Through the rose colour glasses of the many years that have elapsed between the original Left 4 Dead games and today I had thought of myself as somewhat of a fan of the series. Taking a quick look back though my Steam library though paints a different story. I spent around 13 hours in the original and a paltry 6 in its successor, a vanishingly small amount of time when compared to other similar games I played around that time. To be sure, I have some great memories of my time spent with friends playing those games, but perhaps my (and possibly the wider community’s) view of what they are and what the genre can be are skewed by our nostalgic view of the past. That being said Back 4 Blood is a fun experience to share with friends despite it’s grab bag of mechanics which don’t seem to matter, that is until the game’s later stages.

Typically I’d launch into a genre starting plot summary thing here to set the scene for what the game’s about but, truth be told, I can’t really remember much about the story at all. This is mostly due to it being co-op, requiring that I be on Discord with my usual gaming buddies which makes it challenging to engage with the story elements of the game. It’s a bit of a shame as there’s obviously been a bit of work put into making the character’s interactions with each other diverse enough that no two replays should feel exactly the same, ensuring that there’s still value in additional playthroughs beyond just unlocking more content and cards. I’m not quite sure what the solution is here either as it’s been a problem since time immemorial with these kinds of games.

Back 4 Blood is quite the looker of a game although it’s clear that parts of it have been stylized in ways to echo the stylings of their previous zombie survival games. The choice of the Unreal 4 engine is an interesting one, given that their previous titles have used a number of diverse platforms such as Source and CryEngine, but it appears that their most recent titles have been standardising on this one and the results speak well for enough for themselves. Performance is also good once the settings are dialled in a bit with a few of the recommend defaults (both from the game itself and GeForce Experience) erring a bit too much towards higher resolutions rather than stable frame rates.

The mechanical creep in these co-op survival shooter games isn’t something that’s gone unnoticed, especially with games like Vermintide introducing looting, crafting and all sorts of other things into the mix. Back 4 Blood then feels like the pinnacle of mechanical complexity as it incorporates pretty much every trope we’ve seen over the past decade. You’ve got your base character classes, each of which have a signature ability, innate perk and special secondary weapon that’ll form the bedrock of your build. Layered on top of that is the card system which allows you to customise your build further, constructing a deck that you will be able to draw a card from at the start of each round to buff your character further. Then there’s the looting system with the standard weapon archetypes we’ve come to expect but we’ve also now got a quality system for both the guns and their augments as well. On top of that all the levels can roll with different modifiers, making some levels trivial and others damn near impossible. Mix in a couple different modes (which have different cards available to them) and you’ve got a massive kitchen sink of mechanics that, on paper, make the game an infinitely replayable smorgasbord. In practice though many of those get ignored or misused as what people were really looking for in these kinds of games was more of the same. There is of course enjoyment to be had in min-maxing out a build during a run, but I feel like I was in the minority of my group when I was doing that.

To Turtle Rock’s credit though the combat was exactly what I’d come to expect of the game: fast paced and intense, even at the easiest difficulty level. Of course your group make or breaks your experience as I did the same level multiple times over with different people and it was always a toss up as to how we’d perform. Part of this is due to the RNG nature of…well everything in the game but it was also clear when the groups I was running in were working properly together and the others were just buggering about. There’s fun to be had on both sides of the spectrum of course and whilst you might not get much out of the game’s actual narrative the emergent stories that you’ll create with your team are the ones that are going to stick with you (like when your teammate tactically places some barbed wire, like in the below screenshot).

I like the idea of the card system, something where you character starts out relatively weak and then grows over time along the path that you’ve set out for it. If I’m honest though the actual impact to game play feels a lot more muted, even when I’d specifically crafted decks with an outcome in mind. For instance I figured out early on that most people don’t like shotguns and so if I ran with them I could almost always guarantee I’d have ammo available. So I built a deck around getting temporary health with shotguns and gaining health with melee kills, something that could (theoretically) keep me alive and topped up on health in almost any situation. The reality of using that deck is a lot less cooler than it sounds, with some internal cooldowns limiting how much health you can generate and the weird hitbox registration making it less reliable than what I figured it would be. Similarly most of my mates didn’t even bother with anything but whatever the default deck was and you’d be hard pressed to figure out who was being more effective overall.

The weapons though, ho boy do they make a world of difference when you find something with the archetype and mods to go along with it. In one playthrough I found a top tier pump action shotgun that came with a 100% bullet penetration attachment, which meant I could mow through entire waves of zombies with a single shot. Granted I only had 3 in the chamber before I had to reload, but with the right amount of cards my reload time was below a second and so I could really thin the herd whilst the rest of my team focused on precision work with the harder enemies. The problem with this is that you’re at the mercy of RNGesus with any particular playthrough and I can’t tell you the number of times I’d be waiting multiple rounds to even see another shotgun drop for me to try out.

Whilst the game is well polished in most regards there’s a bunch of what feels like unnecessary complexity in some of its core features, making getting a game going more frustrating than it needs to be. With a mix of friends on Xbox Gamepass and Steam the developer’s solution appears to be their own internal friends network, which requires a bit of setting up just to get things moving. Then, and I haven’t gone to confirm how this should work, but it seems like campaign progression is tied to games you host yourself, so that run where you got through a chapter or two with your mates means nothing for your progression beyond just the supply drops. Whilst I get tracking progress in this style of games is innately challenging having to replay content to unlock it for yourself when you’ve played with mates feels a bit unnecessary. Couple that with all the lesser-explained mechanics or things that can just simply be missed (like needing to repair the church, for instance…yeah that was a bit silly) and what you’re left with is a game that’s too preoccupied with putting everything in there that it gets in the way of the things that make it really good.

Which begs the question: is the additional mechanical complexity necessary for this kind of game? I think for a lot of us the simplicity of the original games in this genre, coupled with the emergent storytelling, were probably enough to make the game replayable for a good long while. I mean sure, the evidence for this gamer points to the opposite, but I certainly don’t feel short changed by the experiences that L4D, L4D2 and Evolve presented. I can understand the push that comes from keeping players engaged with titles for longer (they are after all where the money will come from) but there’s a tipping point between complexity and engagement which I think Back 4 Blood is probably on the wrong side of here.

Which puts Black 4 Blood in a hard position: the game needs some fundamental changes if it’s going to keep itself going and/or achieve the same level of success that its predecessor titles did. Reading through the recent Steam reviews of the game showed a community that’s not happy with the direction the developers are going which is never a good sign for a game’s longevity. But then again I have a feeling that most people have probably gotten what they wanted out of this game already, I certainly have and whilst I might go back for a session here or there I’m really only interested in the game’s future from a mostly academic perspective. So this puts Back 4 Blood in a weird space in my head, fundamentally it’s fun and there are numerous parts that I enjoy but overall the game’s mechanical complexity is a major detriment to its enjoyment. Is it worth playing? Absolutely. If you’ve missed out on it should dive in right now? Nah, grab it on sale with a bunch of mates and enjoy a romp or two through it. The game seems best served when you don’t over-analyse it or get invested in it.

Rating: 7.5/10

Back 4 Blood is available right now on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7.5 hours of total play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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