Yadda yadda Back 4 Blood this, yadda yadda Left 4 Dead that. You know, the worst part of the marketing and overall presentation of Back 4 Blood is that every single time I write about, play, or see it, my brain is comparing it to Left 4 Dead. I’ll explain why shortly, but I think this is doing it the most disservice of all in terms of endearing itself to me. I still play Left 4 Dead semi-regularly with friends, and I just don’t see Back 4 Blood taking the throne. It has its own ideas and spins on the genre, and tries to refresh it a bit with some fancy bells and whistles, but I ended up feeling let down. One last thing — I’m not calling them “Ridden.”
I’m going to levy my biggest criticism of Back 4 Blood right here at the top, and it’s this: The game delivers a tone as irritating and insincere as an Army recruitment video made for middle school boys. From the hammy tutorial videos to the eye-rollingly bland quips of our cardboard cast of literal whos, there wasn’t a single moment during my playtime that I felt invested in the game’s cast or world.
This is made worse by the campaign’s horrible pacing, which opens with a three or four-minute-long cutscene of the “Cleaners” mowing down horde after horde of zombies with minimal dialogue in an absolutely joyless montage. It’s trite, pointless, and overall, boring. I learned almost nothing about these characters, their relationships, or their goals. All I know is they kill zombies pretty well, which I (hopefully) would’ve learned the moment I started playing.
Once the campaign actually began, I was faced with several stock-standard linear romps through levels reminiscent of Left 4 Dead, complete with “call the horde” objectives and the occasional boss fight. The finales are about half as exciting as they should be, usually because the AI Director fails to deliver memorable moments at times that make sense, opting instead to send three or four specials at once during what should otherwise be a lull in the action to completely ruin a run.
This problem — namely, erratic AI Director behavior — is mediated somewhat from the early betas, but it’s still present. There simply aren’t enough moments to catch your breath on normal mode and above. With such a complex loot, card, and attachment system, it would’ve been helpful to punctuate action sequences with respites to trade gear and formulate a game plan.
The gunplay, at least, is quite fun. Zombies’ heads explode and paint nearby walls and ceilings with congealed blood, and each weapon is beefy enough to feel satisfying to shoot. You’ll go down quickly if you get surrounded, much more quickly than Left 4 Dead, so it’s imperative to position intelligently and for the love of god crouch if you’re standing in the front.
Back 4 Blood’s “special infected” equivalents do their job well enough, and I quite like the weak spot system that changes how each one is fought, even within a single run. The lumbering Tall Boy is my favorite, slamming its trunk-like appendage on the ground to reveal a glowing pustule to shoot.
This is all to say the moment-to-moment gameplay of shooting the bad guys with buddies is pretty fun. It is, like most other aspects of Back 4 Blood, undermined by some flaws, however. Poor netcode leads to enemies erratically snapping around, making normal zombies appear to be much more advanced teleportation zombies. It also leads to some buggy animations and less-than-ideal teamplay.
I guess I should talk about the cards, one of the myriad systems Back 4 Blood insists on introducing using a hokey pre-recorded video tutorial. You unlock cards by spending currency that you accrue by playing online. Cards are then used to build custom decks that you’ll take out into the field. Each character has their own passive abilities and bonuses, so synergizing these with specialized decks can actually be quite rewarding when done correctly. It can often mean the difference between a smooth run and an absolute nightmare.
It took me some time to appreciate the nuances of the card system, and while I certainly am more on-board now than I was to start it still feels cumbersome. Creating a deck is time-consuming, and I feel the whole passive bonus economy could’ve been just as easily handled by pre-run loadouts of your choosing. Leaving big bonuses and character-defining abilities to luck of the draw just feels… odd, somehow. Still, this system is Back 4 Blood attempting something new, and even if it’s not quite my speed, I can get behind a little added depth.
I think the target audience of Back 4 Blood, the veteran Left 4 Dead players, are going to miss the charisma and simplicity of that game’s design. It’s likely to find a new audience among grindset gamers who don’t mind working toward long-term goals and cosmetic rewards with their friends, and for that reason, I think the marketing push toward an older generation of gamers was a bit misguided. Then again, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about.
In a market awash with similarly cooperative-focused games, I just don’t see Back 4 Blood making a huge splash. Deep Rock Galactic has better levels and customization. Warhammer: Vermintide 2 has better combat. GTFO, despite being in early access, delivers better on the promise of being a “hardcore” team game. Even its title, Back 4 Blood, feels awkward and unearned, cloying in its commitment to being the next Left 4 Dead. There are sure to be some diehard fans, but the awful writing and stilted progression and pacing have turned me off for good.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
At every turn, Back 4 Blood frantically alludes to its superior predecessor, digging its own grave as it crumbles under the weight of blasé characters and overly complex systems.