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Back 4 Blood Review: Don’t use the Z word

The internet’s latest punching bag.

Boy, it’s been a rough few days for Back 4 Blood developer Turtle Rock, huh?

Even before its beta dropped a few months ago, it really felt like people wanted to hate this it. Self-proclaimed Left 4 Dead wizards could be found on all corners of the internet, quick to point out the flaws and decrying it as an unworthy successor. We can’t be sure whether this was because Back 4 Blood is likely the final nail in the Left 4 Dead 3 coffin or just because of the disaster that was Evolve — Turtle Rock’s last title — but either way, the hate train has been a-chugging. But does it deserve that reception?

The story so far

Back 4 Blood takes place in the middle of humanity’s war against the Ridden – human who’ve been infected with a parasite that turns them into things that definitely aren’t zombies, apparently. You take on the role of a Cleaner at Fort Hope, one of the last bastions of civilisation, and must venture out to reduce the Ridden threat, gather supplies and rescue other survivors who are making their stand elsewhere.

Each Cleaner brings something different to the team, from buffing your damage or stamina through to increasing your item inventory. This does mean that some Cleaners are much better than others once you reach harder difficulty levels, but that can be offset to some degree by its card system.

Dealer takes all

You see before each run you choose a card deck to draw from. These cards offer a variety of bonuses such as more health, greater bullet penetration or item use speed, and by deciding which to include you can craft a team role that suits you. Want to be a healing monster? Take cards that buff your healing ability and increase team trauma resistance. How about a quick damage dealer? Take the cards that lets you shoot and sprint, give you more stamina and increase your SMG damage. You can even play a tanky build by stacking damage resistance and rolling with the card that gives you temporary health on shotgun pellet hits. There really is so much on offer here that you’re practically guaranteed to be able to play how you want.

To unlock these cards you need to earn Supply through completing missions and some achievements. Next you head to your Supply Line in Fort Hope and spend that on whichever line has cards you want for your build. These lines generally include those that are thematically similar and will also have a few cosmetics thrown in such as Cleaner or weapon skins. If you’re playing Solo then you don’t need to worry about earning Supply, as all cards are available for you to tinker with to your hearts content.

Another big departure from the more classic takes on the formula is the introduction of weapon rarities and an attachment system. Gone are the days of simple weapon tiers where one weapon is better than another. Now, you have to consider if switching your fully-kitted blue weapon out for a purple with OK attachments is really worth it; you can’t bring those other attachments with you. Thankfully, it does an excellent job of communicating what weapon is better, and while it may suck to lose a blue with some gold attachments, you’ll almost certainly be better off with your new shiny purple.

The ammo economy is another important consideration when choosing which guns to grab – too many Cleaners running the same ammo type on their primary and you’re almost guaranteed to always be dry. These relatively simple changes bring a lot of moment-to-moment decision making to the forefront and provide much more variation between runs depending on what may be available.

Cleanin’ ain’t easy

The missions themselves run the gamut of just about every objective you could think of across the 33-level long campaign. Split in to four acts, the Cleaner move from just trying to survive, securing Fort Hope and rescuing other survivors before finally taking the fight to the Ridden. You’ll find yourself gathering and delivering supplies, taking out nests of Ridden and of course defending a location against an incoming horde.

All the while as you gain strength through your own cards and weapons, the AI director is working to keep up the challenge. At the start of each mission, the director will play his own corruption cards to make your life hell. They range in effect from buffing some enemies, introducing hordes of others or even guaranteeing a boss to kill. One of the roughest sees an eery fog descend on the level that thins and thickens throughout, removing visibility of your allies and their health. If you’re doing too well the director may even play a card mid-level – good luck when a horde of Reekers or Tallboys come running at you.

Sadly the pacing does fall off a bit in Act 3 and 4. While there are some cool missions in here, and a lot of exposition, it doesn’t do a good enough job of raising the stakes to make you really feel like you’re up against the wall. The final mission in particular was a real let down, though I can’t go in to too much detail without spoiling it all.

Reddit giveth, Reddit taketh

It’s rare that I see a title copping as much undeserved hate as Back 4 Blood. I’ve seen all manner of tepid takes from people – ranging from claims that it’s too hard through to frustrations with the solo experience. There are valid criticisms there – solo players should absolutely be able to earn achievements – but for the most part I have to wonder if we played entirely different things.

Yes, veteran difficulty is nigh-on unapproachable if you’re just starting out in Back 4 Blood. You absolutely need familiarity with the levels and gameplay to avoid just getting wiped on repeat and having a proper card deck built helps too. Sure, it can be unforgiving but fair in its difficulty and it definitely requires teamwork, but I would hardly count that against it.

From my experience in the beta and in playing through the campaign, I thought for sure that Turtle Rock had a hit on its hands. It’s a blast to play, and while it wanes in the final few missions, the campaign overall is a good experience. The objectives are varied enough that you don’t feel like you’re just doing the same thing over and over.

Best 1 Yet

Gameplay has progressed past that of the Left 4 Dead formula seen in several other titles – no longer is the whole loop just run to safe house 3 times and then defend a location. There’s a variety of objectives to do and places to see as you fight the Ridden, and while the special spawn rates could DEFINITELY use some tweaking it’s extremely solid overall.

You really get a sense of progression with every run, as you build your card deck to increase your own strength, the Ridden do too. Some specials may gain armor on their weak points, others can become more dangerous in other ways. The whole way through there’s this constant push and shove between you and the AI that really makes it feel special.

As a big fan of the Left 4 Dead series and of the 4 Vs Horde genre in general, I’ve played just about every “clone” or Left 4 Dead-alike around. I’ve played those who follow the formula closely like Vermintide, those who do something a bit different like Deep Rock Galactic and those who do something very different like World War Z.

For me, none of those titles ever captured the magic of Left 4 Dead. Frankly, Vermitide 2 gets ultra repetitive very quickly, and Deep Rock Galactic bored the hell out of me. The scale of World War Z is very, very cool and the book that it’s based around is one of my all time favourites, but even its formula gets old fast.

Back 4 Blood doesn’t just imitate the Left 4 Dead formula like these titles, it elevates it past its predecessor. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia for the 12 year old title, or maybe just poor memory, that fuels our rose-tinted retrospection and distaste for something new. Regardless, Back 4 Blood takes the concept to the next level and builds in layers of cool ideas and just plain fun gameplay.

Don’t miss out on this one.

8.5 out of 10

The good

  • A worthy Left 4 Dead successor.
  • Extremely replayable.
  • Fantastic to look at.
  • Challenging, yet fun.

The bad

  • Occasional performance issues.
  • No achievements Solo.
  • Pacing falls off in the third act.

Back 4 Blood was reviewed using a promotional code on PC, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.

Back 4 Blood

12 October 2021
PC PS4 PS5 Xbox One Xbox Series S & X

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About the author

Hamish Lindsay

Avid reader and general geek, justifying the time I spend playing games by writing about them. I try not to discriminate by genre, but I remember story more than gameplay. I’ve been playing League for longer than Akali and I’m still Silver. Fallout 3 and MGS3 may be the pinnacle of gaming.