The Left 4 Dead subgenre has exploded over the past five years, with many IPs both new and old trying to take a piece of that pie to varying degrees of success. Of all the Left 4 Dead-likes that have released, though, the one people seem to be most anticipating is Back 4 Blood, as it’s being made by the same people who made Left 4 Dead and in many ways acts as a spiritual successor. I managed to get my hands on a beta key and give the game a whirl, putting in about seven hours into the game. While I think the game is fun and the developers do a solid job at capturing some of the essence of Left 4 Dead, I ultimately found myself feeling lukewarm about the whole thing and wished I was playing a different game instead.
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world where a majority of humans have been infected by a parasite and turned into zombies, you and up-to three others play as “Cleaners" whose job is to, well, clean up the zombies. This beta features two levels (each level has four safehouses to it) as well as PvP mode where humans fight against human-controlled zombies.
From the number four in the name to classic metal doors and graffiti in the safehouses to the character banter and more, Back 4 Blood is very much trying to re-capture Left 4 Dead in a bottle. In many ways, it succeeds at doing that; and for some people, that is all they need to hear. As someone who has played many of these Left 4 Dead style games over the past few years, however, simply replicating the look and feel of its influence isn’t enough. These games have changed and evolved over time, and while I think there can be an appeal for wanting to go back to the classics, I find myself wanting to stick with the more modern and evolved form of this game instead.
The biggest feature of this game is their card system. How it works is there are a wide variety of cards to choose from, and you pick up-to fifteen of them to create a deck. When you start the game and as you go through each safehouse, you choose one card from your deck to apply to yourself, and there are a few other ways of picking up some cards as well such as purchasing basic team boost cards and finding cards in the level. There are also corruption cards, which are modifier cards that mainly work against you in the level such as adding fog or spawning in crows that will alert hordes. This is where I believe the game is trying to stake its replayability, as different corruption cards will change up the levels each time and building different decks could lead to different builds.
Half of the corruption cards in the beta were just optional challenges.
Unfortunately, from what I played, I don’t think the card system is as grand as the game wants you to believe. A majority of the player cards I interacted with were basic stat boosts like better stamina, better health, better ammo capacity, etc., and while these cards did help in significant ways, they only really helped in improving my overall stats rather than allowing me to create unique builds I can tinker around with and try. The best I could find is a card that gives two health for melee kills and a card that changes the bash ability into a knife, but after I would pick up those two cards in a game, I wouldn’t really pay much attention to my deck. As for the corruption cards, there are some changes that happen, but I wouldn’t say they are enough to make the levels feel fresh the second or third time around. I think the card system in-and-of-itself is fine, but for me personally, I don’t think it is enough to keep me coming back, and I fear this game is trying to prop up this system for doing just that.
Another unique feature in this game is its economy. Within a run, copper is picked up as a form of currency, and it can be used to purchase weapons, attachments, team support cards, health, ammo, and consumables within each safehouse as well as a few purchases within each level such as medical stations and extra cards. I overall like the economy in this game as being able to purchase items and whatnot in the safehouses allows for a little more agency over the loadout, but I also found myself not really caring about it as much as time went on. I didn’t really see much point in purchasing a weapon or attachments when I knew I would likely find a better weapon within the level, and ammo and most consumables are usually pretty plentiful in this game, so I usually just found myself either purchasing team cards, medkits, tool kits, or health refills if needed. I think the money does at least regulate use on medical stations, but that could just as easily be done without money. I think it’s nice being able to buy the attachments, weapons, and consumables I want, but like purchasing weapons in a looter shooter, I mainly found myself scrounging around for those items because I knew I would probably find a better weapon without money.
Enough about the new, let’s get into the old. Just like in Left 4 Dead, levels consist of running from safehouse-to-safehouse in largely-linear paths with one or two stops in between where an objective has to be done that will alert a horde. In this beta, there are eight parts that make up a single act compared to the normal three or four of Left 4 Dead, though I would say each segment does feel a bit shorter in comparison. While doing eight parts does sound daunting, this game offers the ability to save and return to runs, and having that segments is needed for building up the cards. Being able to save runs on a playlist and return to them, same deck and all, is a great feature I wish more games offered, and it is especially needed for this game as going through all eight parts can take upwards of two hours. While the level and objectives mostly operate the same as any other L4D-like game, I did still enjoy some of its objectives like boarding up windows in a church or loading and firing a Howitzer as well as the game’s Pacific Northwest-looking setting. I also enjoyed some of the small ways the level changes like different item spawns, different enemy spawns, a few rooms here-and-there opening or closing, corruption cards, and so on, though I wouldn’t say any of it makes the level feel fresh in any meaningful way. Finally, like many other games that have released in the past few years, this game includes a ping system that will ping specific enemies and items, which is helpful for team play. While levels in this game aren’t anything to write home about, they are still fun and have some neat objectives to complete.
