Looking back on my 30-plus years as a hardcore console gamer, the Left 4 Dead games collectively rank as one of my top ten multiplayer first-person-shooter franchises of all time, with perhaps the Halo franchise being the only other series that I have poured more hours into.
I have fond memories of playing the game and its sequel multiple times, both online and via local split-screen. So, it should come as no surprise that as soon as word dropped two years ago that Turtle Rock Studios, the developer behind the L4D games, was officially working on a spiritual sequel to the Valve-owned franchise aptly titled “Back 4 Blood”, I got more than a little excited.
Turtle Rock has made a very deliberate effort with Back 4 Blood to adhere to the formula and structure that worked so well for the L4D games over a decade ago, while modernizing key gameplay elements aimed at bringing in a younger, looter-shooter craving audience. But does it succeed?
Despite taking place in a different zombie-apocalypse universe than the L4D games, Back 4 Blood’s storyline can literally be seen as a continuation taking years after the events of Left 4 Dead 2, substituting in Back 4 Blood’s Ridden for L4D’s Infected. There are some notable distinctions, however. The Ridden aren’t just infected, mutated humans that are out of control; they’re even angrier, meaner, and hell-bent on eradicating all of humanity with extreme prejudice.
Likewise, the heroes of Back 4 Blood, the Cleaners, aren’t focused on survival or escaping, because there’s nowhere left on the planet for them to escape to. They’re at war with for the fate of humanity. The acceptance of that fact has emboldened them, reflected in their cockier attitudes, more colourful styles of dress and shared determination to take the fight back to the Ridden.
Operating out of their base camp Fort Hope under the command of General Phillips, the Cleaners are frequently sent out on missions to assist nearby communities, gather resources, wipe out Ridden infestations and if possible, bring survivors back with them that can join the Cleaner ranks.
Turtle Rock has wisely recognized that some original L4D systems were outdated and remedied this in several ways, such as overhauling L4D’s simplified weapon system to more closely resemble the modular, rarity-based, attachment-heavy systems found in games like Destiny, Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone. Regrettably, however, in a seemingly desperate attempt to add even more newfound depth and replayability to the formula, the developer has chosen to fall back on a gameplay trend that has been insidiously gaining traction within the first-person shooter genre in recent years: Playing Card mechanics.
Seeking success and audience engagement beyond L4D 1 & 2’s “fan favourite” cult status, Back 4 Blood’s “Card System” (with cards effectively serving as a physical representation of “perks”) incentivizes players to build decks in order to customize each of the game’s eight Cleaners more towards their specific style of play. This is supposed to make every encounter in the game not only feel more unique but also play out in different ways.
Stirring the pot even further is the new AI Director, which before each match plays several cards from its own deck of “Corruption Cards.” Similar to Halo’s “skull” modifiers, these cards can affect the nature of gameplay in a mission positively, negatively, or both at once.
Since Corruption Cards are played first, players can attempt to counter the AI’s strategy by rearranging or adjusting their deck to hopefully mitigate some negative effects, and when working together as a team, they can strategize and select cards that not only benefit their chosen Cleaner, but also the group, potentially gaining a distinct advantage. As the game becomes more challenging and/or players choose to ratchet up the difficulty, availing oneself of the Card System in such a way becomes increasingly crucial.
Players are encouraged to spend the Supply Points that they earn from progressing through the campaign on “Supply Lines” at their earliest opportunity, which in turn unlock cards that can be combined to create one or more powerful “decks” of up to 15 cards maximum. Most cards grant players universal perks, buffs, or abilities, but some benefit specific and other cards can affect the entire team at once.
There’s also a copper-based monetary system that can be used to purchase “found” cards during missions whose perks will remain in effect for the remainder of the level. Adding to that, the occasional free card and plentiful amounts of copper can be found in several places over the course of a mission, and naturally, there are cards that can increase the amount of copper that will spawn in the field and/or the frequency at which it spawns. The same goes for weapons, equipment, and so on.
Wait, this sounds like a dream co-op game, right? What’s the problem?
The problem is that the Card System is unintuitive, highly granular and just isn’t much fun to work with overall. Personally, I HATE playing card mechanics in my first-person action games. That’s largely because they tend to be a time suck and are often at complete odds with the natural pace of these games, and Back 4 Blood’s Card System is no exception.
The inclusion of this system in Back 4 Blood turns what should have been a brief and painless reprieve from the game’s action into a slow, methodical slog of browsing multiple menus and repeatedly weighing the cost/benefit of equipping a card in one’s deck over another. On average, it took me about 10 to 15 minutes to create a 15-card deck once I had enough cards in my collection to fashion multiple decks, and players will need to create different sets for each of the game’s three modes of play that they choose to dive into: Campaign, Solo (Campaign with bot-only squad mates) and Swarm (4-on-4 PvP multiplayer).
“I wish I could say that deck building was Back 4 Blood’s only concerning issue, but there are more urgent problems.”
