Impressions from the Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha
It’s been a few years since we’ve had a AAA title from Turtle Rock Studios. Their experiment with Evolve didn’t pan out and tragically had its servers shut down in 2018. Since the 2015 release, they’ve mostly been working on smaller Oculus games. Of course, it was only a matter of time before they came back with a spiritual successor to the game that made them famous, Left 4 Dead. Now published under WB Games, their game Back 4 Blood aims to bring players back into the fold of massive hordes of enemies. After getting an invite for the Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha, we had to give our impressions of the game so far.
The premise of Back 4 Blood comes down to a worm-like parasite that infects organic life and turns them into the Ridden. With these zombie-like creatures wandering about, humanity has to do what it takes to survive. Of course, the Ridden come in all shapes and sizes, meaning that survival is easier said than done. Playing as one of several survivors, you’ll have to work your way through various areas to escape these hordes. Sounds familiar right? Well it should, as Back 4 Blood builds off the foundation started in Left 4 Dead, taking it to more outrageous heights.
For the Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha, there were four playable characters: Evangelo, Walker, Holly, and Hoffman. Unlike Left 4 Dead, the playable characters have different passive talents. Some of these include increased melee damage, faster move speeds, or even the ability to escape being pinned down every so often. While this does give players more of a practical reason for picking a favorite character, it does make it harder to be the character that works best for your play style in random matchmaking. For my time in the alpha, I chose to play as Evangelo for all my runs, as his talents were ideal for me.
Aside from passive talents, another major addition to the formula is the new card system. Before starting a game, players are able to customize a deck of up to 15 cards. You’ll have multiple different categories for cards, each offering a selection of unique cards. These can be as simple as starting with a certain gun in your loadout, 10% extra health, or even a 10 second buff when a teammate goes down. You’ll have to choose wisely, as you’ll only use roughly half of these cards in a full run. At the start of an act, you’ll draw a handful of cards to get started, but after each safehouse, you’ll only draw one more card. At least you’ll have a chance to find more random cards out in the field.
Speaking of safehouses, much like Left 4 Dead, these areas are moments of reprieve for you and your team. What makes them different is that instead of having guns and ammo readily available, you’ll have a vendor box to purchase form. Back 4 Blood uses copper coins as currency, which you can then use to buy upgrades and other supplies. You’ll start out with a little cash, but you’ll gain more over the course of the run. This can include finding piles of copper on their own, or even as rewards for killing special Ridden. It adds a lot more strategy, giving players money to burn in their pocket. You’ll either spend it quickly, or you’ll save it and spend your earnings on bigger rewards.
These supplies you’ll find range from tool kits for opening special locked doors, defibrillators, ammo packs, and more. You’ll also have healing items like bandages, first aid kids, or pain pills. There’s even grenades and molotovs for offensive supplies, as well as firecrackers to distract the Ridden. On top of that, you’ll also have access to various weapon upgrades and attachments, as well as ammo refills. Extended mags, laser sights and more allow for improvements to your guns. I do wish there were flashlights, even just to help see in the darker areas. The inclusion of a vendor and currency changes a lot of how the game works, but it works surprisingly well. It gives the players plenty of options to play how they want. This, on top of your deck of cards, allows you to really personalize your experience.
Getting to the actual gameplay, at first, it will be very familiar to Left 4 Dead. You’ll be able to sprint, jump, crouch and interact with various objects. On top of this, you’ll also have your primary and secondary weapon slots for guns or melee weapons. The changes here are more in the quality of life aspects, being much more subtle. For example, you’ll now have access to using iron sights with your guns for more accurate shots. You’ll also be able to climb up ledges to reach various areas. Finally, you now have a stamina meter, which affects how long you can sprint for and the speed of your melee attacks. These changes make things not only more realistic, but also allows for extra depth in the gameplay.
