I was recently fortunate enough to gain access to the Back 4 Blood (B4B) closed-beta, and I’m going to share my thoughts on the game as it is and where I think it can go both before and after release. Bear in mind as this was the beta build of the game content and mechanics may – and probably will – still change.
So, what do I think?
Well, Back 4 Blood suffers from an identity crisis. The comparisons between it and the Left 4 Dead series are unavoidable, and not just because they’re made by the same developer; Turtle Rock Studios. In the interest of simplicity, I figure we may as well start there.
Left 4 Dead is a cooperative online shooter where 4 players get together to push through multi-stage levels during a zombie apocalypse. The goal is simple: survive and, with any luck, find rescue. There are hordes of zombies (it’s not uncommon for you to encounter nearly a thousand in a run), with a selection of ‘specials’, which are super-zombies designed to make progressing harder (and to counter certain player tactics that might make the game too easy).
The four characters were incredibly memorable, replete with great banter and context-sensitive lines (Francis was by far my favourite, though Lewis’ reaction to friendly fire is as ingrained in my brain now as the Unreal Tournament announcer from my youth was). It felt like a lived-in world, and the combat was sublime. Everything was precise and the game felt fluid, tactile and fun. Great pains had obviously been made by Turtle Rock and Valve to ensure that the player always knew what to do at every point and as a result you could concentrate on playing the game and trying (often in vain) to keep your teammates alive.
B4B, which is being released some 12+ years after Left 4 Dead 2, is more of the same. Unfortunately it’s also slightly less in places.
B4B is so similar to L4D that it makes a description of it pointless. This is by no means a slight as Turtle Rock set out to give us the spiritual sequel to L4D2 and by that metric they appear to have largely succeeded. I do worry though that the urge (or IP-led requirement) to differentiate has not led to any overall improvement to the game, and could in fact have detracted from it. The famous Valve play-testing and user-experience aspect of the game also appear to be missing; which increased the learning-curve significantly for me when I started playing (in fact I’m still unsure as to how a few of the mechanics work). Whereas in L4D you always know exactly what to do at any one point, this is emphatically not the case with B4B – to the games detriment.
What are the main differences with B4B, then? Well, thematic differences (zombies versus infected-worm plague) aside, there are a few main ones. Let’s detail them below:
You now have 8 characters to play (called “cleaners” now), though only 4 can go on a mission. Each character is distinct, has their own personality quirks and, more importantly, their own game-modifying stats. Some increase the chances of ammo spawns, some are more accurate and can set-up devastating head-shot chains, some are better healers, and some specialise in melee. You can easily see an almost RPG-like squad set-up forming around this where skilled players will be able to apply these modifiers to maximum effect. Turtle Rock seem to have balanced the game in such a way that should you just want to play the game, then your choice of character won’t have a huge impact. Not all characters were available in the beta, so I’ll need to report back on those, but so far I quite like them. There is no immediate ‘Francis’ replacement though in this squad.
For some reason there’s a mission hub. It seems to serve only as window dressing for the menu, which you can access more quickly anyway, making it utterly pointless. There is a shooting range in the mission hub which allows you to try different weapons and modifications – which is nice, I guess? Though, again, it’s largely pointless as mid-mission you often switch to what is there, not what you would like and I’ve barely noticed any difference in how the weapons behave once modded anyway.
Granted, I didn’t explore every nook and cranny of the hub, so I may be missing some additional utility here, but as it stands I don’t see the point.
The Card System:
This is one of the biggest parts of B4B and I think the jury is still out on how it works. Let’s gloss over how hugely opaque the system is and how little explanation you get on how any of it works. The idea is a sound and intriguing one. Each member of your team (yourself included) has a deck of cards. Each card applies a bonus, or some other modifier (including extra slots for inventory items etc), that you can apply each round. The idea is that you’re able to modify your playstyle based off of which cards you select.
Countering this (or perhaps your cards are a counter to this) are the corruption cards; a series of cards that the infected side gets. These are dealt randomly each round and change the way the infected (and the specials) behave. You can have tougher ‘base’ infected who can take more damage, or can run. You can have level modifiers like fog, or alarmed doors (which attract huge hordes). You can even have mutations that add different abilities or armour to the special infected. These can drastically affect the way each round plays out – or at least that’s the theory.
