Back 4 Blood, the long-awaited cooperative zombie shooter from Turtle Rock Studios, is finally here through publisher Warner Bros. Games. Available on Xbox, PlayStation and PC with full cross-platform support, we played it on a PlayStation 5.
The developer has been delightfully transparent about what to expect from Back 4 Blood from the beginning. From the title right down to the gameplay, it was always clear this was going to be a spiritual successor to the original Left 4 Dead, which was made by the same studios before Valve assumed development duties for the sequel. Turtle Rock then went on to make Evolve, but the ambitious asymmetrical shooter never really took off, went free to play after a year and had its servers shut down just two years later. Returning to their Left 4 Dead roots seemed like a logical choice after that, and with a loyal fanbase the expectations were high.
The narrative premise doesn’t exude originality, thanks to a deadly disease/parasite that’s turning people into zombies and leaves few survivors behind. Operatives called “cleaners” go in to try and save survivors and bring them to a safe haven – which is also your base of operations where you upgrade your gear and customize your team’s look.
Missions are often scenario-driven, but despite a single player mode and more story content promised through post launch DLC this doesn’t feel like a narrative-driven game you’ll easily enjoy playing solo. It’s a shame and perhaps something that’ll get better over time, but we’re not holding our breath. The foundations, with big and strong mutants on top of ‘regular’ zombies, are certainly there for a fun narrative, but this clearly wasn’t the focus for the initial launch.
This is further demonstrated by an imbalance between the solo/offline mode and online play, made clear by the fact that any unlocks you got in one mode don’t carry over to the other one. The core gameplay is made easier for solo mode, especially when facing bosses, but it does feel like a choice that was made to offset the less than perfect AI implementation for your CPU-controlled teammates. Multiplayer is the way to go at this point, but with more story content planned we’re hoping for some upgrades to the single player experience down the line as well.
A new gameplay element that Back 4 Blood brings to the table is the use of cards and deckbuilding. We’d imagine that players who enjoy team-based shooters and those who love deckbuilding games are two very different groups of people, but the combination is an interesting one that mostly works well and isn’t rammed down your throat right away either. Completing missions gets you access to supply points to use back in camp, and this unlocks cards which can be organized into various decks. Cards provide buffs to characters, so having a few different decks to choose from actually means having access to different playstyles that you can attach to existing characters. This way, you can go into a closed quarters battle with melee boosted, while switching to an assault-based build for the next mission.
Of course cleaners have their individual base qualities which make them more or less suitable for certain upgrades, but having the option to diversity and adapt is great. It won’t be something you get involved with early on when you’re just learning the ropes, but when you get comfortable enough to really challenge yourself it’s a system that can give you just the right nudge in the direction of a win in a scenario you were previously struggling with. When a quick reload saves you or a teammate at the very last second, you’ll remember and love the card you used to make it happen.
Playing with friends is the best way to enjoy Back 4 Blood (and any team-based shooter, of course), but you can also use the game’s matchmaking system. This was originally a slow process, but picked up steam in the days after the launch, where even without playing with friends a match would usually start up in a minute or two. The game matches you with others who are at roughly the same skill level as well, so our day 1 games also felt quite different from the rounds we played a few days later.
What’s really fun when playing online, however, is to engage with some of the game’s other modes. Swarm mode is a lot of fun, as you play as both a cleaner or as one of the (endlessly respawning) zombies, dubbed Ridden in the game. While regular campaign missions require a more careful kind of communication, Swarm is glorious carnage in a battle against time for both sides of the conflict. This is also where your loadout matters less, which is something that in between and during campaign missions requires careful attention as that extra health kit can make all the difference in the moments that are ahead of you.
On PlayStation 5 Back 4 Blood offers a really smooth experience even when playing at a 4K resolution, though it’s not the most stunning game out there and we imagine that the upcoming Call of Duty Vanguard will blow it out of the water when it comes to visual spectacle. Many environments are overly dark, and while that’s something that fits the zombie setting we would have liked and expected some more lighting effects to give the game a more cinematic quality. Again, post-launch content might improve this, as the audio is already very immersive, especially when played through a surround system.
Despite the delays, Back 4 Blood still feels like it is, in several ways, just the foundation for a game that can be truly great. With its fun deckbuilding mechanic and solid core gameplay we feel that time can no doubt make this happen, but looking back at Evolve we have our fingers crossed about this happening. Until then, we’re enjoying our zombie killing matches, and look forward to taking down a few cleaners as part of the Ridden swarm as well.