Like so many other people my age; Left 4 Dead was one of those games you can’t help but think back on with this magical fondness. And like a dragon to be chased and never caught, every time the prospect of it coming back, or something just like it filling that hole seemed like it was happening, there was this sense of longing for a game that really ended up being more than the sum of its parts.
Well, now that dragon has been caught and we can really dig into whether the Left 4 Dead legacy was everything we thought it was. Or if it really was just a time and a place kind of game that grabbed a whole lot of us at the same time.
Left 4 Dead 3 in everything but name; Back 4 Blood brings the game’s original creator’s back together under the new guise of Turtle Rock to give pretty much everyone what they’d been asking for since they announced the formation of their own studio away from Valve and their cursed existence against ever being able to put a number three on any of their games.
I’ll give it Turtle Rock; they tried to do something different with Evolve. A game I wish had been better. It certainly was ambitious but ended up fizzling out almost as soon as it was released. It’s one of those things, you don’t want to make the comparison, but seeing that game fail, and then this one being their follow-up, there’s an inevitable image of them coming back with their tails between their legs, giving us what we want rather than what they think we need.
That probably comes across as harsher than I mean it to; because Back 4 Blood is just about everything you might want from a spiritual follow-up to Left 4 Dead 2. It includes all the features and familiar elements from that game while both expanding upon them and adding whole new elements to give the game much more longevity than its predecessor. As bizarre as that concept might seem if you put near as many hours into those first two as I did.
For those uninitiated, Back 4 Blood is a four-player co-operative experience in which four survivors work together to complete objectives while fending off the relentless hordes of zombies, called “Ridden” in this game. In this game’s predecessor, there would be “special infected” amongst them that could incapacitate players until a teammate could rescue them. Which meant that players had to stick together, as getting separated from the group was almost a guaranteed death sentence.
And for the most part, all of that remains true in Back 4 Blood. Where Turtle Rock have added to the experience is in a few key ways:
Card system & “Builds”
The biggest change that Back 4 Blood brings to the formula is a card system that allows players to customise their playstyle and work towards creating different “builds” that serve all kinds of different purposes. Early in the experience, players only have the default starter deck. And the main ability to work towards different play styles comes in the form of the eight playable characters and their personal abilities.
Holly, for example has the ability to restore a section of stamina every time she kills a zombie. Which makes her ideal as the basis for a Melee focused build. Then there’s Doc who has the ability to heal for free so many times a level without using resources, allowing her to be the obvious healer class. There’s also Karlee who can see special Ridden through walls and in a team that’s communicating with one another can always avoid ambushes.
As players play more of the game they unlock supply points and can use these to buy new cards, as well as a bunch of cosmetic items. It’s after unlocking a bunch of these cards that players can start creating a personalised 15 card deck that supplements the way they play. A card that heals you a small amount when you kill using a melee weapon, or stack up those cards that increase healing efficiency.
Here’s the part where I might have an unpopular opinion.
The way in which you unlock cards feels incredibly pre-defined. You see, when you make your deck, you always draw them in the order you made the deck. The problem comes from how you unlock them. You get your cards from one of three given “sets” at any time, which show you everything within them from the get-go as well as what order you’ll unlock them in. Which all feels kind of boring to me.
This is probably the exact opposite of what most people would want out of this game. But hear me out. For being a repeatable game, everything is doled out to the player in an incredibly orderly fashion. You get the same cards at the same in the same order. Some element, any element of randomness and surprise would have been a welcome change for me when it comes to this game. The only real seeming element of randomness comes from the weapons.
Deeper weapon pool
There are a ton of weapons to pick from in this game. Shotguns, Assult Rifles, SMGs, LMGs, pistols, melee weapons and snipers. And a bunch of different easpons within each of those archetypes. And unlike Left 4 Dead where is felt like there was a progression to the weapons that you built to and from, here things feel a bit more fluid.
While you might have your favourites, a lot of the time you are made to work with what you end up finding. Weapons have a star rating, a collective number based on their rarity. That’s right, we’re using the Wow white, blue, green, purple system here. coupled with the rarity of the weapon are the various attachments that either come on the weapon as you find it or lying around on their own ready to be slapped onto your gun. Which they themselves have varying degrees of rarity as well.
It feels like this choice was made to further increase the diverse experience that comes from playing this game over and over. Which is true to an extend, but it also makes playing in a particular way based on a created build more frustrating. Some characters feel like they’re build for precise damage, getting boosts from hitting headshots and weak spots.
Which is harder to build towards when you keep finding high level shotguns trying to tease you away from the sniper rifle you’ve been using. It gets even more annoying when your teammates are using the same weapon archetype and are all plotting the same type of ammo. Oh yeah, ammo types spawn separate from one another.
It feels like all of this is put into place in order to make this game fit into a more modern take on the type of game you come back to over and over again. The idea of the forever game has become much more of a thing since 2009. Outside of MMOs, it didn’t really exist. Today, we’ve got games like Apex Legends, Fortnite, Forza Horizons, the new breed of Call of Duty and countless other examples that are trying to become “that” game players keep coming back to and continuing to invest their time into.
The thing is though; despite how much work they’ve done here to take Left 4 Dead and build on it, it’s not working on me. I don’t feel that drive to keep coming back that I even did for Left 4 Dead 1 and 2. Given, my relationship with games and the time I had to play them has changed a lot since 2009. Left 4 Dead 2 would never keep my attention today in the same way it demanded it back then. But the problem is that Left 4 Dead was a game that redefined the genre and became the launchpad for other developers to take it further.