In practice, I can’t remember a corruption card (or player card) that drastically affected the way I approached a round. Sure, things were different, but you make a slight adjustment to your play style and then just largely forget about it. I’m not sure this is what Turtle Rock intended. For me, it’s an issue of there being too many cards. Making a meaningful decision based on the cards you’re dealt is largely pointless due to their randomness, and the corruption cards (despite making you think there’s going to be multiple applied each level) don’t really have that much of an impact. There’s definitely scope here to do something interesting but in its current iteration I’m not sure it works as intended. As it stands, it’s just another thing to randomly click before you get into the next round. I’m hopeful that Turtle Rock will be analysing the data and making the appropriate adjustments, but only time will tell. Currently it’s a wasted opportunity, and as this is one of the big differentiators for B4B it’s a big blow for the game.
The ‘special infected’
Okay, so L4D had these too, but as B4B has gone to great pains to make theirs as different as possible I feel they’re worth exploring. There’s a number of base types, and each has 3 mutations on it that is supposed to change the way it behaves/the way you react to it. Only a few of the full special roster were encounterable (it’s a word…) in the beta:
1- The bruiser/crusher/tallboy
Tall dude, with one massive arm. He smashes, or grabs to immobilise you. If you’re a L4D vet, think of an effect like a slow ‘charger’ but with a greater ability to soak up damage. He has glowing ‘weak spots’ that are almost always impossible to hit and therefore just devolves into a bullet sponge. Devastating in confined quarters. Not particularly fun to play against.
2 – Exploder/Reeker/Retch
Kind of a cross between the Boomer of old, and, well, a less useful Boomer.
Easy to see, with glowing weak spots on their front. I’ve never had one get close enough to do any real damage and it seems their ‘vomit’ doesn’t stick, so just hop out the way and you’re golden. Kind of Dull.
Think a 4-armed female Hunter with bad hair. Can spit to immobilise you (which can actually be pretty devastating), and likes to crawl on walls. One of the better specials.
4 – Sleeper.
Seems to be a wall-mounted mollusc. Pointless.
5 – Snitch.
A walking alarm bell. Roams the map, often attracted to cleaners and starts screeching if too close/attacked. Just a pain in the ass.
There’s meant to be more coming, but honestly there’s not a single enemy here that actually adds anything new. And the specials in L4D are without exception better. With those specials you had to develop specific tactics and were forced to adapt on the fly. L4D’s Boomer, for example – you could melee it out of range, temporarily stunning it, allowing you to get to safe distance before ‘blowing’ it up. The Smoker could have its tongue shot to quickly free a teammate; difficult shot, but very gratifying to do. The amazing Tank….well, lob molotovs and run mostly.
As each L4D special had its own counter (besides just shooting it), and each required a relatively high level of skill to counter it; that meant the payoff was all the better. Even relatively simple things like the sound effects were all honed to perfection in L4D – you could often hear the specials stalking you before they attacked – allowing you to adapt (or not) as required. Fighting against them was fun. Fighting against the specials in B4B isn’t fun. Its hard; some of the specials are very tough, meaning your tactics boil down to concentrating fire until they fall over – but that’s not fun, and they even becomes a bit annoying after a while. Hell, even the giant 4-story tall Goliath wasn’t that fun to deal with.
For me these new specials fail at their basic premise; break up the flow of the game in a fun way and force the players to react, and that is a shame.
There are other issues, too. The game feels imprecise, and the movement is woolly – a clear concession to those who’ll be playing on a game-pad. The radial menus are annoying, and it’s not always clear how the sub-menus work or how to navigate through them – something that appears to be a growing trend in many cross-platform games at the moment. It’s like they all went to the same design conference and now players are suffering as a result.
My overarching impression, then, is that Back 4 Blood largely fails at everything it tries to do. It’s not bad; I genuinely enjoy it now I’ve acclimatised to it and I do see myself playing more, but it offers nothing substantively new (yet), nor does it do anything better than L4D2 does; which is still an eminently playable game. For Turtle Rock that’s an issue, as this has all been done better before – and by them, to boot.
But I’m not giving up just yet. Turtle Rock are talented developers operating in the area they made their own, so I have some hope that they can tweak the game enough to bring it to L4D’s level – possibly surpass it! Right now though, it’s a poor imitation, with uninspired gameplay and a ‘headline’ card-system that just doesn’t seem to work and I worry it’ll need some pretty fundamental changes to get it right.
Sad Francis noises.