Back 4 Blood (PS5 and XSS) Review

Turtle Rock Studios return to take another shot at dominating the PvE market with Back 4 Blood, after years of L4D imitators.
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Turtle Rock Studios is not interested in denying the design similarities between Back 4 Blood and Left 4 Dead. Valve owns the IP, so they can’t call it L4D3, but this is as close as we’ll get – a “spiritual sequel”. Thankfully, the wait was worth it and despite some modern mechanics feeling more intrusive than engaging, Back 4 Blood recaptures that addictive core gameplay loop and “just one more run” feeling.

Story

As with Turtle Rock Studios’ prior games, the overarching narrative and several flashy cutscenes quickly fade from memory. The bulk of the storytelling is handled in-game – through briefings in safe houses, dialogue between the protagonists, comments about the locations they pass through, and environmental storytelling. Unlike L4D, Back 4 Blood picks up sometime after the initial “collapse” as the remnants of humanity – slowly rebuilding – are hit by a sudden resurgence of the “Ridden”, parasite-ridden humans and terrifying mutations. Of course, these ridden share many similarities with the L4D roster, down to their behaviours and weaknesses (such as being drawn to noise and weakened by fire).

Unfortunately, the move to an experienced group of “cleaners” – all of them quirky archetypes we’ve seen before, working for a generic military man – does not make for compelling dialogue or interactions. If you’re a fan of ‘90s or early ‘00s action movies, you might enjoy it more. Personally, I found none of the characters as fleshed out or memorable as in L4D and L4D2. There are less genuine interactions, few fleshed-out backstories, and very little connection to any of the locations you fight through. To its credit, it has an actual three-part structure to the campaign – think rescue, rearm, and fight back – but I still preferred the discrete scenarios with more unique dialogue in L4D and its sequel.

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Small details in the environments still do a decent amount of storytelling, but Back 4 Blood has a structured campaign, with multiple briefings in safe houses or on-the-fly radio updates.

Gameplay

Despite the time that’s passed since L4D2 launched, describing the basic gameplay loop almost feels redundant as it’s been repurposed for successful titles like Vermintide 2 and World War Z. You team up with three other people (or bots) before running and gunning through branching, ridden-infested corridors to the next safe-house. To spice things up, you might need to complete a simple objective (interact with something or carry an important MacGuffin) and sometimes there’ll be a dramatic finale that requires you to hold a point for several minutes. Thankfully, Back 4 Blood sticks to the original design of short, intense sessions between each safe-house, ensuring failed runs are never a major setback.

It might sound simple but it’s a timeless formula that still makes for a great cooperative PvE experience – with a slight competitive edge thanks to the scoring system that tracks several statistics. The level and enemy design encourage you to stick together and rewards teamwork, disincentivising lone-wolf tactics, but I’d always recommend playing with friends if you can. Slaying hordes, adapting to deal with the appearance of a mutated ridden, sharing supplies – in that regard Back 4 Blood is just as good as its predecessors.

That’s not to say the gameplay loop is identical. There’s a much stronger focus on the mutated ridden, which come in a greater variety than the L4D games (albeit still filling the same basic roles) with several boss variants. The basic ridden go down quickly, while the hordes are smaller and usually tied to specific actions or a visible timer that allows you to prepare. To make up for the reduced threat (at least on Recruit and Veteran difficulties) there’s a much higher frequency of mutated ridden. Hell, there were times I’d hear nonstop mutation call-outs for an entire stage.

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The basic foundations are intact and it’s still as fun as ever to tear through hordes with friends (and even with bots).

Back 4 Blood’s campaign is lengthy and diverse, taking you through suburban and rural environments, infested buildings and sewers, over highways and fields, and through more distinctive locations like a school, police station, and plane wreckage. The campaign also does a great job of highlighting the power of the card system, occasionally taking you through familiar locations with modifiers that drastically alter the experience. “The Dark” was a personal favourite, limiting sight-lines, highlighting the great dynamic shadows, and ramping up the tension when it introduces a ridden type that’ll shriek to alert a horde if you can’t put it down quickly.

