I’m not sure what I expected from Turtle Rock’s spiritual successor to zombie shooter Left 4 Dead, but I know that card-collecting wasn’t on the list. Valve’s 2008 cooperative classic was beautiful in its simplicity, a simplicity Back 4 Blood seems determined to bury beneath a mountain of artifice. Card powers! Loot tiers! Custom character skins! It’s like ordering chips in a trendy burger restaurant and finding your fried potatoes barely visible beneath a pile of jalapeños and pulled pork.
Despite a messy first impression, the spice and protein Back 4 Blood heaps atop Left 4 Dead’s framework ultimately pays off. It is an off-brand imitation of Left 4 Dead’s classic action: up to four players band together as ‘Cleaners’, embarking on a four-act campaign to wash a post-apocalyptic world in the blood of awkwardly named zombies, the Ridden. Most missions involve players fighting with guns, bombs, and baseball bats to reach a safe-room, all while the game makes active efforts to thwart you. The action is overseen by an AI ‘Game Director’ that harries players with carefully timed undead hordes and an array of super-zombies, variously able to trap you in a sticky web or spatter your team with Ridden-attracting vomit.
The game’s wide variety of weapons are fun to use, the zombies splatter pleasingly when shot, and the Game Director keeps you on your toes even on the easiest difficulty. But Back 4 Blood’s initial hours nonetheless lack a certain spark. The Cleaners are dull protagonists, while the environments are nondescript backstreets and industrial yards swathed in murky shadow. The tone is also flat and serious, missing the levity and dashes of humour that made Left 4 Dead such a riotous affair.
But this game is a resilient creature. Taking inspiration from Turtle Rock’s other multiplayer shooter, Evolve, in which teams took on superpowered kaiju-style monsters, Back 4 Blood grows and adapts as it progresses. With every new mission, the Ridden become stronger, faster and empowered with new abilities. Cards are dealt out gradually as rewards between missions, and provide bonuses such as extra health or greater melee damage that help you square up to the game’s increasing difficulty.
This isn’t the only way Back 4 Blood evolves either. The campaign slowly unveils impressively varied locales and objectives, from distracting the Ridden with a noisy jukebox while a convoy of Humvees evacuates civilians, to navigating the debris of an enormous logjam of wrecked boats, crashed planes, and spilled shipping containers. Characters reveal more dimensions, too. The socially awkward Hoffman, who initially comes across as a deluded conspiracy theorist, slowly opens up about his relationship with his abusive and domineering father.
It’s a game that rewards time spent with it, not in a cynical skinner-box way, but by becoming more intense, more challenging, and more characterful. Some of it is needlessly rotten: the game separates solo and online progression, giving lone players their own set of cards, and locking off the online decks and achievements. I assume this is to push players toward the online mode, but it’s a needless restriction. More egregious is how the game blanket records all voice chat. This is allegedly for moderation purposes, but even if that’s the case, it’s a highly invasive approach at a time when online privacy is an intensifying issue.
Still, what begins as a confused and colourless homage to a classic later reveals itself as a thoughtful and engaging reinterpretation. Back 4 Blood doesn’t represent a new gold standard of cooperative shooting – Left 4 Dead’s purity is difficult to beat – but it has enough brains of its own to be worthy of praise.