Back 4 Blood is quietly one of the biggest releases of 2021.
It's not just because it's a four-player co-op zombie shooter or an eight-player competitive multiplayer title, either. Back 4 Blood is the spiritual successor to the beloved Left 4 Dead from 2008, which still boasts around 25,000 players per day on Steam.
So yes, there's a lot riding on this release from developer Turtle Rock Studios, the team behind that classic. After a brief blip with 2015's Evolve, the team has returned to its roots, though it isn't just content with bringing a graphically updated version of Left 4 Dead to modern audiences.
With some interesting gameplay additions to a beloved formula, Back 4 Blood has an outside chance of obtaining the same longevity as its source inspiration.
Graphics and Gameplay
The first thing onlookers will notice about B4B is that it looks spectacular on any console. There's a limited number of player characters in the game, but they look great, whether it's on the character select screen or out in the wild.
In that wild, those characters confront a zombie apocalypse and navigate a variety of great-looking settings. Everything from dingy warehouses and city streets to more overgrown parts of the country get immersive representation. It's all assisted by some gorgeous lighting and shading work, plus some smooth effects like fog and realistic swaying of materials.
Keep in mind this all unfolds from a first-person perspective. Little things like the details of each gun and a character's arm attire stick out in a positive way. So too does the grisly nature of this world, including just how nasty it can get—parting a zombie's head from its shoulders too close to the player's character, for example, will coat blood over the player's hands, weapon and body realistically.
The setting is immersive in the sense of dread—this is very much a dystopia wherein the worst-case scenario unfolded. It's dark, dangerous and aided by some superb sound design, both in the weapons feedback and the terrors around every corner and ducking in every shadow.
Characters all sound unique with solid voice acting too. When players aren't screaming into mics while staring down a zombie horde, the characters themselves offer dialogue that fits the scene, such as apologizing for scaring a noisy flock of birds that alerts the horde.
The broad range of personalities from the characters and the solid presentation of it all plays into the gameplay side of things too. This best shines through via the fact that they all have certain team buffs and starter weapons that come with special perks.
Enemy design, not counting the general horde but the special classes of zombies, is really well done too. One of the early special enemies charges right at the player and is something of tank. The catch is, it hides its weak point while charging at the player—that means it's exploitable to a player's teammates, which encourages and rewards communication.
It's all topped off by the fact that gunplay is incredibly solid. That's not the easiest thing to nail in a game these days because there are so many good shooters out there, so this point shouldn't go overlooked—this might just be a zombie shooter, but it feels fantastic from the first-person perspective.
And that's just the stuff that mirrors Left 4 Dead.
B4B goes in an innovative, modern-feeling direction with the implementation of cards. Think, a touch of Hearthstone to the zombie formula. Corruption cards, for example, are RNG-based cards the game draws before a round that can dramatically change how it plays.
Some corruption cards alter the stage's weather. Some mean more of a certain armored enemy. One can even cause every single zombie to combust, which means players have to watch out for their flaming bodies after disposing of them. These are debuffs, short and sweet, and they provide a nice mixup to each round that helps replayability.
Rest assured, players get cards too—a lot of cards. They get to choose from a random selection drawn from their starter deck. For example, during the tutorial, one of these morphed the character's melee into a knife attack. Over time, players will unlock more and more cards and be able to customize the deck they take into rounds for both co-op and competitive multiplayer.
The effort to keep the formula fresh and promote replayability extends to the levels themselves. While some might ding B4B for only having so many maps, the randomization factor is a big deal. Items and weapons, among other aspects, are never in the same place on each playthrough. That not only feels great to keep things fresh, but it also encourages exploration.
For the most part, B4B is an absolute blast. Levels are always interesting, especially thanks to alarms, animals and other things they have to avoid that can attract the horde by making noise. There's plenty of loot, including weapon attachments, to discover that will aid players when the game throws out a do-or-die situation.
If there's a big frustration with gameplay, it might just be how difficult things get when nearing an end goal. It might sound silly or obvious to say the game just throws an increasing number of enemies at the player, but that's what it does, and it can be too much for even coordinated crews at times. Throwing multiples of each type of special Ridden at a player's squad is a big ask.
That said, that's the point. Looting on the fly in a zombie apocalypse should be a blast, especially when it properly rewards good communication and strategy. B4B nails that, though it's important to point out the game is not nearly as fun as a solo player because teammate A.I. is spotty, to be generous. Players should experience this one with other humans, and they might not be able to put it down once they do.
Story and More
Believe it or not, B4B does have something resembling a brief story.
That tale unfolds over three chapters, and no, it's not anything groundbreaking for this genre. To keep it brief, the limited number of colorful characters just so happen to be immune to what befell the rest of the globe. Those people go around the country performing tasks, such as attempting to rescue survivors.