One of the objectives is to make the safehouse.
One of the key items of a Left 4 Dead style game are the enemies, which this game certainly has. A lot of these games tend to follow similar archetypes with their zombies, such as common zombies, zombies that explodes, zombies that spit, zombies that tackle, zombies that rush like a bull, and so on. In Back 4 Blood’s case, there is a decent variety in zombie types, and while some of the usual suspects are here, there are also some unique enemy types too. Some of these zombie types include an exploding zombie that can puke, a zombie I best describe as a bear trap, a giant hulking zombie with a powerful melee swing, a scrawny zombie that jumps around spits, and even a huge boss zombie that specifically shows up in one level. What I like about these zombies is that they have weakpoints on their bodies to shoot at for increased damage; and while they can grapple and incapacitate you, they don’t as much as other games, which I appreciate because of how annoying that can be. They may not be as scary or as formidable as the special zombies in other games, but they are still usually top priority in a fight and are a nice addition nonetheless.
To fight the horde, you need people, which is where the Cleaners come into play. There are eight characters to choose from (though only five were playable for me), but where this game is different from Left 4 Dead specifically is that each character offers different stats and a different starting weapon. I didn’t find the stats meaningful enough for me to care about them, and I usually swapped out my starting weapon for a better weapon within minutes of starting the game, but I still think having differences go beyond personality is nice. Speaking of personality, each character has their own personality, voice lines, and conversations with other characters that sheds light on their relationships with one another and who they were in their past lives. This isn’t anything new for this subgenre, but I think Back 4 Blood nails this better than others. Sure, some voice lines did begin to repeat and get annoying, but I think the character dynamics and personalities are well done here.
Another important element to this game are the weapons, and while this game has a good variety of guns, melee weapons, and consumables, I also ran into some issues here as well. For starters, I found combat overall to feel a bit weightless, and while it isn’t by any means the worst shooting I’ve ever encountered, I’ve also played better. A lot of the guns and melee weapons are straight up copied from Left 4 Dead, and while one can argue that weapons in these kind of games usually follow certain archetypes and whatnot, this game takes it one step further in my opinion. What is unique with these weapons compared to Left 4 Dead, though, is the ability to add attachments. I like the extra variety weapons are given with various attachments, but I wish they could be taken off as I usually found myself wanting to carry attachments over from one weapon to the next. Another unique feature with the weapons here is rarity and a loot score attached to each weapon, though I did not find this nearly as flattering as attachments. The loot score and rarity largely feel pointless, and while I didn’t run into many issues regarding enemy levels being too high against my weapon level or anything like that, this system did force me to use weapons I may not like just for the sake of having a properly-leveled weapon.
One feature in this game is that reloads will continue even if you start bashing enemies, which is nice but weird.
Attachments can’t be removed, but one feature I did like in this game is the ability to share just about everything with teammates by being able to drop money, ammo, consumables, and weapons, even though I didn’t interact with this system much. Also, some pickups like money are shared across all players, though most other pickups have to be fought over. Moving outside of the realm of weapons, the melee and consumables were pretty iffy for me. Melee felt good when it connected, but it didn’t always connect, and stamina is a pretty precious resource that can’t really be wasted, so I found it hard to trust a large melee weapon against a large horde. Also, most melee weapons one-hit (an issue I also encountered with the pistols), and there is a card that replaces the basic bash with a knife that also one hits, so most of the melee weapons felt useless, especially the ones with heavier and slower swings like the axe. As for the consumables, while there are some unique ones like a taser to get out of grabs and barb wire to slow enemies down, none of them quite have that oomph I was hoping for. Grenades and Molotov cocktails don’t quite pack a punch, meds (at least the ones that mainly spawn in the level) aren’t as strong as you want them to be, and I overall just found myself not really using any of the consumables outside of tool kits to unlock special doors. The weapons and items in this game do have a good variety, but nothing quite packs that punch that I want out of a game like this.
