As the ancestor of a genre, going back to its roots must have been both exciting and daunting for Turtle Rock Studios. The team's intention to re-establish itself as the flagship of the horde shooter would be no small feat after years of like-minded copycats.
Sadly, Back 4 Blood doesn't fail to fill Left 4 Dead's shoes. Amazingly, it doesn't even rival some of the many horde shooters we've seen since the team's last foray into the genre in 2009.
The bones of the game are strong, but the flesh of what makes this genre fun has been ripped from Back 4 Blood as if it had fallen on a horde in the post-apocalypse.
Back 4 Blood isn't exactly the Left 4 Dead trio we've ever had. It doesn't really try to be, despite Turtle Rock's self-referential name choice. Its issues and merits stem from things old and new in the genre, so while not everything it does fails, it also oozes oddly aspects of the horde shooters that this same studio perfected more ago. 10 years old.
Back 4 Blood Review: A Horde of Problems
At first glance, Back 4 Blood is like so many other games before it, although that's not immediately disqualifying. I love this genre and will always take another good entry. It just isn't that.
Players load up in co-op with up to three other players. They select their weapons and battle the undead, called Ridden in this universe, between safe rooms as they scavenge ammo and complete objectives, ideally with all allies still standing at the end.
Instead of several campaigns of equal size, Back 4 Blood is divided into acts and chapters of a long story. These acts can be difficult to follow as only quick play lineups are able to make the match in a short time.
Trying to load into specific missions to continue the story as it is told, or even to host private online lobbies, is a laborious, sometimes hopeless process unless you have a full party of four. players. Other than that, it seems like the game doesn't or can't allow you to pair up with others.
Once you enter a match, your results can vary widely, and among a host of issues, chief among them is improper pacing driven by an AI director that feels less bossy and more random and chaotic .
Somehow, the underlying technology must be worse today than it was in 2008, because Back 4 Blood's AI director is flawed to the point of frustration. The most common problem is getting spammed by mutations (think specially infected), which take so much damage and have such small windows of vulnerability that one or two of them would be a good familiar challenge.
But Back 4 Blood regularly releases what looks like a clown car from these mini-bosses. Curiously, the other levels are silent and suffer from the totally opposite problem.
There is no strategy to put in place when the assault leaves no room to breathe or even move. Vice versa, there's no fun when a tough finale forgets to throw more than a handful of enemies your way.
Above all, it's the pace that separates the good shooters from the horde of not so good. With Back 4 Blood, Turtle Rock struggles to consistently break the bar it set for itself years ago, even though others have broken it in the meantime.
Suppose you get a good level or even a series of levels. It happens, and when it does, the game shows glimpses of brilliance. Guns are as varied as anything in the genre, with tiered loot that can be purchased between levels in a safe room.
There you can also buy other supplies like ammo, grenades, and team perks. This makes recovering copper, the in-game currency, so important, which in turn provides an excellent risk-reward balance. How much do you explore each crevasse when the horde swoops down on you?
Shooting is also very nice, and a very granular aim assist feature means that if that bothers you, you can tweak it until you find your precise preference. I enjoyed my time with all the usual gun classes offered in Back 4 Blood, and the game makes choosing your exact loadout a fun challenge with overlapping inventory slots that only allow for one limited number of tools.
In the game's best new layer, a card system provides a mischievous element to the game, but it's done in such a way that even trend-breakers can take advantage of it. By playing online and earning supply points with each successful mission, you can unlock new maps and cosmetics to customize your hero and his perks.
The cards are great, allowing smart players to compensate for their weaknesses, combine their strengths and form a single collective with their team, layering new buffs level after level with each new run. Building a melee, super stamina survivor that heals everyone often and quickly has been one of my favorite parts of the game (when it works).
Cosmetics, on the other hand, are quite lacking. This is often the case for out of the gate games, so hopefully the options will be more robust over time. But at launch, there's a lot of bland palette swapping. Among the cooler options, some are so inaccessible that they might as well not exist. Beat all Nightmare levels? With this AI? No thanks.
I love the new characters. They've grown on me almost as much as Louis, Bill and the rest, but B4B is trying hard to stop me from making them my own, which in 2021 is obviously going in the wrong direction.
Back 4 Blood also crashes a lot, and in a first for me, it fails to even load at times. My Xbox sometimes gives me a never-before-seen error message when I go to play Back 4 Blood. When I immediately try another game instead, it starts immediately.
Even when it doesn't crash, the game can be buggy. Joining matches in progress can mean running around unarmed (or even hands) for a few seconds. Once I joined and took over as Doc, but his AI counterpart was still there too. Back 5 Blood?
Unfortunately, the game's single-player campaign, which would solve at least one of the game's major problems, doesn't earn supply points, so you can't unlock new maps or cosmetics (or even achievements). /trophies, if these matter to you). I might still see bugs and pacing issues, but at least I could get into a game and play the specific level I wanted to play. But Turtle Rock prevents that too.
When pacing, bugs, and matchmaking issues don't get in the way, Back 4 Blood really is as fun as its elevator pitch would imply. But every time I saw those bright flashes, one of those intrusive glitches would come back to my face, reminding me that this game, despite being late, had probably launched too soon.
Back 4 Blood Review – The Result
- Solid gunplay and tons of gear customization
- Flashes of brilliance
- Pacing issues result in choppy peaks and boring valleys with little in the golden loop area
- Bugs in the form of game crashes, spawning unarmed, and even duplicate characters
- Matchmaking issues apparently prevent private lobbies and make it difficult to play at specific levels
- Single-player campaign removes critical content like custom decks and supply points
Back 4 Blood was one of the most confusing reviews of my career. During the alpha and beta periods I always thought that once the obvious issues were fixed it would be great. But B4B is launching today with many of these issues and even revealing others that I hadn't seen before.
I tend to forgive bugs quite easily. I would even forget some of the matchmaking issues if other parties were stronger. But the lack of proper pacing is unfathomable to me.
I don't know if it's the underlying technology of different engines or the years apart and likely personnel changes that come with it, but I didn't expect this studio to forget how to make this kind of game, and the bad rhythm somehow says it does. Above all, this is where Back 4 Blood does not live up to its predecessor which is always a reference.
[Note: Turtle Rock Studios provided the copy of Back 4 Blood used for this review.]