It's a little silly that this group of characters is the highly skilled last line of defense given their silly outfits and personalities. But hey, it's a zombie apocalypse, and the game has to keep customization of characters interesting, right?
Customization is a so-so part of B4B upon launch. Characters can get a ton of different outfits and such, as expected.
On a more micro level, per-game weapon customization is in, as players can find attachments to slap on guns throughout the game world. But it's a clunky feature that will take players some time to get used to, especially while trying to make on-the-fly swaps and adjustments in the middle of a fight.
Those characters do come with specific team buffs and such, but it's not overly important to prioritize one over the other because the effects just aren't that great. Keep in mind that players will have to listen to the given characters' voices and deal with their personalities for a long, long time if they want to main a character, so it might be best to not roll with the annoying character just because of a minor team buff. Pick responsibly but selfishly, players.
It does feel like the deck system has some serious potential. Building out decks with friends for certain levels or challenges should be a good time. Strategizing who builds their deck how and why before diving into a level is something that will define some of the top-tier play and will perhaps be required for some of the game's most significant challenges.
That said, a cliche like "two sides to every coin" exists for a reason. With any system like this in this video game landscape, there's a hesitation of what might come after launch via microtransactions and whether a card-based system will start offering up pay-to-win mechanics. At launch, everything feels fair and earnable with enough play time.
Also on the flip side of the cards conversation is the fact that players could just ignore the decks system and enjoy the zombie slaying. It's still fun without the presence of cards. That versatility is a big boost for the game's outlook.
Overall progression gets handled how players would expect via a points system. Spend points to unlock new cards and customization options for characters. A feature called supply lines adds meaningful strategy to how players can unlock items and cards. Players can choose to tackle a specific supply line after viewing what each one offers as rewards from start to finish, which is a nice way to mix up the stereotypical, almost battle-pass-feeling system.
Something else that smiles favorably on B4B is that the game runs excellently right out of the box, which isn't something most titles can say in a release-now-patch-later environment. There's also a boatload of options tucked into the menus, including a robust set of display and performance tweaks players can make on PC.
In Left 4 Dead and its sequel, the competitive multiplayer would unfold on the usual campaign maps. Not the case here.
These are smaller, independent maps that shrink over time via a ring. The idea is awesome—take the shrinking map feature of the uber-popular battle royales and apply it to a zombie apocalypse for some serious fun.
But the great idea throws out some mixed results. These are already pretty cramped maps to start with, so forcing everyone into even smaller situations creates a chaotic bit of gameplay.
At its most basic, eight players pop into a competitive game and will swap sides between human and zombie teams. The team that survives the longest after both sides have had a turn wins. The shrinking circle aims to provide tension, especially with the timer ticking, but it can be more a source of frustration than anything.
That said, it's a little jarring just how floaty and non-responsive the zombie side of things can feel. Some of that is simply because the human characters feel so great and precise to control from a first-person perspective. Popping out to third person and juggling abilities like a cross-map leap takes some serious getting used to—but it doesn't help that it simply doesn't feel as responsive by comparison.
Despite some of the floaty feelings and rough learning curve, the undead side of things is fun to explore, though at least at the game's launch, it does feel a little too easy to get the best of the survivors because the small maps just make it so hard for humans to hide.
Make no mistake: There is huge potential here. Quicker, bite-sized multiplayer sessions with a zombie horde thrown into the mix on shrinking maps is a blast of an idea. But this whole mode is also clearly going to have a hard time retaining players compared to the co-op side of things.
And that's not a bad thing, by the way. But the structure of things makes it feel like certain metas will develop and quickly become dominant, which could go unaddressed and become boring if the game doesn't get consistent updates like other online shooters. It just won't have that overarching randomization factor that keeps things fresh that will help the co-op side—like any shooter, competitive players will find the dominant guns and cards and lean into those in an effort to win.
Again, a lot of this comes down to post-launch support. There are some awesome ideas here, and the gunplay and teamwork required to succeed is top-notch. With some refinement, the competitive multiplayer side of this release could develop some serious legs too.
Most players who pick up B4B know what they are getting themselves into and will have a blast, especially if it's a quick gaming session and not all that often.
This is, after all, a highly polished, great-feeling zombie shooter with good co-op right out of the box that's built atop a rock-solid, if not legendary foundation.
While the competitive multiplayer itself is pretty disappointing at launch, the potential for tweaks and could squeak out a winner. But as a co-op game alone, this is a superb release made better by some savvy gameplay wrinkles like randomization and feature innovations like the cards system.
Maybe B4B doesn't have the Left 4 Dead nostalgia factor, but it's got enough in the way of modern systems and innovation to carve out its own legacy, especially with the proper support for its lifecycle.