Back in 2008, Valve published a co-op first-person shooter with a horror theme, unleashing Left 4 Dead among the masses. Developed by Valve South, aka Turtle Rock Studios, the concept was a simple game of survival. Fight hordes of zombies and get to the safe rooms before having a big finale at the end of a campaign. While simple, the gameplay was polished and the game ran like a dream thanks to the adaptable Source engine. It paved the way for a sequel the following year, but of course, we can’t go past the number 2 when it comes to Valve. It’s been over a decade, and Turtle Rock Studios decided to take matters into their own hands, creating Back 4 Blood. Now instead of slaying zombies, we’re tasked with eradicating the Ridden.
In Back 4 Blood, an outbreak infects humanity with a parasitic “Devil Worm,” creating the Ridden. The Ridden only want one thing, and that’s the destruction of the remnants of humanity. Of course, humanity won’t go down without a fight, and thankfully they have hardened veteran survivors known as “Cleaners” to take on the threat. Assembling at Fort Hope, the Cleaners do what it takes to find a permanent end to the Ridden menace. It’s a bit more story than the Left 4 Dead series has utilized, adding lore to the setting for a nice change of pace. This even allows for the game to get a bit more experimental with special objectives and features.
Taking the foundation of Left 4 Dead, the game adds more variety through various modifiers. The game does this in multiple ways, most notably through the card system. Players will make a deck of 15 cards and they’ll draw a different card at the start of each run throughout the various campaign acts. These cards help to upgrade your Cleaner, powering them up as you go. On top of this, there’s also the corruption cards, adding detrimental modifiers to your run. You also have eight playable characters, each with their own special passive traits. This means that each character serves a purpose for different gameplay styles. A character like Holly specializes in melee combat while a character like Doc will have better healing efficiency. Finally, you have a new tiered weapon system, encouraging that you find better weapons throughout your run.
The new elements really do make a difference, making each run feel a bit more unique from the last. Unfortunately, the game also takes a small step back when it comes to variety in the missions. While there are plenty of unique areas in Back 4 Blood, the mission structure makes one big change. Instead of working through each campaign to find survival, our Cleaners instead have a home base with Fort Hope. This means many missions start out by leaving Fort Hope, running through familiar territory in multiple situations. While you’ll come across construction sites, schools, contamination zones and parks, things don’t always get as interesting as some of the areas in something like Left 4 Dead 2. In the end, you always return to the fort to prepare for another mission. At least you can unlock new cosmetics and cards with the supply points you earn.
Of course, the silver lining to this change is that the game feels much more immersive and realistic. You’re no longer a small group of survivors, as you belong to a community. There are people that occupy these shelters and bases. There’s a sense of a society of people trying to rebuild. It’s a welcome change that really makes for a more interesting world, and because of that, the presentation gets a nice boost. This continues with a diverse cast of characters with plenty to talk about as they work their way through this apocalyptic setting. Add in some licensed music and some gruesomely grotesque visuals, and you’re in for a pretty good time.
It would be difficult to go through this review without talking about the transition from Left 4 Dead to Back 4 Blood. While this new title offers plenty of new features, there’s a lot of familiar elements too. For example, the mutated Ridden feel pretty similar to many of the special infected in the Left 4 Dead series. Boomers become Retches, Chargers become Bruisers, and Witches become Snitches. While these new enemies offer some additional challenges, it all feels very familiar. Thankfully the game still finds a way to make things interesting, now offering weak points on these mutated enemies. We also see multiple variations of each mutation, offering a wider variety of enemies overall.
Additionally, you’ll have a lot of the same kinds of weapons. While the gun selection is bigger than ever, the majority of other items are nearly identical to the Left 4 Dead games. Medkits and health pills, defibrillators, molotovs and pipe bombs; Left 4 Dead veterans will pick this game up pretty easily. Thankfully, the game offers more options by adding tiered levels to weapons and even upgrade parts for the guns. You can also opt for team upgrades that strengthen your arsenal or even give you additional item slots. You’ll do this by finding weapon crates throughout your run, and you’ll also have the supply shop in the safe rooms. With the copper that you’ll find and earn during the mission, you’ll have some nice currency to spend at each safe room.
Overall, there’s four campaign acts to Back 4 Blood. These acts are broken up into multiple missions and levels of varying length. Some missions are quick and just involve reaching a safe house, but others will have more unique objectives. These can include destroying multiple nests to clear a path, finding survivors, or even surviving a big horde. There’s even special side-objectives that allow you to earn more copper, which might entail having everyone survive, or even avoiding alarms. You’ll definitely do many of these objectives enough times that you’ll know exactly what to do before you reach the end of the campaign. Thankfully, the finales are pretty unique from each other and make for some standout moments.
One other big feature that makes Back 4 Blood different is the boss Ridden. From time to time, you’ll come across a mutated Ridden that will come with it’s own life bar. These enemies are much stronger and require a lot of firepower to take down. While Left 4 Dead has the Tank, Back 4 Blood will challenge you with Ogres, Hags, Breakers, and even a final boss that’ll make a Tank wet himself. It really helps to diversify the enemies, and makes some of the missions more interesting. These special Ridden are much rarer, but they pose their own challenges that add a sense of accomplishment upon defeating them.
For those that don’t want to do the co-op campaign and are looking for something more competitive, there’s the Swarm mode. This mode pits four Cleaners against four player controlled Ridden, adding in multiple AI Ridden in the mix as well. The Cleaners have to survive as long as possible while their safe zone diminishes with each wave of Ridden. Think of it like a battle royale scenario, forcing the players to work within more confined spaces over time. Meanwhile, the Ridden have the ability to upgrade themselves and choose among multiple special variants. Playing as the Ridden feels quite different, and it really feels good to take down a team of Cleaners. It really is a fun mode with one big downside: you’ll likely never complete a match.
The problem with Swarm mode is that there are multiple rounds where both teams play both sides. After the first round, it usually becomes painfully clear who is likely to win. Even though the map changes between rounds, the moment you see a player disconnect from a team, it’s all over. That team essentially admits defeat, and even if you play the rest of the round, multiple players will usually disconnect by the end without penalty, preventing a full victory for the winning team. I’ve played several matches, and even when it seems I’ll actually get the win, the disconnects come flying and suddenly I get a “match failed” error. It’s really unfortunate, because it’s a pretty fun mode. I just wish that they gave victories by default so that people don’t waste their time.
Of course, one of the biggest strengths of Back 4 Blood is the fact that it supports cross-platform play. You’ll rarely have trouble finding a match as Xbox, PlayStation and PC players can all play together. Unfortunately, the downside to this is the DRM that forces players to play online, even when playing solo. Speaking of solo play, it currently doesn’t hold many rewards, as you don’t earn any progress by opting to play by yourself. No supply points, no trophies or achievements, and you can’t even unlock all the Cleaners on your own. While the game encourages multiplayer, it would be nice to at least have the option to earn content on your own.
In the end, I really enjoy playing Back 4 Blood’s campaigns. They’re just different enough from the Left 4 Dead formula and it offers a pretty satisfying challenge. The Swarm and solo modes could be a bit more rewarding, so hopefully Turtle Rock Studios addresses these soon. Overall, if you’re looking for a new co-op experience with some friends, you’ll likely have a good time with Back 4 Blood. If you came back from the beta feeling unsatisfied, then it’s worth giving it another look. With all the full features available, it’s really a bloody good time.
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