Back 4 Blood is like post-apocalyptic puberty with the range of emotions it can elicit in one play session. At one end of the spectrum, there's the exhausted, frantic, elated exhilaration of surviving a particularly brutal section in one piece, everyone launching themselves through the Safe Room door or into the back of a Hum-Vee to speed into the distance with barely time to catch your breath. At the other end, there's the sheer frustration of staring at the back of a bot's legs as they refuse to revive you… again.
Release Date: October 12, 2021
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One and PC
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros
Turtle Rock's spiritual successor is at its most enjoyable when you gather together three friends and squad up to tackle the game's cast of zombies – or the Ridden, as they're known. The campaign you'll work through is a brilliant b-movie, with fantastic set-piece moments that you'll want to show anyone who's yet to play them. From a section with a jukebox in a pub to a chaotic dash to rescue a scientist's research while a gigantic Special Ridden known as an ogre smashes down upon his house, these are the moments where Back 4 Blood really shines.
But I will say that the story itself is surprisingly forgettable outside of these scenarios. There are some cutscenes, mostly to introduce the characters, but otherwise, you don't really get a sense that there's a strong narrative here beyond just survive. However, it doesn't really matter. You're not really playing Back 4 Blood for its story, you're playing it for the minute-to-minute gameplay, the onslaught of Ridden massacre, the co-op camaraderie – and all of that's here in spades. It helps that the gunplay is incredibly satisfying, even if you opt to ditch a shotgun or SMG for a baseball bat or machete. There's sometimes nothing better than plopping yourself in a doorway and slicing through wave upon wave with a nail-studded bat.
Horde-ing it up
Watch our deep dive video review above
If Back 4 Blood was a movie though, the experience here would be considered more action-focused than horror. Outside of the bigger, more scripted moments, you'll find that there's not much room for strategizing because it can be all horde, all the time. So much of what you do in Back 4 Blood will trigger a horde – getting gooped on by a Retch, opening the wrong door, scaring the birds, alerting a Snitcher, and so on – and there are so many Special Ridden that'll arrive en masse that they become bullet sponges rather than an event. It's occasionally missing some of those classic Left 4 Dead moments where your squad would be creeping around to avoid disturbing a witch, desperate to avoid the onslaught it would cause.
The inability to plan and not just react is particularly true when you're not able to, or don't want to, find a full squad, and end up with your group being filled out with AI bots. While your computer-controlled compadres are great at flagging Special Ridden, items, and ammo, along with healing you when they've got a medkit, they are utterly awful at picking you up when you're downed. I've failed many rounds thanks to watching the AI bots stumbling around my downed Cleaner, seemingly unaware of my presence, only for them to get smacked down themselves minutes later. Failing due to bot negligence will never not be infuriating.
It's extra painful too when you just want to play Solo, for which there's a dedicated solo campaign menu option. Because the bots are so bad, I've tended to avoid it where possible – although I have struggled to find other players to dive into the later levels, with one evening spending 40 minutes waiting to find a single other player to join in campaign mode. Oddly, Turtle Rock has also imposed limits on the progression you can make playing alone, not allowing solo players to earn any supply points when playing the mode. It's a super bizarre choice, especially for those moments where you do just want to shoot some Ridden without relying on friends to be available, or want to grind a bit to earn new cards.
Play your cards right
That's important too, as the card system is where the game's strategic strengths lie – beyond the standard co-op communication of course. These decks are the major differentiator between Back 4 Blood and Left 4 Dead, and once you've got your head around it, can allow you to really dial into the type of player you want to be. For example, if you really wanted to create a melee build, there are cards that can support that – especially when paired with melee weapon extraordinaire Cleaner, Holly – including the option to have every melee kill grant you two health points. But it's also great at just giving you helpful stat-boosts, such as health or damage output, or buffing the items you can pick up. There are even ones to give the entire team a boost, such as increasing damage by 1% (up to 15%) for every Special Ridden killed.
There's a starter deck that's available to everyone, but you'll unlock cards by spending supply points that you earn by completing rounds. Once you start creating a custom deck that contains the cards that you know will benefit you, your playstyle, and your crew, there's some serious fun to be had.
It's also how the Ridden themselves affect the playing field, with the Director AI using Corruption Cards to tweak every section and every playthrough so that it always feels unique. These cards add real game-changing elements including a thick fog that blankets the area, masking deadly Ridden hordes, and other triggers, along with things like armored, acidic, or flaming Ridden. They can also add optional side objectives to tick off for additional side quests. They're all designed to keep things feeling fresh for repeated playthroughs, which is one of the reasons why this will no doubt become one of the best co-op games for coming back to repeatedly over some beers.
It also helps because although some of the level design in Back 4 Blood is stunning – with a moonlit church being one of my standout favorites – there is some repetition in the areas you'll explore. It makes sense narratively, as the campaign fans out from a central hub area known as Fort Hope, which also acts as your lobby for buying new cards, customizing guns and characters, and setting up sessions. But, it does feel a little odd sometimes to be running through the same area with a new objective, having been there just a few chapters before.
Outside of the PvE campaign, there's also a PvP option called Swarm. It's a far cry from the Versus mode of Left 4 Dead, where players could control the Ridden across the campaign maps. Back 4 Blood instead pits one group of Cleaners against a player-controller bunch of Ridden in a series of rounds to see which Cleaner group can last the longest. The maps are tiny, the action frantic and awkward, and feels like an utterly pointless addition.
Back 4 Blood then, is a mixed bag. It's an utter Game Pass boon for its excellent gunplay, great co-op opportunities, and a card system you can really dive into. But, AI bot issues, odd solo campaign choices, and that PvP mode, mean that Back 4 Blood is best experienced only when with a full group of friends, which is a shame when the experience can be such brilliant fun.