Like PUBG did for Battle Royale. But just like PUBG, games like Fortnite came along and ate the progenitor’s dinner to do it in a way that grabbed people’s attention much more. I don’t think he changes Back 4 Blood brings to the table can elevate it past the biggest games it has to share space with in 2021, especially not when many of those games are free. And to make it even worse, in many ways I don’t think the game lives up to the things that actually made Left 4 Dead so repayable and addictive in the first place.
Left in Left 4 Dead’s dust
Left 4 Dead had a concept called the director. Some sort of programme that would decide when and where the game would take a dump on you. Throwing more enemies, traps and pitfalls at the players if they were performing well, and easing off a bit if they were struggling only to throw a challenge at them at the very end of the stage just to make it more dramatic. It feels like there is some kind of proxy for the director at work in Back 4 Blood, but it feels far less effective than its predecessor.
Despite having a much wider set of tools at its disposal, the AI in this game feels much less creative in how it pushes back against the players. For one, at the start of every stage it presents you with “corruption cards”. A series of situations that let the players know what they’re going to be getting themselves into over the course of the stage.
Armoured zombie subtypes, increase in hoard boobytraps and thick fog are all amongst the corruption cards that will make particular stages more challenging. The problem is, by presenting these cards at the beginning of a level, it feels like it takes away from the surprise of getting caught with your pants down. Like with the system that gives you your personal character cards, it feels too regimented and less random.
It lacks for the chaos that made the first game so good.
Where I feel like it also falls short is when it comes to the game’s “special infected”.
I still call them Boomers
The special infected in Left 4 Dead had some weird charm to them. I feel this way for a number of reasons, they all felt super distinct, making their own sounds and having very different behaviours. They were all ambush predators, almost as fragile as normal zombies, relying on surprise and picking off stragglers separated from the group. Getting incapacitated by any of these zombies would put the player out of the game until their teammates saved them.
It made them all feel like glass cannons in some way. I have no doubt this was helped by how fun the vs mode in Left 4 Dead was. Playing the game as the infected was probably more fun than playing the survivors. An experience that actually helped you play the main game more effectively, getting a better understanding of the maps, their nooks and crannies and knowing where the most dangerous parts of the maps could be.
The special infected in Back 4 Blood lack all of the charm of the predecessors by comparison. In part because each of the three infected have three different variations, each of which behave differently. A fact that I knew nothing about until I tried this game’s vs mode. A game mode that is deeply disappointing in comparison to the competitive mode form Left 4 Dead. All of the specials in this game have much more HP than those from L4D, but feel much less lethal by comparison.
The compensate for this, it feels like the “director” for this game just throws them at you in greater volume when it wants to challenge you. Which, honestly, just feels kind of cheap. When you’re unloading your weapon’s magazine into three Tall Boys, which are shortly followed by a bunch of regular zombies and not even take down one of the big guys it feels like the game it putting you into an unwinnable situation. Which sucks.
Playing as the zombies themselves really does feel much less fun too. Rather than playing through the game’s main stages and allowing player’s to take it in turns, the game puts players into an arena and has them see how long they can last against the other team in a best out of three situation. It’s a very unsatisfying experience, one that feel contrary to the whole spirit and point of the game in the first place.
This is a game where being forced to move from point A to point B while performing tasks and fighting off the horde along the way. The vs mode in this game is all about huddling up in a corner and just holding out.
Let me wrap this up
I’ve been writing this review for two weeks. Every time I feel like I’ve said everything I need to say, I end up having one more thing come up for me to get my knickers in a twist about.
At the end of the day, Back 4 Blood is greater than Left 4 Dead, at least in the number of moving parts it has going in there, but collectively it still feels like a lesser, more unsatisfying experience to me. Back 4 Blood is a much more modern take on the “forever game”, adding a whole bunch of cosmetics, progression and diversity in how to play.
But at it’s core, I feel like it misses out on the part of Left 4 Dead that made it so absurdly repayable. It feels like there is so much less randomness at play where it really matters, within the gameplay itself. It pre-warns you about the challenges you’ll be running into before a mission, bosses pop up in the same places every run and it feels like it forgoes intelligence enemy behaviour in favour of just throwing more at you until you’re just overwhelmed.
Getting downed generally doesn’t feel like your own fault like it did in the previous games, where you strayed too far from the group or stood in a dumb position for too long. Here, you get swarmed by a bunch of special Ridden and you’re suddenly down before you know it.
Back 4 Blood isn’t a bad game. As far as a modern follow-up to Left 4 Dead can be, it succeeds in pretty much every regard on paper. I think, the biggest thing it has going against it is that it needs to exist in an industry that has grown and evolved this exact type of game. The competition for my attention is just too great and unfortunately Back 4 Blood isn’t impressive enough to drag me away from Apex, or to be more interesting than Halo now that game is out.
It’s a shame really, because Back 4 Blood is genuinely a cool game. And I really want the guys at Turtle Rock to succeed after having such a rocky go of it following their breaking away from Valve. In the end though, it just feels like a matter of a death by a thousand cuts. Guys like me are going to always compare it to Left 4 Dead over and over again. I mean, I just spent over 2000 words doing that exact thing.
All that being said, had this game not been available on Microsoft Game Pass, there’s no way in hell I would have paid the premium prince this game is going for. So, in the end my takeaway feelings are very mixed.
All that being said, if anyone on here were to reach out to me and ask me to play a few games with them, I would rip your hand off with terrifying enthusiasm. Because, like Left 4 Dead, this is a real social experience game and if you can find a person or two to play it with, all of those nit picks and little issues just fade into the background. Having gaming friends can really do that.