If the Left 4 Dead series is Train to Busan – a tight and frenetic escape from an unfolding apocalypse – then Back 4 Blood is the later seasons of The Walking Dead. The worst has already happened, and humanity has shored up its walls and is gripping tightly onto the edge of survival in the new harsh world. Also there’s a still a train of zombies but you knew that boarding, and you’re the one shovelling coal into the boiler?

B4B, then, isn’t precisely the same. The spiritual successor to a Valve classic mixes-up the co-op zombie slaying formula, adding new looter-shooter elements and giving the Cleaners greater control over the pace. That may put some off, but the core gameplay of 4-vs-horde remains compelling.

A zombie by any other name…

A four-player co-operative zombie survival shooter with a story-driven campaign mode was always going to draw comparisons with Left 4 Dead. Turtle Rock Studios also made Left 4 Dead, albeit under a different name. If any company had the pedigree, it’s these folks.

A lazy rehash this isn’t, though. Effort’s been made to push the format further, with richer world-building, adopting popular systems from more modern games, and adding layers of customisation for both characters and weapons. Also it’s not zombies, guys, it’s Ridden. OC, do not steal.

“Oh, destroying the brain? SOOO original…”

Instead of controlling Survivors, you and three friends (human or robot, because if you can’t find your own friends store-bought is fine) play a squad of Cleaners. Emphasis, then, is not on just getting out of Dodge alive, but sorting stuff out in Dodge, scrubbing the streets clean of deadbois, and then hopefully getting back home.

‘Home’, in this case, is a base camp with haggard fellow survivors of the collapse and a warm fire. It’s the ruin from Vermintide, the safe house from Pay Day, a moment of calm contemplation to try out guns, customise your character ‘deck’ (more on that later), and assemble your crew before moseying out.

Like a Republican family BBQ with less guns

The last person on Earth

Speaking of crew, everyone in your four-person party chooses a unique character. This isn’t just the skin you’re wearing, it’s a distinct character in the world with their own voice lines and a history with each of the others. Team mom, peppy teen, conspiracy theorist weirdo… the gang’s all there.

Each also gives perks to the player and/or the whole party – varying from extra lives, weapon drops, bonus stamina, and more. All but three characters are unlocked in the beta, though it remains to be seen whether this will be the same on release, and certainly space for more later.

Gearing up

On diving into a campaign (set over eight stages and about two hours) you’ll be plonked into a locked room with the chosen Cleaners and some boxes of supplies and a starting pistol. A limited supply of ranged and melee weapons are up for grabs. SMGs, shotguns, rifles, baseball bats, machetes, etc. etc. … but only one of each. Diversity in your squad’s loadout is inevitable, which is something you’ll be thankful for.

Ammo is now split by type and is finite. If your mate grabs the sniper ammo and you need it, then you’re SOL unless you can convince them to share – players can go into their menu and split their precious bullets.

Disgusting. The salad Glock should be left of the soup rifle…

Secondary weapons also no longer have infinite ammo, ala L4D, so you may find yourself up Ridden creek without a paddle, especially if both your weapons share an ammo type. It’s an extra layer of tactical consideration that you’ll need to do unless you grabbed a melee weapon, as your default punches are so soft and flappy they may as well be butterfly kisses.

Perhaps we stay inside, play a board game or something?

Pointy shooty zombie looty

On cracking open the safe room door gameplay proceeds almost exactly like L4D, with players continuing down a linear (but variable) path while tackling shambling hordes and the occasional chunkier boi who took a level in beefcake.

The fabled AI Director of Left 4 Dead feels a lot more lenient. Squadmates frequently wandered back through the level to retrieve dropped tools and were completely unmolested. Try that guff in its forebears and you’d be washing Spitter acid out of your Hunter gouges for weeks.

 

This allows some finer control over the pace of things and more encouragement to explore, which lends itself well to the abundance of things to find. Ammo, bandages, toolboxes, defibrillators, weapon mods, all kinds of things are waiting for the keen Cleaner to sweep up and share to support the party and unlock optional areas. And scattered everywhere like a scared child’s chips in front of an angsty seagull, you’ll find Copper.