I enjoyed the card system that modified the environments, ridden variants, buffed the team, or added an optional objective (think defeating a tough boss or making it through without alerting a horde). On the other hand, the inclusion of a copper currency to buy items in safe houses, multiple tiers of the same weapon type, weapon modifications, and distinct ammunition types all felt increasingly extraneous and just detracted from the pacing. It was fine playing solo, but online players could spend ages milling about safe-houses, comparing at weapon stats, wandering away from the group to search for the right ammo type, and opening crates mid-horde. Even without these features, L4D2 still had enough weapon diversity, almost all weapons had distinct strengths and weaknesses, and few became obsolete over a run.

Falling back on bots was an all-too-common experience – and, of course, the only option you have tackling the solo campaign. Online players can leave runs without penalty in safe-houses, so it’s common to lose players over time. The bots “play” better than most other games in the genre but are still inconsistent. I’ve had them stand idly by as a horde approached and their AI only triggering when they were almost on top of us. On the other hand, I had to walk away during an end-of-act holdout moment – Back 4 Blood doesn’t pause during solo play if you were wondering – and they defended me for the full five minutes required. However, despite their ability to point out new weapons, share munitions, and prioritise reaching the safe-house, they never pick up new gear and the game doesn’t bother to track their stats. As such, solo players get no competitive scoring experience nor a comprehensive breakdown of the odds they overcame.

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In theory, many new elements are meant to add depth to the experience, but I found them increasingly time-consuming, and they dragged down the pacing.

Game Modes

When it comes to the game modes, the solo variant of the campaign is fine but somewhat unrewarding (especially as there’s no local coop support). All the cards are unlocked, so it’s more like an experimental mode to try out a deck build or new weapon loadout.

Standard online PvE cooperative play is the meat of the game and provides “supply points”, based on run difficulty and optional objectives completed. These are used in the hub area, “Fort Hope”, to unlock several supply tracks and their respective cards to work into your deck. You can also customise your deck, change gear skins, or mess around with any offensive gear in the firing range (useful when waiting on your party). The mode appears to be peer-to-peer – the host never seems to have lag – but the experience was mostly solid, aside from a few delayed hit markers.

PvP multiplayer is, unfortunately, limited to a separate, arena-style “Swarm Mode”. There is no longer an option to invade another teams campaign and take control of mutated ridden. Instead, it’s a round-based mode with a point awarded to whichever cleaner team can stay alive longest on a small map (while the other teams attempt to kill them as mutated ridden assisting a horde wave). It has its own card progression system and discrete decks, and match-based progression (higher tier gear spawns for cleaners as matches progress, mutation points rack up for the ridden allowing players to upgrade their preferred variant). It was fine for short bursts of fun but has little staying power. There was plenty of lag, several maps feel unbalanced, and once you learn which ridden is best dealing with entrenched Cleaners (and which locations are best to hunker down in), you’ll stick to that strategy.

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Earning supply points and completing supply chains is an essential part of online play, especially if you plan to tackle Nightmare difficulty. Any card that reduces or mitigates friendly fire should be considered vital!

Presentation

Back 4 Blood can look great in places, especially if you’ve got an HDR-capable TV and the performance was solid. On current-gen machines, 60fps is the target and both the PlayStation 5 and budget Xbox Series S held this, with only some screen-tear during stress points (obviously with a much higher average resolution on PS5 or XSX). However, it’s still clearly a cross-gen console game and designed to be scalable on PC. As such, environments, weapons, characters, dynamic lighting, and effects look good, but they aren’t pushing boundaries. What I would like to see is a less cluttered or streamlined HUD.

What is impressive is the audio, be that the voice work, monster sounds, ambience, or music. While I found the character archetypes bland, the voice actors capture that action-movie spirit. The ridden sound unsettling and creepy, though I found their distinctive audio cues – always an essential part of surviving in the prior games – were easily lost in the sound mix. The music remains subdued and moody most of the time but ramps up when you encounter larger foes or during end-of-act scenarios.

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Presentation-wise, Back 4 Blood doesn’t do anything only possible on current-generation platforms, but it has some great locations, a thick atmosphere, vibrant use of colours, abundant gore, great audio, and solid performance.

Conclusions

Overall, Back 4 Blood is an enjoyable, blood-soaked coop romp. It offers classic but refined gameplay, with some fun card-based modifications, but it’s burdened by modern progression systems that simply detracted from the experience once the novelty had worn off. It’s a case of two steps forward and one step back, yet that still places it above most of its imitators.

