Back 4 Blood perfectly illustrates one of the benefits to Xbox Game Pass. I have a fondness for Left 4 Dead which many people also share. At the time, asynchronous multiplayer games weren’t as commonplace or as popular as they are now, it was novel and, as expected, had a flair only Valve could inject into their releases. With Back 4 Blood being developed by partially the same team, you can expect most fans of Valve’s zombie hit to gain excitement in the buildup to Turtle Rock’s spiritual successor.
For me, I had the opposite reaction. Its announcement had me pumped, but the reveal of a card system, a hokey open beta and general lack of personality in comparison to its predecessor quelled much excitement I had for its release. Game Pass as a demo utility is truly wonderful, made more potent by the lack of demos we get nowadays, and even in the face of a beta I wasn’t very fond of, I was given another opportunity to experience the game for “free” in a finished state.
And I’m glad I did, because under a seafoam of irritating, tropey character dialogue, confusingly barren UI elements and a single player experience – which somehow managed to fall short of Left 4 Dead’s near nonexistent implementation – exists a murky yet tight, addictive and deep video game akin to its inspiration, and still completely unlike it.
The card system is where the changes really prove substantial, and was one of my concerns going into it. Cards seemed to get shoehorned into every game imaginable nowadays, and since EA proved how easy it is to take money from actual, literal children in FIFA’s “Ultimate Team”, it’s clear why suits force these predatory mechanics into their games. With that in mind, I fully expected Back 4 Blood to be riddled with microtransactions; powerful cards gated behind paywalls and weaker cards polluting the pool for peasants unwilling to pony up the moolah. Thankfully, my cynicism proved incorrect, and Back 4 Blood is completely devoid of in-game purchases.
Instead, the card system works on two fronts. On the more visible front, you have a deckbuilding mini game – carried out before you even join a play session – giving the player a wide array of potential builds to use in their runs. A personal favourite of mine was a 100% accuracy build which disabled aim down sights and instead gave me a pinpoint accurate hipfire reticle, offering an overpowered Left 4 Dead style means of playing the game. Melee can play a prominent role in the game too (perhaps too prominent, mind), and thus you can build a deck including cards which give you bonus health per hit, or increased swing speed the more you kill, or bonus damage on enemy weakspots with axes and bats. Support cards vary in their utility, some only proccing when a teammate gets downed for example (a “last chance state of zero mobility and praying your team pick you back up), some offering passive team bonuses to certain stats like health and stamina, others directly boost your ability to heal your team. Despite my predilection for a Doom-style “I don’t need no iron sights” deck, it was clear how much depth there is to this system which I hadn’t even explored, and seeing others use builds I hadn’t even thought of was a joy in itself.
Behind the scenes, however, on a less evident front, exists a “Left 4 Dead-style director”, a malignant, artificial actor which injects its own cards into the game – buffing certain infected or modifying other conditions to hinder the teams strength. In the marketing run up to the game’s launch, this was promoted heavily as a primary source of variety in new runs, making each feel unique and bespoke. I wouldn’t go that far, as each run on the same level typically houses the same special infected and preset challenges, but how effective those special infected are, where they spawn, and the proficiency of other hindrances do change. A boss card, for example, will spawn a two wave ogre boss at certain points in a level, while a fog card will flood overwhelming mist into the world at varying intensities, making communication even more vital. Overall, despite the overhyped possibilities of the system, it does work as intended, whereby playing the same level over and over again isn’t as monotonous as it could have been.
Back 4 Blood’s proverbial hook however does seem to hinge off the concept of replayability – for several reasons – and the aforementioned director can only do so much to make that experience feel distinct and minimise tedium. On recruit difficulty, the cards the director plays seem to be limited to the bare essentials with little variety. Of course, the idea is the player gets better and moves onto the misnomer that is the veteran difficulty – the “middle” selection which plays like the “very hard” difficulty in any other game – and yes, it does get better in that regard. However, perhaps the primary incentive to play a level over again comes in the form of supply points, the currency used to unlock cards. In my experience, Back 4 Blood doles supply points out too stringently, all the while ramping the difficulty too rapidly, forming this loop of playing the same levels over again to acquire cards clearly stronger than the ones you start with; doing the same thing over because you need to, not because you want to. The basic cards aren’t useless, but often fall into the trappings of small boosts with no trade offs, while the better, later game cards often hinder you in some way, but buff you significantly. With smart deckbuilding you can overcome them though (part of the fun of deckbuilding I’d say), and my no ADS deck exploited these strong cards by utilising those which crippled aim down sights proficiency, since I wasn’t using it anyway.
Fearing I’m getting too ahead of myself, let’s touch on the small subject of gameplay. Turtle Rock’s prior work with Left 4 Dead evidently played a role in Back 4 Blood’s development and marketing, sharing enough similarities to warrant comparisons yet enough differences to provide a different experience. The deckbuilding element plays a major role here, but the combat is undoubtedly refined here too. I know besmirching classic Valve is treacherous and may have me arrested, but I’m going to do it anyway: Left 4 Dead’s gunplay is dated. Blasting common ridden with anything from a shotgun to a pistol feels meaty in Back 4 Blood. The anemic spraying of Bill and co are gone and in its place is a healthy, expansive arsenal with dynamic attributes, giving (almost) all of them a place in one’s loadout. Melee weapons of the 2009 sequel make a return and swing with an almighty crack, or swift slash if you’re more of a blade guy. Further developing upon variety are attachments, permanent addons for weapons which can completely change the way a gun operates. In my infinite ammo secondary weapon deck, I managed to snag a rare sawn-off shotgun in a run, chock-full with bonuses turning a lumbering side arm into a swift boomstick. The meta deck before I stopped playing delved deep into the melee upgrades, turning a spiked bat into a one-hit-KO machine.
