Back 4 Blood Review
Classic corpse combat continued
Will gamers ever get bored of the undead? Ask a Call of Duty Zombies fan and they will request information about the latest Easter Egg before answering. Direct the question to Left 4 Dead veterans and they might tell you to shut up and keep up with the group. And if you query those who played The Walking Dead, they will probably start crying but still insist they had a good time. Fans of zombie games have an unshakeable obsession with the reanimated. And when it comes to shooters, there is a primal urge to kill the once-human and bathe in their viscera—or maybe that’s just me. Back 4 Blood is another first-person zombie shooter that closely resembles Left 4 Dead, focusing on four-player cooperative action through linear missions. It diverges from its inspiration with randomized mission design and a compressed 4v4 competitive mode. The combination is effective and there is great fun to be had, if you can push through a few weak spots.
Not a lot of context is needed to get into the world of Back 4 Blood. The post-apocalyptic setting came about when a parasitic worm infected or killed a huge portion of humanity. Those infected, called Ridden, possess zombie-like intelligence and attack humans ruthlessly. The most common types are running zombies, similar to those in Left 4 Dead. The bigger mutated have more health and are deadlier, with glowing pustules susceptible to damage. You play as one of eight survivors, called Cleaners, and try to help the people of Fort Hope, a safe haven in a desperate world. The Cleaners move from safe house to safe house, completing objectives: rescuing people, destroying nests, and acquiring supplies.
The eight Cleaners have unique abilities. One of them, Doc, can partially heal others for free, once per mission, and her regular heals work better than others. Hoffman can find ammo from defeated enemies and equip an extra grenade. And Karlee can sense nearby dangers and equip another quick-inventory item, like a stun gun to escape the Ridden’s clutches. All Cleaners provide team benefits, like extra ammo, stamina, and health.
Each Cleaner also has a personality, and different team compositions will result in various audio snippets playing during the rare quieter moments. The game dishes out the personal interactions sparingly because new and brief conversations crop up after 30 hrs of play. But plenty of small talk happens following repeatable actions, like healing or accidentally shooting teammates, and they can be amusing in the throes of battle.
All Cleaners have unrestricted access to some dependable weaponry. Assault rifles are popular due to their reliability. Shotguns are solid up close. Sniper rifles deal great spike damage but are slow to fire. And sub-machine guns are ideal for rapid killing. Various attachments can be applied as you progress, including two random ones that can be purchased before each mission. All the guns feel awesome to fire, and they handle even better with custom sights and magazine upgrades. Melee weapons are fun to swing, from the machete to the baseball bat. Every melee attack drains stamina though, which also decreases when running about, so pace must be managed carefully. One great part of reloading is that quick-melee attacks (punch by default) do not affect the reload progress so if you have ample stamina, and are not surrounded, you can deflect the horde until the gun is full of bullets again.
Other equipment helps in a pinch. The various grenades are typically deployed when the horde goes crazy. Frags kill over a wide range. Molotovs cover the ground for sustained burning. And both the beeping pipe bombs and firecrackers draw the Ridden. Quick-slot tools have wider functionality, from an ammo pouch, to a reviving defibrillator, and a tool-kit that opens locked crates or supply rooms. The balance feels right with the gadgets. There is a good reason to take every item, and it is smart for the team to have a broad selection.
Equipment and team upgrades can be bought in the safe house before a run begins. There is some randomness to the items available and sharing resources helps to reduce expenditure. Unfortunately the shop is not accessible until every player is ready, so there is some waiting around. Copper is the currency used, earned by completing side objectives—killing bosses, gathering supplies, finishing a level within a time limit—and for just getting to the safe room alive. Extra copper piles are found in the world, like inside cars or on shelves. Thoroughly exploring levels pays dividends and the game is addictive when taking it slow and steady.
