Imagine you’re out for a pleasant evening stroll with some friends, popping water balloons, throwing firecrackers, and running around aimlessly. Now imagine the balloons are killer zombies, and the firecrackers are grenades one of your friends tossed as you all run away, desperately trying to survive. Is it any less fun?
Nah. That’s exactly why it’s fun. Back 4 Blood thrives on chaos, over-the-top zombie violence, campy horror, and off-the-wall characters. It’s better and much bigger than we found during the beta period, though while campaign co-op is a gory good time with friends, there are some drawbacks in Back 4 Blood’s approach and other modes that make it difficult to recommend unless you have a party of friends available.
Back 4 Blood strikes a perfect balance with its story. There’s a reason zombies exist, a purpose for exploding hundreds of them in each stage, and just enough personality to keep from feeling flat. It’s campy, dramatic horror, and that’s all Back 4 Blood needs to be.
You’ll take a party of four Cleaners, people immune to the Ridden virus, across their ruined city and beyond as they try helping others survive. Each Cleaner has a set of special perks and weapons with surprisingly far-reaching effects on how a run plays out. They also have distinct backstories that crop up in certain stages depending on the combination of characters present, and while Back 4 Blood is never interested in making them feel dynamic, there's more than enough personality to make (most of) them endearing.
The Cleaners’ saga unfolds across four acts, most of which have multiple stages with objectives that vary wildly. One has you attracting hordes of Ridden with loud jukebox music so survivors can escape, while another tasks you with racing up a zombie-filled boat The Last of Us 2-style before going back into the horde to set explosives. There are some duds in the mix, but even the seemingly dull stages surprise you with deadly traps. One stage in Act 2 forces you to find and destroy several Ridden nests, which sounds like a routine task - except you’ll face Ridden hordes every two minutes.
Just One More Round
I played these stages multiple times, and it almost never felt stale. How prominent the AI game master was in shaping all this or keeping it fresh, I still can’t say. Sometimes the effects seemed evident, such as seeing a Tall Boy or Crusher every few minutes, though other changes were so subtle that they usually had me and my teammates wondering if maybe we just misremembered a detail from the last time we played.
Back 4 Blood’s gunplay and characters are what kept me coming back for more. You’ll find dozens of guns - shotguns, pistols, SMGs, the whole gamut of firearms - littered around in each stage, but I didn’t expect them to feel so distinct. The random nature of most drops means you’re never sure what loadout you might get each run, which makes it all the more satisfying when you can finally ditch that garbage sidearm for an automatic pistol or, better yet, a hatchet.
It’s even more satisfying when you mod that pistol in the safe room, then pull a card from your deck that gives you extra ammo or better bullet penetration. Even after the beta, I wondered how useful the card system might be and was pleasantly surprised to find it’s one of Back 4 Blood’s best features. There’s still an element of randomness in which cards you’ll draw, let alone which ones you’ll acquire. However, it’s possible to have several distinct builds for each character, and I can’t overstate how much replay value that adds.
In short, co-op campaign is an absolute blast, but there’s a catch. You really do need to play with friends.
It's Unfun to Go Alone
The bots are appallingly efficient, tagging important items, targeting weak spots, and healing party members because, of course, they found the available medical supplies dotting the map. It’s helpful - the last thing you want is a bumbling ‘bot getting you killed - but it also takes the rough edges off each round, the things that make Back 4 Blood’s campaign so much fun. Randos might set off every alarm in sight just because they can, and your friends will keep using up all their ammo. That shared chaos is what makes the game unique and worth playing, though.
It puts Back 4 Blood in an awkward situation at times. Even the lowest difficulty has tough spikes in challenge, and the intermediate level is closer to hard or advanced, capable of destroying experienced teams in just the first round. Playing with bots smooths out some of these challenges, but it’s just not as fun. I’d like to see some additional accessibility options, such as an assist mode or even opt-ins for special items to help struggling players, added in future so more people can enjoy it for longer. That’s particularly true given how the other modes perform.
Swarm and single-player mode don’t quite make up for these issues either. Solo mode removes several features from co-op campaign, including supply lines, and Swarm feels unfinished. You're scavenging for items for what feels like ages, only to engage in protracted shootouts with a handful of other people playing as Cleaners or Ridden. It works when there's dozens of Ridden in campaign mode, but not with just three or four opponents. There's potential here, but the underlying structure doesn't support the actual gameplay.
Matchmaking for co-op was spotty, even after the full launch. Sometimes, I’d wait five minutes for a team to form, though there were a few occasions where it took longer and only populated the empty spots with bots.
Back 4 Blood is fantastic fun - in the right circumstances. Hopefully, Turtle Rock plans on augmenting Swarm and solo mode in future updates. If you've got at least a couple of friends interested in partying up, though, taking down a few thousand Ridden for an hour or two is a no-brainer.
The publisher provided the PC copy of Back 4 Blood used in this review