The alpha of a game is always an interesting thing to see. It’s sort of like looking at a painting from far away. You can vaguely make out what it’s supposed to be but those small details haven’t come into frame yet. You assume they mean very little for the overall perception of the painting but – sometimes – they entirely skew it into something unrecognisable. A good alpha gives you something to look forward to, something to watch change over the coming year. A great alpha shows you exactly what you’re in for. Back 4 Blood does both.
Let’s get this out of the way early. Yes, Back 4 Blood is quite like Left 4 Dead. This being said, it’s a good bit more too. It adds snippets of roguelike elements and an inventory system to keep you engaged but not overwhelmed – the whole point of these types of games is to try and not get overwhelmed. This can be hard to do with multiple mutated zombies clamouring for your flesh. In the alpha, there was one playable campaign taking about an hour with four main stages. Before each stage, you had time to stock up, look around, plan out your route and rush it.
Planning at the start is perhaps the single most important part of Back 4 Blood. The characters you play as almost invoke a hero-shooter style group mechanic. Each main character – of which there are 4 – have unique playstyles, weapons and perks. Where one has a pistol and perks for better accuracy, another might rush with a bat. This allows a decent change each time you swap characters. This level of unique runs is only heightened by the card system.
Before going into a map, you must make a deck containing up to 15 cards – all with different perks and changes. They are split up into different categories prioritising health, damage, team abilities and more. Coordinating with a team, you can work out a pack that manages to synergise well with each other – or you could be selfish and just tank yourself up. Either works really. At the start of your run, you must pick from three random cards four times in a row to hold four of those cards on you. This means each character will have four of their cards chosen at random for the start of each run. If you search around enough in each area, you can pick up packs that grant you another one at random. Each new stage in a campaign allows you to pick up one more card, meaning your loadout by the end of a campaign will feel very different.
These roguelike changes don’t just stop there. The money system in Back 4 Blood also promotes constant change. In each safe house, there are boxes where you can purchase things for your character. This can be something small and usable like a grenade or some bandages, or it could be a sight for your gun or more space for ammo. You could save up, in the long run, to buff your weapons somewhat, or spend it early to keep you and your team running. This does what good roguelikes do – it promotes an organic risk/reward system.
The risks in Back 4 Blood are made even higher by corruption cards. These add special zombies into your runs that make them even more difficult – something Back 4 Blood knows a lot about. Even on its classic difficulty mode, it feels rather similar to the likes of GTFO in its difficulty. They both have an oppressive difficulty that doesn’t stop until you get much deeper into the level. You can’t just back out and take a breather; you have to continue on. Luckily, the gunplay feels so great, it never feels like a chore to continue on. Hoffman’s starting pistol is both satisfyingly weighty and very accurate feeling. It doesn’t feel too dissimilar to the FPS greats in that way. There’s something incredibly satisfying about popping the head of an unsuspecting zombie or bashing down a door to throw in a sneaky grenade.
There’s also a somewhat tactical nature to the way Back 4 Blood runs. You don’t have a huge pile of health and it doesn’t restore naturally. In this sense, resources and health tend to pool together. Why bother using the bandage yourself when a teammate could do with it more? There are small obstacles and puzzles that often mean sticking together is your best bet for survival. By the end of a run, you and your three companions will work together or you’ll die together.
Fundamentally, at the heart of it, this is what kept Left 4 Dead going for so many years. You could team up with a group of strangers and by the end of the run you felt like friends. The magic of online gaming has never been lost here and Back 4 Blood does so many things right to invoke that once more.
Of course, with it being in alpha form on PC, it has its issues. Zombies would occasionally spawn in the distance and just stand there, there are some small audio issues and the accessibility options need quite a lot of work, but these are the only main things Back 4 Blood feels like it is missing. In a time of year loaded with games riddled with bugs and bloated content, Back 4 Blood offers a fairly complete experience. Its gunplay is tight, its systems are great, and I genuinely just had a good time. While this painting is still quite far away, I’m very happy to see those small details and wider picture come together to make something with real substance.
Huge thanks to Turtle Rock Studios for giving us access to Back 4 Blood in alpha form on PC. Back 4 Blood is scheduled for a worldwide release on 22nd June 2021 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4 and PC.