Outside of the game, you spend time in a small hub area where you can test weapons out on a firing range, build and edit decks, join lobbies, and purchase new cards. The firing range isn’t anything to write home about, but it is a nice addition nonetheless. The shop is neat, as currency earned from playing levels can be put into supply lines, and I found that style of unlocking cards interesting. The deck building station is where you, well, build your deck, but it’s with the lobby where I have the most to say. For starters, unless I couldn’t find it or it is disabled for beta reasons, I couldn’t find any way to play solo, which I think is a must-have for co-op games. At the same time, however, playing solo isn’t great because matches can’t be paused and the bots in this game are incredibly dumb, sometimes not even shooting zombies or reviving others. What I found strange with the matchmaking, though, was some of the difficulty I had finding players. Sometimes I would get into matches easily, but some cases I found myself alone despite having crossplay enabled, which I found strange considering the popularity of this beta. Not all of it is bad though, as I think the ability to save and return to runs is a great feature. Not only can I save multiple runs and whatnot, but I can also choose which safehouse I want to start in, and joining in at a later part in the act will give the proper amount of cards needed instead of just giving one card and creating a handicap right away. Overall, I think the home base isn’t really needed and I did run into some matchmaking issues, but I also think my issues with the matchmaking are just the result of the game being in beta, and I do want to at least praise some of the neat lobby features.
Beyond the main PvE mode is a four-versus-four PvP mode to try out. It is a round-based mode where one side plays as humans and the other side plays as zombies (the two teams switch sides each round), and whoever can survive the longest as the humans wins. Before even trying the mode, the first thing I did was play around with the cards as this mode has its own separate cards and deck, and to my surprise I found the cards here a lot more meaningful. These cards not only have more significant stats, but there are also a lot of cards that can actually alter gameplay around in meaningful-enough ways to create unique builds, and I found myself wondering why I didn’t have access to these cards in the main game. Anyways, I didn’t really play a lot of this mode because every match I joined had half-empty lobbies with horrible matchmaking that would put all the players on one side instead of splitting them down the middle, but from what I played the mode seems fine. Players have cards and are given extra time to loot, and zombies have some fun abilities and can run up certain walls. It’s not a bad mode (outside of its current matchmaking), but I also think this is largely a throwaway experience people will try once and never touch again.
There were five players in this match, but the game paired us into a four-versus-one instead of an even split.
So, with all of that said, why did I say I’m overall pretty lukewarm on the whole experience at the beginning of this blog? Here is the ultimate thing I took away from this experience: while this game does a solid job at replicating Left 4 Dead, I also think there have been a lot of L4D-likes that have released over the past five-or-so years, and those games have been changing and evolving over time. The question I found myself asking is if I would rather play this game or play the other L4D-likes that have changed and evolved over time, and I found myself answering the latter. I think if this game released five years ago, then I would be much hotter on the experience, but I think by this point, other games have done it better. Also, this game doesn’t really have much a personality outside of being Left 4 Dead - both in terms of gameplay and overall vibe - and while I get the appeal of wanting that exact experience again, I think it just makes this game harder to stand out from the crowd.
For me personally, replayability is a big issue I run into with this style of game as I find it hard to return to the same levels over and over without the right incentives, and while I’m sure some people will find that incentive in its card system, I didn’t feel its variations and randomization offered any replayability for me. As I played more and more of this game, I found myself instead wanting to play World War Z, as I feel that game is the most evolved form of Left 4 Dead. So, this game prompted me to download and play it again, and I found the differences between the two pretty significant. World War Z offers different classes, leveling for classes and weapons, unique gameplay mechanics like its huge swarms and traps, better and more unique weapons, and even some of the features I thought were neat in this game like a ping (though to be fair the ping in World War Z is much more basic) and slight level randomization with different weapon placements and special doors to unlock. This game even has a weekly challenge mode that adds modifiers to a random level, and I think these modifiers are more significant to changing up the level and strategy, such as removing traps (which are significant with fighting the hordes), doubling horde counts, forcing certain weapons, damaging players if too close or far from each other, and more. Of course, different people find enjoyment out of different things, and I personally think that World War Z’s RPG-style mechanics do a better job at offering replayability than the card system, but I think there are many different L4D-likes out there that all offer their own unique spin on things, and I would rather play the other games than Back 4 Blood because at the very least they offer something different and some of them have better replay-value.
I think adding fog or birds to the game is neat, but there weren’t any drastic changes I experienced that made each run feel unique.
Of course, this is just a beta, and things are subject to change. New content will be added, new cards may offer more significant changes, and so on. Even with all of that in mind, however, I just don’t see this game rising above the rest for me. I know many are anticipating this release because of its similarities to Left 4 Dead specifically, and I think those people will enjoy this title. But with how many other games of similar nature have released, improved upon the formula, and fixed the issues that I have with this subgenre, I just don’t see this game standing out from the rest for me. It is a fine game that I think is worth a playthrough, but I don’t think this is the return to form this game is trying to set out to be.