Playing the Back 4 Blood beta made me feel old. Perhaps that's a testament to how expertly Turtle Rock Studios has been able to recapture the spirit of Left 4 Dead and channel it into creating a new nightmare for a new generation of players. It was never guaranteed that the studio would be able to pull something like this off. After all, a lot has changed in 13 years; zombies have lost their bite, co-op shooters are commonplace, and I don't know about you but my patience for unpredictable AI systems has wavered.
After a few hours of playtime, Back 4 Blood was able to assuage my fears and convince me that Turtle Rock Studios has something special on its hands here. Back 4 Blood isn't the reanimated corpse of a cult classic from 2008. It's a mutation of the original idea, an evolution – a fast, bloodthirsty, and caustic creature that's set to drag your evenings with friends away from mundane Zoom calls and into a rapturous hell on earth. "We've got this foundation, but we had to plus it. We had to modernize it for today's audience," says Matt O'Driscoll, lead producer. "Back 4 Blood is Turtle Rock's game of today."
Building on a strong foundation
That "foundation" is a proven success. Four friends must work cooperatively to move from one safehouse to the next, the path forward blocked by hordes of the living dead – the Ridden, as they are affectionately named here. As you press onwards, you'll be upgrading weapons, bolstering supplies, and strengthening your bond as a group to face escalating challenges. Eventually, the characters begin to quip with one another in-game as they become soaked to the bone with discarded gore and viscera. Later, alliances begin to fracture between friends on the other side of the screen as the difficulty ramps up and communication drops to frantic whispers. By the time you reach the set pieces that headline chapters of the campaign, you'll be one stray melee-hit away from accidentally downing whoever stole that ammunition you so desperately wanted earlier.
The Walking Dead sought to show us how humans are the real evil of the zombie apocalypse, and Back 4 Blood will let you live it. That tension is part of what makes Back 4 Blood so appealing. There's this ever-present sense that the whole adventure could come crashing down around you at any time, particularly if one of your party members proves to be too volatile to follow orders or vulnerable to hold a defensive line on their own. 45 minutes into our play session, I made the mistake of remarking that the early chapters of the campaign felt too easy – that we should have turned the initial underlying difficulty up before beginning the campaign.
It wasn't long before I came to regret those words, as we began to bicker over who triggered an event before we were ready to face it, robbing us of a valuable 'Continue game' token – for the record, I'd like to state that it was probably Sam Loveridge, Global Editor-in-Chief of GamesRadar. Although, to be fair to my boss, Sam can only shoulder so much of the blame for failure; Back 4 Blood is always looking for new and exciting ways to screw you over. "The AI Director really keeps an eye on how you're going through the level. In your case, you're breezing through it, thinking 'oh, it's not so much of a challenge', and then bang," O'Driscoll laughs. "We can bring in some more hordes, add in different mutations, throw in a couple of Tallboys and maybe an Exploder. We can ramp the difficulty up and we can ramp the difficulty down. The AI Director keeps an eye on you and your play-style throughout the game."
Turtle Rock is anticipating that a lot of survivors are going to be making their way through Back 4 Blood during the cross-play open beta, taking place August 12-16, and this will give the studio the opportunity to really fine-tune the experience. Even from our play session, O'Driscoll explains that there's plenty of data points to be gleaned. "Did we leave it too long to ramp up the intensity? Was that about right, because you just jumped in and you're still getting used to the game? It's going to be interesting, once we start getting all of that data in and can start seeing how people play. This is really our time to tune the AI Director and balance tweaks across the game."
Testing makes perfect
Even as Turtle Rock eagerly anticipates the opportunity to submerge itself in playtest data over the coming weeks, it's clear that Back 4 Blood has benefited from heavy iteration through its years of development. You can see that reflected through everything, from how fantastic the weapons feel in your hands, to the delicate animations seen in the waves of Ridden being chewed up by streams of gunfire, to the dazzling visual and audio effects that ensure every adventure has a suffocating, all-encompassing atmosphere to it. Back 4 Blood feels ready for primetime. "Our studio philosophy is we iterate and we playtest," says O'Driscoll. We're balancing and tweaking throughout the entire dev process… it's a super important function of our studio, that we've got a playable build every day."
I get the sense that it's this process that has ensured that Back 4 Blood is not only as reactive as it is, but as ridiculous too. The further we pushed through the first act of the campaign, the more absurd it seemed to get. The hordes of zombies we were facing were becoming more aggressive, yes, but the weapons we were equipping scaled to meet them. SMGs transformed into powerhouse machine guns, shotguns started offering the utility of snipers, and a magnum I stumbled across in the late-game became a handheld rifle once I introduced it to the right attachment – bought out of a randomized shopping box at the safehouse, paid for with credits we accrued as a group for completing challenges.
The guns become a hell of a lot of fun to wield, particularly as you begin to factor in specialisations. Back 4 Blood features eight unique characters – fully voiced, with their own personalities, stories, and characteristics – but there are no set classes. Instead, it's up to you and your crew to create a balanced squad composition as you progress through scenarios, leveraging a simple to grasp and easy to manage deck-building system. It's in this system where the upgraded AI Director, atmospheric world, and finely-tuned weapons all take on a different dimension, helping to propel Back 4 Blood beyond anything Turtle Rock (Valve South at the time) was able to achieve with Left 4 Dead or its sequel.
Cards are used to introduce variables, and are available to both player and AI alike. In the first act of the campaign, we were each given a Starter Deck that could imbue each character with bonuses – 10% endurance, 5+ hit points, the ability to heal yourself by bashing in Ridden skulls. This allows for specialization within groups, which strengthens over time as you find additional cards in the world and add new cards from your deck into play when you reach a safehouse. The thing is, the AI Director can also do the same, adding Corruption Cards into proceedings to make survival more uncertain – fog could roll in more thickly as you explore abandoned farms and polluted graveyards, hordes of enemies might chase you unendingly after you trigger a particular world event, maybe headshots become the only way to easily put enemies down.
Play your cards right
The cards are both Back 4 Blood's most potentially transformative new component – holding the power to ensure that every co-op session is different to the last – and the one that's most difficult to judge, given that we didn't have the time to properly test out different decks in our playtest of the beta. Given how apprehensive O'Driscoll sounds about getting hold of relevant data so that the team can begin tweaking and iterating, I'm willing to wager that we barely scratched the surface of the system. "This is really the big one, this next couple of weeks," he says. "You asked, 'how do you balance this game?' and, you know, we're doing our best. We're going to expose stuff that we didn't quite think about or how people build decks – perhaps there's a combination that we didn't quite think about. But this gives us a chance to react before launch, so that we've got as fine tuned a game as we can."
Back 4 Blood is a lot of fun. We were supposed to sit down with the beta for a two hour slot but ended up blowing through that allotted window with ease, failing to realise that our little afterwork session had stretched out into the evening. But that's the sort of experience this is. Back 4 Blood is the game you want to stick on with a tight group of friends, shooting the shit as you shoot anything that moves. "Fun" is such an amorphous and subjective complement to put on a video game but, with the right group of friends in the party, and if you play your cards right in the campaigns, Back 4 Blood is undoubtedly going to be the most fun that you have with your buddies this year.
Back 4 Blood is set to release October 12, 2021. There's an early access beta running August 5-9 and an open beta August 12-16. Turtle Rock Studios and Warner Bros. are launching the game for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X and, yes, crossplay is supported. Oh, and yes, it's coming to Xbox Game Pass on day one too, so you've got no excuse not to at least check it out.