Cards are part of every run. These grant passive bonuses to the entire team or individuals. Every player can select 15 cards in a deck, out of over 100, to bring on a campaign run. Players then pick one per mission which is part of the reason for the long waits at the start of a level. One card might boost stamina; another will increase damage against weak spots. A useful two-card combination turned quick-melee into a knife and gave health for every melee kill. Unlocking cards is done with a special ‘supply lines’ currency, earned just by completing missions—the same currency unlocks skins for characters and weapons. The cards overcomplicate the game, but they also make Cleaners better, assist specific play styles, and act like a frequent reward during long sessions.
Missions are good, despite their typical zombie settings. The campaign takes place across three main acts, comprising of about ten missions each. Most are a good length, lasting about 15 minutes. They are usually linear but with side areas and alternate routes to comb for resources. Some missions stray from the typical linearity, like one intense mission where you defend a bar while a jukebox attracts a horde. Another mad scramble requires the Cleaners to find research containers from within a mansion and load them on a truck, while a large boss circles. Many levels have sequences inspired by Left 4 Dead, including crossing water on a barge, escaping a horde over a bridge, and exploring cornfields in farmland. These imitations are usually done well. There is also a police station, sewers, crematorium, church, trailer park, construction site, school, and many more that will be enjoyable if you are a zombie connoisseur.
A few of the missions are less fun and appear more in the back half of the nine-hour campaign. Levels with multiple bosses fair the worst because it’s usually just an unstructured onslaught through previously traversed areas. One messy battle happens around a church at night, and two bosses appear, with a magical circle that damages Cleaners if they stray outside of it. Overall the quality of missions is good, although a few should have been disemboweled.
As you progress, there are many Ridden types to overcome. The dangerous ones usually have glowing weak spots. Some are bosses with health bars, like the gigantic Ogre that hurls boulders. The Hag is another random boss that can swallow a Cleaner whole and bury itself for an instant kill. Some bosses can be avoided by running past them, preserving health and ammo, but this means no reward. The most regularly occurring dangers are from the nine mutant specials, some of which incapacitate Cleaners instantly. At first, there only appear to be three different types, but each design has three variants that look similar from a distance—more on them later. All of the Ridden creatures look gruesome and the weak spot system rewards positioning, experience, and aim.
The best feature of missions is how they change from one attempt to the next. The game director, working behind the scenes, is unpredictable and creates intense moments around objectives. It spawns mutated Ridden from random places and audio cues give their location away. Supplies can be found in different places. Even explosive barrels are shuffled around. But the coolest part is how the level structure changes. Doors can be blocked, locked, or left wide open, creating new paths or cutting off routes. The location of objectives, like nests that need to be destroyed, are randomized too. All these alterations make each run feel unique despite replaying the same levels.
Corruption cards expand this variability. These are drawn by the game before each round and will dictate what you will see in the upcoming level. If the bird card is drawn, flocks perch along the way and scaring them attracts a new horde. Security doors will do the same when damaged or carelessly opened. Mutated enemies can have armor to protect their weak spots. The corruption cards also alter the level’s atmosphere to great effect. Some will cut the power and automatic flashlights are used to navigate the darkened surroundings. Mist can even descend which limits awareness and is deadly when combined with exploding enemies. In addition to the random corruption cards, the campaign has three difficulty settings and the middle one is a healthy challenge. The sheer number of permutations is mindboggling and it makes for exceptional replay value.
Although the campaign is best played with humans, bots fill in for any Cleaner not being controlled by a person. They are both helpful and a nuisance. When you run low on ammo, they drop some. Bots ping copper and weapons from a distance. They are also damn good at killing common Ridden or the wall-mounted sleepers that you might not even notice. But the AI bots do many stupid things. They will move under your crosshair while you are firing at a horde piling through a doorway. Occasionally they will just start bouncing around or get stuck in the environment. Them getting stuck is only temporary because they teleport to your location eventually, but it is still an annoyance. Playing solo does not grant the supply-lines progression either and the action cannot be paused. All these reasons make it best to play in a squad of four thinking, breathing, albeit frequently team-damaging, humans.
