I’m reliably informed that it’s 10 years since the last Left 4 Dead game was released. A whole decade has passed since the seminal co-op shooter sequel gave gamers the thrill of taking on hordes of zombies, and cemented itself in the gaming lore by spawning copycat variant creatures in anything undead based since. I wouldn’t know though… I’ve never actually played any of the series. I’ll count that as a plus point though because I can head into Back 4 Blood with no preconceptions at all. By the good grace of Turtle Rock and Warner Bros we were able to get hands on this past weekend with the beta event and what we experienced had us mostly impressed… mostly.
With four codes in hand – one for each of the team – we gamely downloaded the 30gb file to our PS5’s and waited for the carnage to start. And waited. And waited. Our schedule co-ordinating isn’t the best so we didn’t all get on at the same time. That doesn’t mean we didn’t get to sample what Back 4 Blood has to offer as a team though. Over the course of the weekend we tried out the co-op campaign which offered 4 stages of Act 1 and 4 stages of Act 2, which is a pretty generous chunk of gameplay. Pairing up as a team and playing with a mix of randoms and bots gave us a good feel for what the finished article will play like, and how it will bring something unique to the table. It seems that’s mainly blood. Lots of blood. You can’t move for it spurting out of Ridden (the name for the zombie-like infected), covering floors and walls, sticking to weapons, and even coating your character head to toe. It’s quite a sight to see the pristine avatars start from a saferoom to get covered in claret from barnet to boots in less than 30 seconds. Maybe that gives an impression of how much is thrown at you as players from the off.
The objective is simply to make it from saferoom to saferoom and avoid getting slaughtered on route. Easier said than done with half the world’s infected trying to gnaw your limbs off. Levels are linear with a mix of scenarios to contend with – whether that’s clearing areas, avoiding triggering swarms, or altering the environment to progress. Whether you go all guns blazing and batter anything in sight, or take a more considered and stealthy approach is entirely up to you and the squad, and it’s satisfying to see that it does work. Using melee weapons and silencers will reduce the numbers of Ridden trying to beat you to death; shooting everything with a shotgun will bring them running. The changes of pace depending on the combat style can amp up the tension and provide some really hairy moments. With set pieces that bring on hordes as well, and what seems like infinitely spawning ones in some sections, there’s no lack of things to shoot and swipe, and even on the easiest difficulties getting surrounded and overwhelmed is a risk. Fortunately there are plenty of weapons kicking about to help, though ammo can be a bit scarce.
Standard FPS staples like pistols, pump action shotguns and rifles are littered around quite liberally, and the odd melee item makes an appearance too. Each has a core set of stats that can be altered with attachments and means you can find a nice blend that works for you. An M4 with armour piercing fast mags and a competition stock is a rock solid killing device that eats through ammo, whilst a machete will dismember several of the closest things to you as long as you’ve got enough stamina to keep it swinging. Throwables and items are strictly limited to 1 per slot, so there’s no hoarding grenades to spam the tougher Ridden like bloaters, and this brings a bit of tactical play, though you can find fuel cannisters lying about to throw and shoot for lovely firey explosions. It’s the same with med- and toolkits where you’ll need to decide between healing and opening up the sweet mounted minigun, and maybe find a healing station somewhere. The latter choice always won out for us… maybe that’s why Back 4 Blood tended to screw us over royally at times. It’s so squarely built around team play and communication down to what you load up with at a saferoom, and put cash into upgrades for, that having a full complement of humans is easily the best way to tackle each level. AI is another matter.
With this being a beta version there’s bound to be some things that need tweaking and AI behaviour was one that stood out, especially when they run in front and block your aim. There’s a tendency for them to get swamped that leaves you spending too much time reviving them. Or worse they get stuck behind a non-passable barrier and you’re faced with the choice of quitting the game or spending eternity fruitlessly calling for them. You can kill yourself and take over one of the AI characters, so it’s possible to progress, but we only found that by accident and would much rather not have to face into it at all. Ridden can also climb up virtually anything, including up to vantage points where you’d swear there was no way to do it, and even though this increases the jeopardy, it can be a bit galling if you’ve nabbed yourself a hard to reach sniper nest. Ammo drops are a bit bizarre too as there’s usually loads kicking around for weapons you aren’t carrying, or can’t even pick up. We’re hoping these bits are sorted in time for the main release.
Taking the AI glitches out, Back 4 Blood does look really nice and runs very smoothly too. There’s a definite difference in the character models and voices, and we really liked the interplay between each as they move through the level and start spouting exposition to tell bits of the story. Likewise, when they accidentally hit each other there’s some banter to shrug it off, and there’s no friendly fire that we noticed either. It’s an adult game for sure, and there’s plenty of cussing to make your nanna blush, but you can save her sensibilities by employing the profanity filter option. I only mention this given that there are buckets of gore being thrown around and copious amounts of violence smeared across your eyeballs that the thought of players being offended by a bit of swearing is quite amusing. We weren’t offended by the card system though, but maybe were a bit perplexed to begin with. It’s basically a way of managing perks and stat boosts and can be customised into a deck for the different modes. It seems at odds to begin with, but actually started to come into its own as more cards were added as rewards for progress, and they also stack as you’re more successful in a run. Continually add +10% ammo to your deck and you’ll find yourself not having to scrounge as much, or pick a perk that highlights cash pickups and there’ll be more for the team to share in the shop. It adds a layer of nuance that impacts the gameplay just enough for you to notice a difference, but not so much that you’ll favour the same card over and over again.
First impressions are pretty good then. Matchmaking (when we finally figured out the party invites even though it never showed us as being in the game) works well, and playing privately is pretty easy. Other players can drop in and out at will, and holes are filled with the AI so you’re never short handed, even if they aren’t as reliable. There’s cross play too if you’re struggling to find a game on your own platform. It’s slick and fast paced with a good variety of enemies and tasks to complete. Our only worry at the moment is if we’ve already seen everything it has to offer in the 8 campaign levels that were available, and will it have the longevity on release? Here’s hoping it’ll be rewarding enough for us all to come Back 4 Blood.
Beta codes for Back 4 Blood were provided by Warner Bros. PR team, and the game will be available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and PC from the 12th October 2021.