When fighting the Ridden in the Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha, you’ll have hundreds of common enemies to annihilate. Like Left 4 Dead though, there are several special Ridden as well. This includes the Retch, Hocker, Snitch, Bruiser, and even special commons like Runners or ones wearing riot gear. There’s also special boss Ridden, which we’ll get to later. As for the main special enemy types, they all serve various purposes and will feel like remixes of past special infected. What makes them very different now is that they have large red weak spots in various places. To take them out quickly, you’ll want to aim for these giant pustules extruding from their bodies. It makes things a bit more interesting than just “aiming for the head,” but at first, it appears too easy.
Luckily, Back 4 Blood provides plenty of challenge. Despite the special Ridden having glowing weak spots, they still offer plenty of difficulty. Retches can launch their projectile vomit from an incredibly large distance, summoning nearby hordes. If you think you’re far enough away, you’ll have to think again. Hockers can launch a web like secretion that will paralyze a player in place, requiring a melee strike from a teammate to be freed. Snitches will scream out and summon nearby hordes if you disturb them or don’t take them out quickly. Finally, my nemesis, the Bruiser, will probably be the most difficult to deal with. He strikes hard with his giant arm, and he can even charge you in an instant. There were several moments when there was a good distance between us, only for him to be right in front of me with an attack.
There’s definitely a need for some balance here, as some special Ridden spawn in groups. During some moments, I saw upwards of six or seven in one wave, on top of dozens of common Ridden. Some of their behaviors or attacks need adjustment too, as it’s difficult to telegraph certain actions. They do at least feel like they’re different enough from Left 4 Dead, which I suppose is the main goal. Either way, just like the infected of that game, the Ridden are just as dangerous in numbers. Though it does seem you’re more dangerous as well, even if you go down, you’ll still able to fight quite a bit. I feel like you’re much better at killing enemies while incapacitated in this game, which makes you a bit more viable to save.
Of course, I did mention the special boss Ridden. In the Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha, there was only one: the Ogre. This giant monstrosity emerges from the ground and wreaks havoc on you and your team, even coming with his own health bar. He’ll launch giant fleshy orbs that explode on impact and he’ll even use his large stature to beat you into submission. If you think you can avoid him due to his size, you’ll have to think again too. The Ogre is able to reach into doorways to grab nearby players and can even pull them out of the room. In some cases, he can even break down walls to continue his pursuit. I have yet to defeat him entirely, as he always burrows away after an all-out assault. Grenades and molotovs seem especially effective on him, but I hope to one day defeat one.
Getting to the overall flow of the game, the pacing is pretty similar to Left 4 Dead. Your goal is always to get to the next safehouse, which breaks an act into four distinctive areas. Each area will potentially have an event that will require a little extra effort to make your escape. One case has players waiting for gravel to pile up so you can progress past a blocked path. Another one will have players blow up a wall to run to a ferry. Even the finale offers a big challenge, as you have to deliver two bombs while fighting the hordes of Ridden to blow up said ferry. Each poses enough challenge and offers plenty of variety and strategy to complete your task. I’m honestly looking forward to the events in later acts, as I’m curious what else the team has up their sleeve.
Being an alpha build, there’s obviously going to be things that need player feedback to tweak. Luckily, there wasn’t anything game breaking here. The worst offender would be significant frame rate drops during one finale, but I only experienced this once. Other issues are mostly minor details like broken door fragments glowing like items you collect and the AI. Unlike Left 4 Dead, the AI here is somewhat useless. They often run head first into trouble, provide very little help, and they feel like wasted space until a player matchmakes to take their place. You don’t want things to be too easy, but I’d at least want the AI to be somewhat consistent. There were times when they wouldn’t even help me up while I was down. This is definitely a game where you want at least two players working with you.
Overall, I got exactly what I needed from the Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha. It’s an evolution of what Left 4 Dead offered and yet it still maintains the familiarity. I do wish the characters were a little more interesting to listen to, but there’s still time to add more personality and charm. Who knows, maybe I’ll grow to like Evangelo more than Louis or Ellis… Who am I kidding, I love Ellis. They can’t take that away from me. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing more when the game launches on June 22nd, 2021 for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X.