Left 4 Dead is back, except it both is and isn’t Left 4 Dead. IP and licensing laws mean Turtle Rock can’t call Back 4 Blood Left 4 Dead 3, but make no mistake. This is very much an enhanced and modernized Left 4 Dead game, which is mostly a blessing and slightly a curse. Back 4 Blood delivers on the promise of being a new Left 4 Dead, but seemingly at the expense of what gave its predecessors such a long life.
Back 2 Basics
Back 4 Blood is a sticky and gruesome homecoming if you’ve played Left 4 Dead, like a hug from an oozing, rotting aunt who’s happy to see you and even happier to eat your brain. The structure and foundation are almost identical, though whether it’s because so much time passed between L4D2 and now or it’s just a winning formula, it still feels fresh and fun.
You’ll pick from a handful of survivors — the same ones from the technical alpha, with more to come at launch — each with a set of distinct perks. Grab a weapon or three, sneak across the wreckage of Anytown U.S.A., and try reaching the next safe room with your head still (mostly) intact before starting the process again in a new stage.
A New Arsenal
However familiar it might seem, Back 4 Blood has a number of subtle differences compared to its spiritual predecessors. Character perks are more varied and interesting. So are the characters themselves, with the added bonus that they don’t make questionable comments anymore.
The card system shows promise, though it’s difficult to draw conclusions for just the one act with very limited card choices. The ones you do get make a difference in your survival chances, particularly on higher difficulties, though I wonder whether later acts will actually require strategic deck building.
One thing I appreciated is how crunchy Back 4 Blood feels. Movement and melee have more heft to them than in Left 4 Dead, and gunplay is similar to a regular shooter. That comes at the expense of weapon variety, though it’s not a huge drawback.
Left 4 Dead throws dozens of guns at you, though many of them are rather pointless. You might get three shotguns instead of seven, but there's also a greater emphasis on survival here. Ammo runs out faster and is replenished less frequently, so careful management is a must.
Stages are more linear for the most part, at least in the first act. Yet they also have more areas to explore, more ways to alert the hordes, and new gimmicks to contend with.
One noteworthy area tasks you with speeding across a ruined bridge onto a wrecked ship to reach the other side and what you think is safety, only to send you back to that ship so you can destroy it while your comrades (hopefully) provide covering fire. Mine went AFK at the time, but we still managed to come out alive.
Into the Unknown
It’s a fun surprise the first time, and, surprisingly, still enjoyable with the same team a three or four more tries later. I didn’t see much of the promised variety the Game Director is supposed to add, or maybe it was too minor to really pick up on. I suspect the beta version doesn’t include every feature even in the first act, though.
Several enemies shown in the beta launch trailer don’t actually appear in the same locations in the first act, for example.
However it turns out, there’s enough variety in approaching each challenge where Back 4 Blood should stay fresh for a long time.
Which is good, seeing as it’s still unclear what modes the final version will include. Survival campaign won’t be a thing, and PvP is a bit lacking at the moment. When you do finally get enough people on board, they tend to leave randomly, but hopefully that changes at launch when more people are playing.
What you’re left with is a slightly confounding experience.
Back 4 Blood delivers if you want Left 4 Dead, but not completely. The overall experience is smoother and more enjoyable, but the range of experiences is slightly underwhelming in comparison.
Of course, this is just the beta. More stages, Ridden, weapons, and cleaners are on the horizon, but it would be nice to get an idea what Turtle Rock has in store for the full release beyond just how the main mode plays. Either way, the first act with its improved gunplay, quirky cast, and tough stages make me want to come Back 4 More.