Hands-On Preview: Back 4 Blood Is Missing Something

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When I played Back 4 Blood last December in its initial alpha, it felt a little.. off. Having aim-down-sights in a Left 4 Dead-style game felt clumsy, and gunplay, in general, was a bit limp. Combined with an AI game director that never stopped bombarding my team with zombies (sorry, Ridden) and our play session was short-lived. Fast forward to the latest beta. Have things improved?

Before jumping into a match, I was greeted with a small encampment that serves as “home base” between sessions. I mosey over to the shooting range and take a look at my arsenal. An MP5, a Glock, an M4 carbine, all the usual suspects. But wait, is that..? A Vector? I snatch it up and throw a reflex sight on from the wall of optional attachments. I aim at the training dummy and beam 19 rounds into the metal plate on its head. Nice. 

There’s no shortage of guns and attachments in Back 4 Blood, and most of them feel pretty good. Some recoil animations are a little wonky, but overall I think things have smoothed out quite a bit from the initial alpha. I jump into a match.

Cards. So many cards. Reload cards, medic cards, melee cards. Corrupted cards, what do these do again? A currency that lets me buy supplies in saferooms. I am overwhelmed. I grab an Uzi and head out the door with my team. 

A zombie stands at the top of the stairs, I shoot it in the head. It explodes, painting the wall behind it with blood. Cool. Actually, we’re all very quickly coated in blood and have a hard time telling each other from the enemy. 

Our first special appears. It’s a big guy that my team member called a “Boomer,” a la Left 4 Dead. Only it isn’t like a Boomer, because it also spits acid at long range. So it’s like a Spitter. But it also explodes when killed, so it’s kind of like a Boomer. There’s a glowing weak point hidden in its concave belly – a nice feature of specials in Back 4 Blood that separates them from their comparable counterparts. 

Just one issue with specials in this game, I find, is that they don’t immediately betray their abilities with their design. The Frankenstein abilities of several mushed-together Left 4 Dead specials aren’t easy to portray quickly at first glance. It’s for this reason that Valve likely chose to keep things simple — the exact opposite of what Back 4 Blood tends to do. 

There’s some kind of wall-hanging special that shoots something white and stringy at you (I still don’t really know what this is supposed to be). There’s a tall guy with a big arm that slowly lumbers around and swings its log-like appendage to do massive damage. I didn’t know exactly what either of these enemies would do when I first saw them, how many moves they had, or the best way to take them out. This is in contrast to Left 4 Dead‘s specials, which each have exactly one ability that is instantly recognizable. 

My team approaches a section of the level which I like to categorize as the “run” part of the game. Every so often, a giant enemy covered in slabs of concrete would chase us down, and, on instruction from one of our more veteran teammates, we were told to run to safety down a linear corridor. I threw some firecrackers as a distraction, and we ran. 

Firecrackers, by the way, go in your “equipment slot.” You also have a slot for healing items, and one for special tools. In addition, each of your guns has four slots for attachments — a magazine, scope, stock, and laser (all with varying, color-coded rarities). Oh, and ammo is all separated by type, so if you pick up what you don’t need, you can trade it with a teammate by dropping it on the ground. Pro tip — be sure to pick up copper so you can spend it at the store in each safe room. 

The point I’m pedantically trying to make is that Back 4 Blood has a lot going on. It’s frantic, but oftentimes this isn’t because the gameplay is particularly taxing, but because my team was trying desperately to figure out who needed what, how much, and of what type. I wish I spent less time taking stock of my active ability cards that I still barely understand and all the stuff I’m carrying, and more on appreciating the level layout and encounter design.

After taking a breather in a safe room, my team proceeded to get slowly worn down by an ensuing horde before expiring. It was tense, and it was fun. I like to shoot the zombies. I wish I could focus a little more on simply shooting the zombies. 

I think, above all else, Back 4 Blood is missing something. And what I think it’s missing is Valve’s elegant design principles. Every time someone mentions Valve’s multiplayer games, they’ll remark how “instantly recognizable” the silhouettes are, or how clean the map layout is. Back 4 Blood dilutes its good ideas with a barrage of systems, currencies, pickups, and unlocks. It’s being held back by the worst impulses of modern game design. I still enjoyed my time with it, and maybe things will elucidate themselves with further playtime, but for now, I think it’s going to be a bit lost in a sea of similar co-op games on release. Time will tell. 

This hands-on preview is based on time spent playing a beta version of Back 4 Blood on PC.