Back 4 Blood is a rip-roaring zombie killing time, but without the right zombie slayers by your side, it’s an experience without much bite.
I have a memory that comes to mind when I play a solid co-op shooter: sitting over at my mate’s house when we were teens, with an Xbox 360, half-eaten pizza, and full 24-pack of Irn Bru in the fridge – because I’m that type of Scottish stereotype. Those memories came flooding back when I spend a few late nights getting caked in zombie blood with friends in Back 4 Blood.
This co-op zombie shooter from Turtle Rock Studios has that nostalgia factor about it. Everything – from the gameplay to the numeronym title – is referential. Back 4 Blood is a spiritual successor to the Left 4 Dead franchise. It is reminiscent of an old-school experience, then, with a generous coating of modern game design.
You can fight your way through Back 4 Blood’s four-act campaign with up to three players. It’s an episodic venture across various locales where you and other survivors pick up supplies, clear out hordes, and just survive. I can barely tell you a single thing about the story, such as it is, but it’s not really the focus. You are treated to the odd cutscene at the tail end of acts, and there is the occasional bit of character building as the various zombie slayers (or “cleaners“) bicker with one and another.
It might not be to everyone’s taste in a big-budget, AAA video game, but I found myself respecting Turtle Rock’s laid-back approach to the story here. I doubt anyone picking up Back 4 Blood is looking for some Walking Dead melodrama; they just want to shoot zombies. And lots of them.
This is where Back 4 Blood shines. Across shotguns, pistols, machine guns, submachine guns, and even melee weapons, every one feels punchy and unique. And thanks to aggressive reload animations and blood-splattered gun details, it makes you feel like a post-apocalyptic badass as you tear through hordes. Granted, there isn’t much skill involved, with an invasive aim-assist doing most of the heavy lifting for you, at least on consoles.
In the greatest George Romero tradition, Back 4 Blood manages to make its easily killable, seemingly innocuous zombies an overwhelming force. Zombies will come from all directions, and with various zombie types, it always feels like the fight is a dynamic one. Watching a “Tall Boy” (because all zombie games must have “classes” of zombie foes) sprint towards the squad with its enormous sledgehammer of an arm leads to evasive manoeuvres and focused fire. And I haven’t laughed as hard at a game as the time a tall “Hag” zombie waltz up to me, swallowed me whole, and simply ran away. Good stuff right there.
These kinds of encounters with the typical onslaught of enemy types may be nothing new, but it almost always impacts gameplay in a positive way. (Unlike the outwardly similar World War Z, for instance, where the zombie-types never felt varied enough.) You constantly have to keep your head on a swivel to not be caught out, whilst also dealing with masses of zombies coming from all sides. Unfortunately, your movement never feels quite up to scratch with the gameplay situation at hand. Can we please have crouch-slides in all first-person shooters from now on? Thanks.
But once the dust has settled on its four-act campaign, the true Back 4 Blood experience can begin. We all let out a collective shudder at the mention of “endgame” content, but for better or worse, it is here.
The first strand of this endgame is its card system. By completing runs, you can earn points that allow you to purchase various perk cards. These range from stamina boosts to extra ammo capacity. I tend to hate these sorts of systems. When you offer me spooky vistas and zombies to look at like Back 4 Blood does, I don’t really see the appeal of studying what amounts to spreadsheets. But in all fairness, Back 4 Blood’s card system does have a genuine impact on gameplay. I really focused on stamina builds so I could keep on the move. And with a seemingly endless supply of cards, there really is a lot you can do through this system.
The second is Back 4 Blood’s scaling difficulty, which comes in Recruit, Veteran, and Nightmare settings. During the review process, my friend and I dipped into Veteran and the difference was night and day. In Recruit you can chat away while casually killing hundreds of zombies. Stepping up requires coordination and communication within a team. And this in turn puts a strong emphasis back on the card system. (Especially the corruption cards, which felt more like set dressing than anything serious in the lower difficulty.)
It’s perhaps too steep a curve from Recruit to Veteran, but this immediately felt like the place that I wanted to get stuck into. And with the game’s episodic structure, it never feels like you are signing up for a multi-part Destiny Raid that would take up your entire day, if you just wanted to tackle one level at a time.
After delving into the beta, I wasn’t particularly impressed. So, it was a real surprise to me when Back 4 Blood managed to capture the essence of Irn Bru-tinged gaming sessions from when I was a teen. With the card system and difficulty levels as the focus of its replayability, it might not be for everybody. And I can’t stress enough just how dull of an experience this game is when playing on your own, with a squad of wonky bots. (Especially when you begin to consider its current progression systems issues.)
Co-op really is the key to its success and if you’re flying solo, it really makes Back 4 Blood difficult to recommend. Games are expensive and convincing three other mates to shell out for a AAA release may be a challenge. There is online matchmaking, of course, but it does lose its appeal somewhat with strangers. That’s why Xbox Game Pass players are really in the best position to try this one.
If you do manage to find a zombie-killing dream team, then Back 4 Blood is a bloody brilliant bonding experience.
Game: Back 4 Blood
Platforms: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Release Date: Out Now