Amid a sea of seemingly endless looter-shooters, Back 4 Blood bucks a lot of trends in favor of something old-fashioned. After spending 25 hours with this four-player cooperative first-person shooter, I came to love its glorious white-knuckle tone, clever card-based progression, and varied, fist-pump-worthy campaign. An awkward difficulty curve and a stale versus mode prevent Back 4 Blood from moving into a full-blown sprint, but it still provides an exciting mix of new and old ideas as you mow down shambling legions of the undead.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world where popping zombies (called “Ridden” here) in the head is as ordinary as brushing your teeth, Back 4 Blood follows a community of survivors trying not to get their jugulars torn out before breakfast. This isn’t a plot you’ll get deeply invested in, as it’s just a series of thinly-veiled excuses to shoot zombies with friends, but that’s all the justification the four-act campaign needs. Despite dire circumstances, it’s actually a pretty lighthearted romp, with seven playable “Cleaner” characters frequently cracking jokes amid impending doom. My favorite is Karlee, a punk-rocker who’s prone to blaming teammates for standing in the way of her bullets should friendly fire ensue. By the time my friends and I were held up in a bar, mowing down hundreds of zombies as Black Betty by Spiderbait blasted over the jukebox, I was fully on-board with Back 4 Blood’s silly, upbeat mood.
Back 4 Blood Gameplay Screenshots
That surprisingly pleasant attitude pervades combat in Back 4 Blood as well. All too often, I found myself grinning over utterly absurd sights, like Sleeper Ridden sitting comfortably in meaty wall-mounted cocoons suddenly springing to life then pinning a teammate to the floor. Or hucking frag grenades into a crowd of living dead only to have the ensuing sinew-showers drench friends. Laughs aside, the gunplay has quite a satisfying kick too. The M249 light machine gun packs enough of a wallop at high firing rates that I nearly always carried one, particularly if I found any damage-enhancing attachments laying around. Whether you’re into high-powered magnums or lighting fast assault rifles, every weapon feels excellent in Back 4 Blood. Even just a bat with a nail or two pounded through it!
It’s a shame then that losing sight of your target is incredibly easy during wild, up-close brawls. Too often, I’d accidentally tag friends with stray bullets while attempting to differentiate them from the sea of bodies rushing us like an unholy mosh pit because combat readability is sorely lacking. Your character can often come out of fights covered in blood and guts looking like a zombie, and that’s decidedly not great when the entire goal is to kill anything even remotely resembling one. What’s more egregious is several Ridden types look nearly identical despite behaving differently from one another. Exploders and Retches are both bloated masses with broad shoulders, yet the former run towards you and, well, explodes, while the latter vomits acid from a distance. They have a few distinct features that you can recognize to tell them apart, but it’s stuff like small spikes on their arms that are easy to miss in the thick of a fight – and a wrong guess on your part can have significant consequences.
Back 4 Blood’s shockingly in-depth card system is the right sort of thing to get lost in, thankfully. Deck-building might sound hilariously ill-fitting for a game about rattling off thousands of rounds at walking corpses, but it’s maybe my favorite addition to this familiar formula. Before missions, you can equip several cards that modify a Cleaner’s stats and abilities. There’s a starter deck, and you’ll find more scattered throughout environments or by plugging points earned in missions into the light progression treadmill called supply lines. Since Karlee was my main and her unique Cleaner card buffs item-use speed, I wanted to keep up a fast pace on her feet and in her holster as well. So I built a deck with Superior Cardio, which increases stamina regen like nobody’s business, and Power Swap, adding a hefty 20% damage boon to weapons after swapping between primary and secondary sidearms right before a clip runs dry. Stopping for anything became a fleeting memory with these cards, as I could bolt to and fro while often one-tapping through the undead hordes.
Compared to what others have come up with, my deck was relatively simple. A friend cleverly combined the effects of several cards so that he would gain loads of health back after swinging away at Ridden en masse. Even ridiculous decks like that don’t feel overpowered, though, as corruption cards crop up mid-mission to counterbalance your boons with challenging modifiers. For example, just when we thought our builds were too strong, one corruption card spiced things up by adding an Ogre, a 20-foot tall lumbering mountain of flesh and bone, to the mission. Cards add brilliant RPG-like random elements while not veering off entirely into levels and skill trees.
It’s essential to sift through every card you come across while out scavenging in levels, too, because attempting Back 4 Blood’s more challenging difficulties are a waste without them. There are three difficulties available from the get-go: recruit, veteran, and nightmare. My group initially chose recruit to find our footing, and we knew it was too easy before long. So we dialed it up to veteran, and everything went to hell. We got maybe 20 feet out from a mission’s starting point before being overrun by the stronger Ridden types. An enormous, gangly Tall Boy crushed one friend in its grip while a sneaky Stalker dragged another away, then finally a Retch projectile vomited everywhere — as if to humiliate us with its corrosive bile. I’m not sure Back 4 Blood earned the right to feast on our indignity, though, as that sort of ridiculous scenario is more a byproduct of my team being hideously ill-equipped for veteran difficulty. At least, when we’d only completed a handful of missions, anyway.
I love a good challenge, so long as everything is fair. Marching into Back 4 Blood’s veteran or nightmare difficulties straight away is downright masochistic, however, especially as debuffs pile up when corruption cards enter the mix with more intensity than they do on recruit. I have a suspicion that Turtle Rock Studios wants everyone to play through recruit first, similar to how Diablo 2: Resurrected handles its progression curve. But if that’s the case, I have no idea why the others are selectable from the start. Worse yet, there’s a bizarre roguelike element to each run, so finishing an act means your party will need to complete sessions within a limited number of continues or else you’ll have to redo an entire chapter, which feels out of place in a game like this. Once we’d finished the campaign on recruit with loads of cards to beef up our Cleaners, veteran difficulty was much more manageable, but a difficulty that lands somewhere between them would go a long way toward alleviating these issues.
If nothing else, getting trounced on veteran or nightmare gives you a decent excuse to replay Back 4 Blood’s wonderfully diverse chapters, each of which contains several unique missions. From desolate, rural towns in the middle of nowhere to entire cityscapes engulfed in mounds of rotten fleshy overgrowth — nowhere is safe from this world’s collapse. The campaign isn’t just a leisurely stroll from saferoom to saferoom either, as your objectives will shift about quite a bit depending on the circumstances. One mission called T-5 requires you to scavenge about a crusty old mansion for key items as swarms of undead try to break in. The pace at which you have to find every trinket’s randomized location is breakneck, yet creepy taxidermy busts practically beg you to admire the fine layer of dust they’ve collected. I regularly got distracted by the haunting beauty of it all, much to my teammate’s distress. That continuous practice of spicing things up is why I keep returning to Back 4 Blood.
Not all of Back 4 Blood’s attempts at breaking the mold work out, though, as is the case with its 4v4 who-can-outlive-the-other Swarm mode. Sure, having one team of survivors take on another that’s all Ridden as a battle royale-like circle shrinks the arena sounds cool, but in truth, it’s pretty easy to cheese if you’re the Ridden. Crowd control is vital to success in Swarm, and the four-armed Hocker just so happens to excel at affixing survivors to the ground with sticky spears it can lob from a distance. Whenever my friends and I used two Hockers and a pair of Tall Boys, we’d decimate the team of survivors. Even as they gain access to better guns as the match goes on, we only need to pin them as the Hocker then have one of our Tall Boys move in and blitz whoever’s stuck. Meanwhile, the same happens to us when we’re on the survivor side of the equation. That sort of massive imbalance makes Swarm uninteresting at best and frustrating at worst.
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