Or you can go one step further and play Swarm, the 4v4 multiplayer mode that pits Cleaners against the Ridden. Unlike Left 4 Dead, the action does not take place across the entire campaign levels. Instead, small parts are isolated. The goal is for the Cleaners to survive for as long as possible. After picking starter cards, the four Cleaners briefly search the area for gear and then the four opposing Ridden players spawn out of view and try to get them all permanently incapacitated. A gradually shrinking circle confines the action and usually the maximum survival time is just over five minutes, but anything above three has a good chance of winning. Given the action is relentless, these few minutes feel like an eternity.
The mutated Ridden are varied and fun to play. Unlike the Cleaners, they are controlled from a third-person perspective. As in the campaign, there are three main designs with three variants each. Tallboys are power hitters who can charge and use a big arm to pound out damage. Stingers are smaller mutated who can leap around and typically attack from range. And Reekers are big bloated baddies who can explode into a puddle of putrid pus. There are close similarities to L4D2 with some variants; the Stalker grabs Cleaners and walks them away, like the Jockey, and the Wretch pukes long distance to get those satisfying ding-ding-ding sounds as the Cleaners take damage, just like the L4D2 Spitter. Instead of cards, Ridden players have a team-based upgrade path, for improving defense, offense, and for strengthening the common horde.
Teamwork is naturally high in Swarm. Cleaners must stay close and be aware of their teammates’ status. Freeing friends fast after they get incapacitated is important but some players might choose to run with stun-guns or specific cards so they can escape by themselves. Just focusing fire on the mutant Ridden takes them down faster.
The Ridden must also work together. Attacking in unison is encouraged; incapacitated Cleaners can be slashed for extra damage. Picking out lone targets is a decent tactic. Even waiting for rescuers can lead to easy damage opportunities. It is useful to change up the Ridden types based on what the Cleaners are doing and what your teammates are using.
The pace of Swarm is frantic and tiring. Since the action takes place in small areas, there is no suspense because Ridden do not save their spawns for chokepoints like in a linear campaign. It is a shame too because the campaign teases so many great spots that could have made for rapid team wipes. Rounds are short and disappointingly there is a lot of waiting. First you wait for players to load, then for them to select cards, and then 30 seconds as they scavenge for resources. So there can be 2-3 minutes of dead time between rounds.
Swarm has balance problems, just like the Versus mode in Left 4 Dead. Here the rift is worse because of the card system. Lopsided matches are common; one team might survive four minutes and the other is smashed to pieces before making it to the one-minute mark. This can lead to rage quitting (another L4D commonality) and the game does not bother to replace missing Cleaners with bots temporarily like it does in the campaign.
Matchmaking has issues too. Swarm matches load, cards are selected, and the game quits just before the scavenge stage because there are not enough players. Finding games is also a concern in the campaign, as it can be hard to join others in the middle of an act. There is no match browser for either Swarm or Co-op, so you might enter a game with a poor connection.
The rest of the game is good technically. On the test machine, performance remained high and there were no crashes or major bugs outside the erratic bot behavior. The visual design is great and the art style is a natural upgrade of the one in Left 4 Dead. Both weapons and Cleaners get covered with blood and guts when there is lots of killing. Even the bodies pile up in the doorways after a heavy battle.
You will not get tired of killing zombies in Back 4 Blood. Inspired by Left 4 Dead, the cooperative campaign is built to be replayed, with hundreds of small changes that keep players on their toes during every run. Teamwork is natural, weapons feel powerful, and the challenge level is healthy. While the asymmetric competitive mode strays from the game’s inspiration, the relentless and compressed action still has a few satisfying moments. It is a pity there is too much waiting, matchmaking issues, and some weaker campaign missions. But if you are up for some fun cooperative action then Back 4 Blood has all the guts of a great zombie experience.