What’s annoying is that even after buying into the conceit and painstakingly crafting one or more decks for your favourite Cleaners, there’s no guarantee that the cards you’d like to be active in your next mission will be drawn. The first card in your deck is always the first one drawn, but everything after that is a crapshoot. Or maybe it isn’t, as the game isn’t very clear on this.
I wish I could say that deck building was Back 4 Blood’s only concerning issue, but there are more urgent problems. While I have faith that Turtle Rock will eventually roll out a patch that will address the following bug, as of this writing I can only review this game based on what I know to be true right now. After playing the game for four evenings straight, I can confirm that I’ve had no success whatsoever in starting an online campaign game on my own, i.e. selecting a Cleaner, choosing any unlocked starting point and starting a match that other players who are searching for a match can join.
I’ve waited as long as 15 minutes for the game to find a server, only to give up in frustration and start a Quick Play match instead. Joining Quick Play is just like it sounds, you forfeit the ability to choose your Cleaner, starting point, difficulty level or starting deck. Instead, you spawn directly into any match that has an opening and are given the opportunity to take over a pre-selected Cleaner that’s being controlled by bot AI.
Is Holly your favourite cleaner, and you want to play as her and not Mom? Tough luck partner. What’s even more frustrating is that even once you finally reach a safe house and can choose from the remaining Cleaners who haven’t been claimed by other players, your chosen Cleaner still spawns with the weapons and equipment that either the bot was previously carrying or the items you just replaced them with, rather than the default weapons for the Cleaner you’ve switched to.
So even if you can now play as Holly and have the custom deck you tailored just for her selected, she still won’t have her trademark spiked bat that you likely based her deck around unless you happen to come across it during the next mission. More crucially, in a Quick Play match, you have no control over what level you’ll be playing in, so your campaign progression is scattered and entirely dependent on what other players have selected. It was extremely maddening to be able to join Quick Play matches with relative ease, but not make progress in my own online campaign, despite nothing being wrong with my internet connection.
The second issue impeding my progress was far more serious: frequent game crashes that boot the player to the Xbox menu. I’ve had it occur immediately following matches with no warning, sometimes robbing me of Supply Points, copper and other stage completion rewards. It’s cropped up more than a few times when I’ve attempted to politely leave a match at a checkpoint, allowing me to first spawn back at base camp, and then crash the game a moment afterwards. This doesn’t bode well for the game’s launch.
“Visually, the game is impressive and the diverse, colourful characters, weaponry and attachments live up to what I would expect a Left 4 Dead sequel to look like in 2021.”
Finally, a big disappointment in Back 4 Blood that cannot be ignored is the new AI Director’s poor management of the special Ridden types. While there are just as many, if not more, special zombie types in the game, even the most menacing of them get old incredibly quick. The AI Director spams them constantly in order to serve as bullet-sponges for players, rather than unique threats whose appearance on the field can quickly turn the whole mission upside down.
Bosses aside, players can expect to see just about every mutant Ridden that the game has to offer over the course of a single chapter (I’ve already unlocked the Achievement for it). Facing off against two or three of the same type of mutation is a ridiculously common occurrence. You’ve probably heard the saying “if everyone is special, no one is,” and that definitely applies to Back 4 Blood’s Ridden.
Despite these problems, I still managed to find plenty of things to like about Back 4 Blood while I await the inevitable fixes.Visually, the game is impressive and the diverse, colourful characters, weaponry and attachments live up to what I would expect a Left 4 Dead sequel to look like in 2021. The game runs at a buttery-smooth 60 frames-per-second on Xbox Series X.
It’s a shame that the Cleaners don’t have the same unforgettable chemistry and dialogue that either L4D or L4D2’s close-knit Survivors had, but Back 4 Blood’s writers and voice actors certainly try (though it’s usually only Holly’s jokes that occasionally manage to land).
Fort Hope’s firing range allows players the opportunity to practice with just about any weapon, ordinance or attachments in the game, which I enjoyed being able to take advantage of without being attacked. Turtle Rock also deserves to be commended for adding the option for platform cross-play across all three major platforms (set to “on” by default), giving Back 4 Blood the widest possible player-base a game like this has ever seen the likes of before, not to mention a much better chance at finding a wider audience.
If it weren’t for the frequent crashes and the inability to start my own online campaign run (cross-play enabled or no), I’d be singing the praises of Back 4 Blood’s cross-play functionality from the rooftops.
In summary, Back 4 Blood’s story, characters, refined visuals and smooth, generally lag-free online cross-play succeed in delivering the narrative bones, immersive action and potentially wide player base fitting of a spiritual sequel to the excellent Left 4 Dead games. Unfortunately, a momentum-draining Card System, pesky bug crashes and an uninspired AI director all conspire to drag the game down from the potential heights it could have reached.
A $50 “Annual Pass” for the game has already been advertised, suggesting that plenty of bug fixes, new Cleaners and additional content are imminent and will address many of the above issues down the road. For the time being, I can’t recommend that anyone plunk down any cash to play this game at launch unless it’s for a subscription to Xbox Game Pass, where the base game can be played for no additional cost.