Cornetto, anyone?

Copper is the currency used at the shops which have conveniently sprung-up at each safe house. I say shops, more boxes of gear with price tags… presumably when there’s only ten people left alive in the world breaking the honour system is tantamount to suicide. While this felt clunky and filler at first, the limited pick-ups meant I often splashed shrapnel on a marginally better weapon, or new mods to buff the one I had.

All the gear, some idea

Inspiration from looter-shooters like Apex Legends and Borderlands are writ large across B4B’s weapons and modding system. While L4D had different weapons of the same type, knowing the difference between them came down to experience. In B4B, you’re presented with a pop-up screen highlighting the difference in key stats for both weapons and mods.

What’s more, the same exact weapon or mod can have different stats depending on the rarity. Scouting then isn’t just the difference between having some extra painkillers in a pinch, but has a direct impact on your damage output for as long as you keep that weapon.

Green = good. More green = more gooderer

Hilarious, you activated my knife card

Even more rarely, waiting for you to find in the wild, are cards. These are like finding a shiny Charizard in your morning oatmeal, but better, as these can open-up new playstyles for your characters.

This bears a little explaining. I missed a step earlier, because before your first campaign (and before you know what you’re doing) you’ll be asked to select a ‘starting deck’ – cards offering pluses, minuses and more like +2 health on melee kill, 15% damage resistance… you get the idea.

Pick the knife you coward

These aren’t just pluses and minuses, but also mechanical changes. Cards like Combat Knife replace your pathetic slap with a fast stab that’ll one-shot enemies at lower difficulties. Live the #KnifeLife, you won’t regret it.

You’ll start with the first card in your deck get the chance to pick more as the campaign progresses. Cards found in the wild can be activated immediately for a cost, or just added to your available library to build with in the future.

The main way to get new cards, though, are Supply Points. Granted after completing chapters, with more given on higher difficulties, these are traded back at base to unlock chains of rewards – coloured as building supply routes to new locations – giving you cosmetics and cards. Building decks becomes both a lovely way of diversifying characters and adding colour to the world, giving you a reason to revisit areas to expand your options and earn more supply points.

The enemy get in on the action too though. The AI Director, in their quest to utterly dick you over, gets to pick from a deck of nasty Corruption cards that add challenges to the map. New optional objectives, tougher enemies… they do give more rewards, and some are completely optional, but can be the difference between sweet victory and sour oh-God-my-organs-why-are-they-eating-my-organs.

Just take blood samples from those extra bitey zombies, no dramas

Why are they eating my organs?

Beta it may be, but Back 4 Blood still felt extremely polished. From starting with accessibility options, to the wider world-building, the detailed voice lines, and much more, the few hours we spent playing zoomed by. Thought’s been put into the set pieces, and the radio requests and communications hammer home that you’re part of something bigger.

Some glitches were present, like ungrabbable Copper, a random name change, first and second players getting switched at the victory screen, and a few more, but nothing that took away from the core experience.

Not quite as annoying as a leaper to the face… but close

One complaint I have is the dialogue. Characters chatter over the radio, which if you’re too far away, great! If you’re nearby though, you get it both on the radio and as if your character was hearing it live, causing an irritating echo. In a game where you’re mostly fighting side by side this is a regular annoyance that has an obvious fix used elsewhere – only have the radio turn on when you’re out of earshot.

Another issue is the game’s multiple systems aren’t always transparent. Most can be worked out on the fly, but some – like the card system – required some Googling to get straight. Explanations may be tucked away in menus, but I’m a busy guy with Ridden to slay.

One grossly deformed thumb up

Unsurprisingly from industry veterans, Back 4 Blood is a truly solid entry with a lot to give. With friends it’s a load of fun, and I’m saddened my beta key has expired, because there’s no way in Hell I’m paying £50 for it.

Perhaps this is the price for AAA gaming… but it’s a bit rich for my blood. For now the game is on my wish list, and when the inevitable price plummet happens I’ll snap it up, when there’s more content and more polish.

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Pick up Back 4 Blood here. Maybe when it’s not stupid money.

Check out our raw playthrough of Back 4 Blood here.

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