As a multiplayer focussed game with limited solo campaign rewards, its longevity will ultimately rely on Turtle Rock Studios and Warner Bros. releasing frequent content updates and – most importantly – the ability for players to tweak the scenarios to a granular level. I doubt the extensive mod support seen in L4D will make it into a cross-platform game, but letting gamers create challenging (or wild) scenarios, and then share them with others on playlists, would be a great start.

Lynley’s two cents

Playing Back for Blood solo with bots vs. online with a friend is a wildly different experience. Having the ability to shoot the [censored] with friends, while blowing the heads off zombies, is much more fun than running around with three bots blowing the heads off zombies. However, both modes are fun in their own way. The bots are decent, not brilliant – they sometimes get stuck in walls or behind barrels – however, they are helpful when swarmed though not always enough to carry me with my terrible console gamepad aim. I also had them knock me off a couple of ledges during my runs, either killing me or severely hurting me. While this is annoying, I suppose in the fog of war, accidents do happen so maybe this is a tad more realistic than it should be! Thankfully, they will drop ammo frequently, so if you run out in the middle of an intense battle you’re likely to be saved by those bots.

Playing with friends is, by far, the preferable way to play this game. It’s a fun social experience, especially the firsts time a ridden mutation appears and scares the bejeezus out of you. Thankfully, Turtle Rock Studios has implemented cross-play from day one, so your choice of platform is not going to limit who you can play with. That said, I suspect that most players will be on Xbox and PC, since this game has been added to the Game Pass service (which should also keep player counts up), but your friends on PlayStation or Steam can still join your group of survivors using a unique in-game identifier. Just be warned relying on game chat may mean you want to keep your cross-platform session limited to “friends only”.

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The bots in Back 4 Blood have their moments of brilliance, making the solo campaign survivable on Recruit and Veteran, but their behaviour can be inconsistent.

The one time I did squad up with Andrew, creating the game and then hosting and playing was a rock-solid experience. There was no lag even though I was hosting in SA, and he was joining from the UK, and the server reported a ping of close on 400 ms? We were able to effectively make our way through the levels and fight off the hordes, without one disconnect or lagging player slowing progress.

The one design decision that gave me pause when the game was shown off was the card system. I hate the random nature of cards and the obvious microtransaction possibilities for such a system. So far, the latter concern has not been borne out as there are no such mechanics in the game. As for the random nature of the cards they truly have not affected the experience. At the beginning of each run, you choose a card from your deck to confer some bonus. It’s a quick and easy decision that helps you in some way but isn’t powerful enough to be a make-or-break decision. Do not fear picking the “wrong” card as the game is well balanced regardless, and you can make it through a level no matter what you pick.

All in all, Back 4 Blood is a fun game, better with friends and a beer or three, and still entertaining with bots if your squad’s busy life gets in the way of some ridden slaying.

Back 4 Blood (Xbox Series S) Review

Back 4 Blood (Xbox Series S) Review
8 10 0 1
8/10
Total Score
  • Story
    6/10 Normal
    There's a structured three-act campaign but all the protagonists are all cliched archetypes, following the order of a gruff military man. If you like classic action movie cheese, maybe you'll enjoy it more.
  • Gameplay
    9/10 Amazing
    Simple, timeless, and designed to encourage teamwork. Unfortunately, some of the modern progression mechanics simply feel extraneous.
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
    Back 4 Blood doesn’t do anything "only possible" on current-generation platforms, but it still looks good and has solid performance.
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good
    The voice work, creepy monster sounds, unsettling ambience, and dynamic music all complement gameplay and visuals.

The Good

  • Recaptures the classic team-vs-horde gameplay loop Turtle Rock Studios pioneered and refined
  • The card system can result in notable differences between runs of the same stage
  • Plenty of campaign maps at launch (and modifiers)
  • The bots are (typically) more capable at supporting online and solo players

The Bad

  • Character dialogue and interactions rarely feel genuine or entertaining
  • Currency, safe-house stores, weapon tiers, and weapon modifications all feel extraneous and slow the pacing
  • The Swarm PvP mode is underwhelming in comparison to the campaign invasions in L4D2
Total
35
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