Back 4 Blood has the best water-cooler moments of any game released in 2021.
My team of four zombie-killers had to recover the hand of a dead soldier to unlock a saferoom where we might survive the night. After claiming the hand, I was the last one standing. Rather than end the level, I instead crouched down to revive my teammate.
The coast looked clear at first, but suddenly some powerful enemies flanked me as the animation was finishing. Tallboys and Spitters attacked my crouched body. I was knocked down just as my ally came back from the brink of death. It was now up to them to finish the fight.
After an intense chase that took my teammate and a horde of Ridden (the game’s name for zombies) around almost the whole map, they were able to circle around the horde, enter the saferoom, and finish the level. It was the most exhilarating moment I’ve had in a video game all year, and it’s one of many that Back 4 Blood has to offer.
Back 4 Blood is a spiritual successor to classic zombie shooter Left 4 Dead. The same developer even created it. We’ve waited for a third Left 4 Dead for years, and while Turtle Rock’s latest goes by a different name and has some very unique features that live up to the high standards Left 4 Dead set, making it one of the best cooperative video games of 2021.
Back 4 Blood features a fairly barebones narrative about a team of quirky infection-immune “Cleaners” uniting to fight the Ridden. After being dormant for some time, the undead hordes returned in full force. The characters never evolve beyond spewing cheeky one-liners, and the story is derivative and basic.
But you’re not playing Back 4 Blood for the narrative. You’re playing for the stories you create by cooperating with your fellow players.
Back 4 Blood’s clever level design creates distinct moments in every level that ensure repeated runs don’t get stale. In modern cooperative games, most challenges boil down to defeating enemies with increasingly larger health bars while getting from point A to point B. Games like that, such as Outriders, are still fun in their own right but get stale after several hours.
Back 4 Blood shakes its core formula up to avoid those same pitfalls. In one level, you could be defending a diner from hordes of zombies, and the next, you could be loading and firing an anti-aircraft gun to destroy a mine. Even in the more simple A-to-B levels, the situations you face are far from straightforward.
One particular level features a wooden ferry that you take across a river to a saferoom. I took it alone, leaving my teammates behind, but got incapacitated along the way. In this state, I had to slowly watch myself move further and further away from my team while they fought their way across the lake to revive me.
Moments like that feel like a rarity in other games like this, but they’re frequent in Back 4 Blood and are an essential part of what makes the game special. Back 4 Blood shows that the cooperative shooter space still has room for innovation, and everything doesn’t have to be a Borderlands or Destiny clone.
In the Cards
While the experience inside levels is similar to what you’d expect from a Left 4 Dead successor, Back 4 Blood has plenty of unique ideas. The game is split into multi-level runs that players have to fight through with only one continue, giving Back 4 Blood a roguelite flair.
To encourage replayability and team-building, Back 4 Blood also features a card system. Players earn cards in levels and by obtaining Supply Points. You are rewarded with those for completing levels, and you spend them at Fort Hope to unlock cards via Supply Lines. These cards are then made into a deck and can be used during runs.
Some are basic, like giving your character “+5 health” for the rest of the run, but others get more complicated, like one that heals your character when an ally is incapacitated. There are several RPG-like builds that you can create with these cards. I liked going on the offensive with melee and ammo-focused decks, but you can also modify them to fulfill healer, support, and other roles.
Each character also has special abilities, so it’s smart to plan and synergize picks with your teammates. The AI also deals Corruption Cards of its own, which could add more powerful enemies, timed objectives, and even extra bosses to levels. This ensures that Back 4 Blood remains challenging even on the easiest difficulty.
I’ve played every level from Act 1 several times at this point and have yet to get bored. That’s in part due to the fun level design and in part due to this card system. Back 4 Blood’s campaign is a near-perfectly refined cooperative experience that will likely become a mainstay of many game nights.
That’s what makes its botched PvP multiplayer mode stand out for all the wrong reasons. In this Swarm mode, teams of Ridden and Cleaners face off in a best-of-3 match to see who can survive the longest. While giving players control of zombies is a novel idea, it’s just not any fun.
The levels are claustrophobic rehashes of campaign stages and lack much creativity of their own. The wait time between rounds is also excruciating, as there are long gaps where the zombies can’t do anything but upgrade and wait for players to choose their character and scavenge.
The actual fights rarely last longer than 3 minutes too, so you’ll be spending as long waiting as you do fighting. Your campaign decks don’t carry over, and you earn fewer Supply Points than you do from a successful campaign run.
As such, there’s no good reason to play this mode when the rest of Back 4 Blood is so much better. An invasion mode similar to the original Left 4 Dead games would’ve been much preferred.
Back 4 Blood features everything you’d want out of a zombie game: intense moment-to-moment gameplay, clever level design, variety from run to run, and memorable characters in a campy story. It’s a perfect fit for Xbox Game Pass, so definitely check it out if you’ve been desperate for some to scratch that Left 4 Dead itch.
Just ignore the terrible PvP mode.
Inverse reviewed Back 4 Blood on Xbox Series X. It is also available for PC, Xbox One, PS4, and PS5.
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