifies itself all that well. All of the guns kill a zombie in one shot to the head, even the pistols. So there’s no distinct hierarchy. The gun with the highest rate of fire is therefore always the most effective weapon.
I liked changing guns when I found them to check them out, but the game tries to punish you for swapping with ‘anti-attachments’ that hurt your stats. This would make sense if sticking with one gun was all that rewarding – but at present, the upgrades don’t feel like they matter. I will say that the guns seem to have a star tier system that hasn’t been fully implemented yet, so this may pan out better in the future.
A good collectable you can find – usually by voluntarily scaring crows that alert the horde – are extra perk cards that add to your build mid-match. That’s a really solid implementation of Risk vs Reward that ties the game’s systems together. It means you can jump into a different playstyle on the fly, depending on what you pick up.
One of the most interesting ways to play at the moment is melee lifesteal, where you can gain your health back by cleaving zombies with an axe. But there aren’t any upgrades for melee weapons, so you end up just having loads of unused Copper once you buy your equipment. You can drop your extra coins, ammo and kit for your friends which is a saving grace, but strangely you can’t drop weapon attachments, which might help the weapon upgrade system feel more worthwhile.
Melee itself doesn’t feel too compelling either. You can hit multiple enemies with one swing sometimes, but most of the time you feel like you’re dealing with single targets in sequence rather than a horde in Back 4 Blood thanks to the enemy A.I. The game does its best to try and make you use its block button which pushes the enemy away from you, but the animations take way too long to fire and the enemies don’t clump easily, so you might get one or two of the big group that is ceaselessly hacking at your health bar, but you’re going to have to spin around and be clinical with your inputs to take out all the zombies surrounding you in time before you die. Dealing with a horde feels frustrating as a result. Vermintide would be a good touchstone for melee combat here.
To add to this, you’ve got the current special infected roster, which feels inconsistent. The main problem is that the designs aren’t all that distinguishable from each other. I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out what name I should be calling out before it gets the jump on us.
The Hocker is probably the best of the bunch. They fire goo at a Cleaner and stick them in place, so a friend will have to bash them free, which is good gameplay that induces panic. The Snitch also works as intended, an alarm zombie that calls a horde if you don’t kill it quickly.
Beyond that, you’ve got the Retch, which is a glorified Boomer/Spitter hybrid. They can cover the floor in toxic sludge – but it’s an odd colour that blends in, so you’re often not aware of it and how it can hurt you.
By comparison, the Spitter’s goo in Left 4 Dead is bright green and covered in particle effects, so you know not to dip your toes. Finally, we’ve got the most disappointing one, the Bruiser. It has a big arm to bash you with, and there’s barely any chance to evade it.
You just have to shoot it quickly before it gets to you or they will start pounding the team into oblivion. You can’t push it back and you’re not quick enough to run away and block it, so there’s no tricking or goading this infected into doing their ability so you can get rid of them – you just kill them like the commons or you die.
Same goes for the Ogre, which is a boss character three times the size of Left 4 Dead’s Tank. We’ve resorted to running past it, or heading back and trapping it in a doorway that it can’t get through and cheesing it because otherwise, it’s just a waste of bullets and time.
Its size means there is no way you’re blocking its attacks, and if you get too far it chucks explosive globs at you that deal massive damage. You’ll also be lucky to kill it, as it appears at random throughout the stage and recedes when you take a third off of its health bar. It feels like a big arbitrary blockade that doesn’t reward smart play.
Ultimately, I think a lot of my problems with the game stem from the fact that it has been built like Call Of Duty Zombies, but it’s still trying to be Left 4 Dead. You have aim-down-sight which in a horde game is pretty difficult to justify (there’s no stealth mechanics so sniping feels a bit pointless) but it’s the stamina bar that really confounds me.
As if the animations weren’t slow enough, movement is like wading through treacle, and the game is adamant that you can’t run forever. Your base movement speed is painfully slow, and the environments are far more cluttered and linear than Left 4 Dead, so things get tight very quickly.
I’m sure it will feel novel if you play games like Call Of Duty and you haven’t played Left 4 Dead in a long time. It’s a very competent co-op shooter, even in its current Alpha state. But before you sing its praises as the next Left 4 Dead, I urge you to go back to Left 4 Dead 2 for 20 minutes after you play Back 4 Blood.
Billing it as a spiritual successor or Turtle Rock “returning to their roots” feels a little disingenuous at the moment, given how much it is leaving behind, and how much it is aping from trendy modern shooters. It has the hallmarks but it’s really lacking the mechanical nuance that makes Left 4 Dead so fun to play. However, as mentioned, Back 4 Blood is still in Alpha (although again, it’s coming out in seven months, which isn’t a lot of time).
Personally, I’m hopeful that the still-thriving Left 4 Dead community who may have had their eye on this game can help shape it into something more evocative of the series Turtle Rock created. The studio (like any developer post-2010) can’t stop talking about its community, its gamers, its players and how they will shape the development. Eventually, this could be the game to ultimately dethrone Left 4 Dead, 11 years later.
If not, and Turtle Rock wants to head in a different direction with Back 4 Blood, that’s also fine. I support that endeavour, I’m sure there’s a market for it, and I’ll likely be playing it regardless, with tempered expectations. But this is not the Left 4 Dead 3 veterans of that series may have been hoping for, at least not right now.
Godspeed Turtle Rock. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye on Back 4 Blood, whatever the weather.