I have a confession to make: I never played the Left 4 Dead games when they first released, even if they did fast become the most popular things in the entire world. I can’t even say why this was the case; it may have been because my tolerance for random online strangers used to be wafer thin. The thing is, shooting zombies, especially in a PvE kind of environment is absolutely my jam these days.
What this somewhat laboured intro is leading up to is the release of Turtle Rock Studios’ hugely anticipated new shooter, Back 4 Blood. Taking the formula from the games of old (indeed, a large part of the devs also have the Left 4 Dead games on their collective CVs), and turning it up to 11 using the power of the new generation of consoles, this looks like a marriage made in a zombie apocalyptic heaven. So, come with me to a world of Ridden (boo!), Cleaners (yay) and more blood, guts, gore and guns than you can shake a stick at.
So, the story, as if it matters when there are undead scum to shoot in the face, is that there has been a zombie apocalypse. Hopefully no spoilers so far! These zombies are known as the Ridden, as in plague ridden I assume, and there are a lot more of them than there are of the actual living breathing humans. We play as one of eight Cleaners, a group of people whose job it is to go out into the wilderness, away from the safety of the fortified camps where most sensible people spend their time, as we get on with accomplishing certain tasks, such as rescuing survivors, blowing up bats and so on.
Basically, what this translates into is a four player cooperative experience, where watching each other’s backs becomes the norm, and to be honest, I find this much more refreshing than the endless grind of something like Call of Duty’s PvP player modes. That said, if PvP is your bag, there is a Swarm mode where Ridden take on Cleaners, but I have to be honest and admit that these days I’d rather work together with other people than be in conflict the whole time.
As the game opens, you only have the choice of four Cleaners to choose from, but by completing the first four missions of Act 1, you can unlock another four. In each Act, there are ten missions to go at, apart from Act 4, when there is only a single mission. The choice of Cleaner you pick does have a bearing on the team’s chances of survival, as they all have a unique ability that can buff the team. As you progress through the game, you can earn new cards that can also buff you or the team further, and constructing a deck of these in order to give yourself the best chance is a lot of fun, and requires quite some thought.
Cards can be purchased from Supply Routes in the social hub of the game, and they are bought using the supply points that you accrue after finishing a mission. These cards are not the only ones in the game, mind. The Ridden also have a card deck that can be played randomly at the start of each run. These so called Corruption cards bring a new twist to the gameplay, such as having thick fog outside, making it very hard to see where you are going or where the enemies are coming from. Or you might get lucky and have a horde of zombies on your tail the whole way through a level. And yes, that normally ends about as well as you’d expect!
So, once you’ve picked your Cleaner, and are ready to dive into the game, how does it play out, I hear you ask? Well, it’s bloody, fast and bloody difficult, if you’ll pardon my French. I’ve found better success playing as a group and communicating with each other, as you’d expect, but jumping into a random game via the quickplay menu normally results in joining a bunch of people who don’t talk, don’t help out, and seem to think they are playing zombie deathmatch, where the idea is to score as many kills as possible. I highly recommend playing with friends if you can, as even if they can’t shoot straight, as being able to talk and coordinate can make the difference between success and failure.
The action is non-stop, fast, furious and flipping brilliant, and having to leg it across a bridge with a zombie horde snapping at your heels, or defending a jukebox in a bar in order to distract the zombies long enough for people to escape leads to some fantastic set piece fights. And this is without even mentioning the special Ridden, like the guy who looks like Tyrant from Resident Evil, the exploding and the massive Ogre that one member of our team tried to take on with a pistol (he will remain nameless, but needs to take a bow). It’s great that the designs of the baddies are pretty cool.
Graphically and Back 4 Blood looks great, with no slowdown despite what appears to be a good few million zombies all on screen at once. The way that the game keeps the speed up is fantastic and helps to ensure the pace of the action is always on the frenetic side. Animation is pretty good, with minimal lag (there is a certain amount of rubberbanding when playing with people with “rural” internet), and the soundtrack is also very good, with each different type of zombie being recognisable from the noises that it makes. And for goodness sake, if you see birds on the floor, leave them alone, that’s all I’m going to say…
Are there any bad points? Well, yes, there’s a beauty. You see – and I still can’t get my head around this even as I type it – but if you prefer to play alone, it’s really hard luck, as completing missions with bots, while technically possible, doesn’t give you any progression; no extra cards, and worst of all, no achievements. Yes, you read that right, if you play alone, all the achievements, even the first one for shooting a Ridden, are locked away. This is a stupid move in my book, as not everyone wants to play with others, and the devs have basically made it so that you have to. Other niggles include a not very user friendly menu system, various and sundry dashboardings and game crashes, and a general lack of stability if the internet gods aren’t on your side. I’m hopeful that this at least will be patched out.
All in all, with Back 4 Blood launching on Xbox Game Pass, I have to say it’s worth every penny. It is fast, brutal, punishing and can bring complete strangers together into a zombie mincing machine. Swarm is there if you have the PvP itch, and if you can play with others, this is an easy sell. If you play alone, things are more problematic, as a lot of the game seems to be locked away from you, but co-op up and you’ll be sorted with the zombie killing sprees of Back 4 Blood.
You can pick up Back 4 Blood by heading to the Xbox Store