In this way, replaying levels over again rarely got tiresome for me because the moment to moment combat was a thrill. Fast paced, fluid and rewarding. It helps that the game isn’t too bad to look at, but as with many modern games, I tend to fall short on words to describe them; they all look bloody good. What Back 4 Blood does particularly well is moisture, the reflections on wet surfaces particularly emphasise the slightly wacky, horror tone, especially in darker areas where light can hit murky water or the putrid flesh of the ridden. The narrative should be a point of contention in this grander point of replayability, as not only is the writing pretty damn terrible, but it’s static – unmoving irrespective of how many times you play a level – and a key attribute in what some may perceive as tedium in the game’s loop. This was less of an issue to me. Granted, it’s something which I was just able to ignore, because truly both characters and plot points alike are woefully underdeveloped and rote. Thinking of both casts in the Left 4 Dead franchise, we have charisma and genuine personality, even if they’re rooted in stereotypes and one-note traits, they’re authentic and divergent, unlike Back 4 Blood’s lineup, consisting of a handful of edglords, “quirky” irritants and an old lady. Just shit, but I eventually zoned out whenever they’d throw a cheesy line my way and enjoyed the actual game.
Again highlighted in the game’s name, Back 4 Blood centers on a team of four, each player integral to success on higher difficulties, which can bring about issues, both through the organic process of human beings terrible but also through shoddily implemented, fundamentally useless non-humans. I believe the urgency of teamwork to be one of the game’s fundamental flaws, in the same way Left 4 Dead was and still is flawed. Playing Left 4 Dead today will have you blowing steam out of your ears after subjection to the vile elitism found in the games community. Similarly, as is the case for a new game released on Game Pass, much of Back 4 Blood’s player base consists of scrubs just figuring out the game. Unfortunately, due to the game’s wonky difficulty levels, many new players will start with veteran, the aforementioned “middle” option, denoting normal difficulty for many but very clearly not playing as such. With more virulent enemies and friendly-fire enabled, zombie damage will be the least of your problems as your teammates toss molotovs haphazardly at your noggin, all the while going down in a matter of seconds as they’ve had no suitable introduction to the game’s mechanics and intricacies. If a player leaves the game – or you perhaps want to socially distance in the most extreme way possible – you’ll meet the game’s friendly AI, which somehow is even worse than the less-than-useful bots found in the game’s spiritual predecessor. Often sticking to terrain, running head first into a horde of undead or downright breaking, overwhelmed by its own incompetence and inviting the ridden to slay them swiftly, Back 4 Blood illustrates manifest intention as a strictly multiplayer experience, one reliant on a good team, a good team hidden better than most of the game’s UI.
Yeah…so not only does Back 4 Blood suffer the natural consequences of a teamwork-focussed online game, but the tools afforded to the player to make communication easier and simply understanding their role and status are dreadfully inadequate. The already maligned mislabelling of the difficulty settings is one example, but the moment-to-moment interface depicting your own and teammates’ stats are barebones to a serious detriment. As someone on the less sociable side, playing Apex Legends for the first time was a momentous moment for me when it came to effective non-mic communication. That game had a ping system so tightly arranged it was almost unbelievable. Snappy in response time, so easy a chimp could use it and managed to convey the information you needed perfectly. Every multiplayer game since apes it to some degree, a lot getting it right, and Back 4 Blood sadly does not fall into that camp, erring on the side of overly simple and scanty in complexity. Simply pinging a hazard or weapon oftentimes fails to register, requiring too much precision. In the case of highlighting a weapon for a team mate, only the guns “star rating” is displayed, a system which fundamentally means nothing since a guns power often manifests in the way they operate rather than simple stat differentials. The more indepth comms wheel doesn’t have the same immediacy as other games, lacking any logic to each icons position, in addition to their unclear depictions and lack of function (sprays are not communication, Turtle Rock).
And this is just the ping system. The aforementioned fog corruption card will flutter in and out of play as you traverse the level, and while it’s in effect, players will lose the ability to see each other’s health and general status, a fair hindrance in a game with decent communication tools. Yet, what symbol does the game use to illustrate this effect? The same icon you’d denote lag or high ping. Idiotic. Not that the game conveys any meaningful information anyway, so concealing it oftentimes is less a challenge and more a very minor annoyance. The attachment system is rooted in looting and exchanging; attachments you find in the field replace your current one, and the one you already have equipped can’t be taken off without a replacement at hand. Upon finding an attachment, you’re never given a compare popup, illustrating the stat changes between two attachments, you just make an educated guess. If an ally picks a weapon or attachment up, you won’t know, nor will you know if they’re low on ammo or carrying a surplus of ammo they’re not using. The developers seemingly deemed it unnecessary information, despite the game’s reliance on resource management.
And for all this nonsense, Back 4 Blood hooked me in with its rotting claws for hours upon hours, all in the name of solid gameplay and a wholly varied experience, despite elements which should put a hamper on longevity. I think my positive conclusion on Back 4 Blood comes in the form of hope. Back 4 Blood, while enjoyable to my tastes, shoots itself in the foot so many times you’d think Turtle Rock had a vendetta against feet. The saving grace generally however is that Back 4 Blood has a formidable core, and the areas that need improving are, to a degree, secondary to the primary enjoyment of the game. Some, notably the UI, are indefeasibly bad, and the complete fumbling of its execution gives me little faith Turtle Rock know what they’re doing, but I remain hopeful. Maybe one day – a year or two down the line – I can come back to the game with renewed interest and walk away doubly as satisfied as before.
Or it hops into Evolve’s grave in a few months, either are likely.