I am once again asking people to play a few hours of Left 4 Dead 2 before they engage in hyperbole and call Back 4 Blood “Left 4 Dead 3″.
This was my conclusion when the Closed Alpha dampened my hopes for the game back in December of 2020, and it still stands. I have nearly 500 hours in Left 4 Dead 2 and I still play it on a weekly basis, so I feel like I can tell you with confidence that this is not a spiritual successor, especially in the way it feels to play.
However, after bashing the Early Access Beta for several hours, I’ve been moved along a few stages of grief into acceptance and consequentially, I’m actually pretty excited about Back 4 Blood’s potential as something completely different
Sure, it’s not the traditional revival that I wanted from the studio that gave us Left 4 Dead. It’s more like Call of Duty: Warzone grafted onto a linear co-op cadaver. You have a stamina meter and aim-down-sights, and the zombies (sorry, Ridden) don’t feel physical.
You can’t push clumps of them back to tread water, and the AI is a little spotty, so like Call of Duty’s Zombies, once there’s enough of them around you it’s over. The way they were rubberbanding around me when the servers were under stress meant that I was going down to poorly signposted phantom strikes that I had no control over, which is hopefully something that can be ironed out.
Crucially, Back 4 Blood’s design choices create a different kind of pace to Left 4 Dead. In this game, it makes sense to keep your distance and pull the zombies and Special Ridden towards you. As soon as we see a hulking Tallboy or an Exploder, we’re running the other way so that we can pick it off before it can get to us. This is because if you get up close and personal with any kind of Special Ridden, you’re pretty much doomed.
The range on the Special Ridden’s attacks is ridiculous at the moment, so until they’ve been tuned properly, you need to steer clear. If a Tallboy starts pounding the ground and you’re all close together or stuck inside a building, it’s most likely game over.
This is one of the biggest departures from Left 4 Dead, where you can push back Boomers before they explode or bash Hunters and Jockeys to stop them from pinning you when you’re the last person standing.
What confuses me most about this is that Back 4 Blood is arguably even more cluttered and linear than Left 4 Dead. The game puts you in a lot of situations where you have to hold out in a tight space or rush through the map, but there’s no way to interrupt or manage multiple Special Ridden if you don’t start shooting them from far away.
The Special Ridden have big glowing pustules to shoot, but the weak points are awkwardly placed so by the time you try to be precise they probably already have your number. There are also variants of each type of Special Ridden, but they’re indistinguishable in the heat of battle, so you don’t really know what you’re dealing with until it’s all too late. This is fine on the easiest difficulty where you can just rush through objectives willy-nilly, but knock it up to the middle choice, Veteran, and you’ll be dead in seconds if you try and beat Back 4 Blood’s levels quickly. It makes the game challenging in a way that rewards communication and I really admire that, but you’re always on the back foot and it can become a slog.
I promise you I’m getting to the parts of Back 4 Blood that I like, but at the minute I think the game’s biggest problem is balance. It definitely needs another difficulty in between Survivor and Veteran, and the arsenal doesn’t make much sense. Because of the lacking physicality of the zombies, the melee feels particularly pointless. Most of the blunt or sharp weapons take multiple swings to kill a single zombie, and if you’re on Veteran or Nightmare, your teammates will just drop back and fill you with friendly fire because you’re in the way. The star system used for guns is also not based on pure firepower but the summation of your attachments and a set of nebulous stats, which makes a fun new system (curating a weapon build across a run) needlessly confusing.
But once I’ve accepted that Back 4 Blood is a different beast, curation is the main joy for me. I love the way each run can start to feel personal as you maintain your currency and salvage offensive, defensive and tactical kit across maps. I like being able to drop my ammo and Copper to crowdfund the survival of my teammates, even if it is weird that you can’t drop your attachments to crowdfund the best guns too. This is where Back 4 Blood’s unique deck-building element fits in carefully. I’ve now got my favorite character, Mom, who gets one quick revive per map. My deck of cards I put together at the base is tuned to my take on her playstyle, focusing on healing efficiency and painless revives. As I progress between levels I get to pick random cards from that deck and grow stronger, gaining new abilities to help my friends, which is a great feeling.
I’m the tanky team doctor, and my pals fill in by focusing their cards on ammo preservation or pure damage. Then the Corruption Card modifiers are the cherry on top, creating awesome chaos by randomly steeping maps in darkness or throwing in armored foes and alarmed doors. Once I’ve unlocked loads of cards and I’m playing with a committed group of Cleaners with their own special builds, I think Back 4 Blood is going to start to feel as rewarding as something like Payday 2, especially on Nightmare difficulty.
But with that in mind, Back 4 Blood will also need some moreish progression systems and unlocks to keep players coming back when they’ve aced every campaign on the highest difficulty. I imagine the drip-feed of new cards is the current answer, but what happens when that runs dry? I definitely won’t be sticking around to play the game’s take on Left 4 Dead 2’s competitive multiplayer mode. Back 4 Blood’s Versus outing is currently a poorly balanced horde shooter where it feels hard to coordinate on either side. It could be something cool in the future but at the moment it just feels at odds with the rest of the experience.
Turtle Rock has said it’s not going to make a Versus Campaign mode which is a crying shame, as that is what has kept Left 4 Dead 2 alive for more than ten years. Surely in making a spiritual successor, you would have wanted to maintain that, but the reasoning from the developers is because, as I’ve pointed out, Back 4 Blood is more defensive than the series it is inspired by. This is at least concrete proof that Back 4 Blood is moving in a different direction to Left 4 Dead, but I’m still going to be playing the cooperative campaign mode regardless, as some of its new ideas are absolutely worthwhile.
You have to be critical about the things you really love, and Turtle Rock has given me hundreds of hours of joy with Left 4 Dead. Back 4 Blood will likely give me a lot more, but I’m not sure I’ll be sticking around to play so much of it once I’ve finished its challenging campaigns, as it lacks some of the best hallmarks of Turtle Rock’s iconic 00s shooter series. It feels like what would happen if you focus-tested Left 4 Dead in a shooter landscape dominated by Call of Duty. The result is something unique and enjoyable, but it’s too far from the source material to call it a true spiritual successor.
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