Back 4 Blood doubles down on coordination and customization

Over the next year, we’re going to see a surprising wave of cooperative shooters filled with horror movie monsters. Both Aliens: Fireteam Elite and Rainbow Six: Extraction will pit a crew against swarms of gooey aliens. It’s a small wave of games looking to finally wrestle the PVE crown away from Valve’s long-dormant zombie shooter franchise, Left 4 Dead. Those games have some tough competition though: The developers of Left 4 Dead themselves.

Back 4 Blood is a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead developed by Turtle Rock Studios, formerly known as Valve South. The new co-op shooter launches this October (just in time for Halloween) and promises to fill the Boomer-sized hole in our hearts. It’s not just a nostalgia act though; Back 4 Blood looks to push the genre forward rather than take its background.

During a two-hour demo event, I rallied a full squad together to dive into a few campaign missions and fight through the new PvP Swarm mode. While I came away with some imbalance concerns in the latter, the bit of PvE content we played proves why Turtle Rock is still the squad leader when it comes to co-op.

Rally the troops

Back 4 Blood is going to feel immediately familiar to fans of Left 4 Dead. Four players squad up and work together to shoot their way through waves of zombies (or Ridden, as they’re called here). That’ll involve squads to coordinate as they cover one another from incoming swarms and identify different enemy types on the fly. The goal of each level is to reach a safe room, which acts as a chapter break where players can regroup.

On its surface, it’s essentially Left 4 Dead 3, but Turtle Rock has implemented several new ideas to set Back 4 Blood apart. Customization plays a much larger role here. Each character comes with their own specific perks and there’s a card system that lets players choose new buffs (and threats). Most notably, Back 4 Blood has a bit of an “economy shooter” flair to it, ala Counter-Strike. Each time players enter a safe room, they can spend any money they’ve found to stock up on weapons, healing items, and gadgets. The characters themselves don’t play differently, despite having different classes, but these systems allow players to define their own team roles.

A human squad looks outside of a safe room in Back 4 Blood.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to changes. There are new zombie variations, more weapons, and a more rewarding approach to map design that encourages players to scavenge. According to Turtle Rock Studios co-founder Phil Robb, every little piece is meant to strengthen out the game’s co-op dynamics.

“There’s a lot more ways to coordinate in this game,” Robb tells Digital Trends. “It’s not just pulling the zombie off of my buddy. There’s coordination of what weapon systems to use, there’s coordination of what kind of card builds you’re going to do. There’s a lot more depth. Left 4 Dead fans will see the DNA that’s shared, but we’ve heaped a lot more stuff on top of that to bring this genre into the modern era.”

The most notable difference is that the game has a more defined narrative, which guides mission design. Rather than simply running from point A to point B, teams will have to complete more diverse objectives and tackle defined set pieces. The second story mission begins with a gigantic ogre sprouting up from the ground with a menacingly giant red health bar. After my team was wiped out by it in a minute flat, we respawned in the safe room and talked through a plan. We noticed a tunnel just past it, so we resolved to make a run for it, dashing into passages that it couldn’t fit through. Through careful coordination (okay, it was a chaotic mess), we made it to the safe room without firing a single shot at it.

A squad of humans looks down at a swarm of Ridden in Back 4 Blood.

What’s funny is that I spoke to another journalist afterward about our strategy and he was shocked. His team actually stood its ground and took down the ogre instead of dashing past it like cowards. The fact that we were able to trade completely separate war stories from the same scripted encounter speaks to Back 4 Blood’s potential as game players can back to. And that’s by design, according to Robb.

“We like our games to be replayable and that’s always something we work into our design,” says Robb. “The ogre scenario is a good example of that. In early playtests, it was pointless to hang there. Your instincts to run were correct. But a lot of us were like ‘screw that, I want to fight this guy!’ So now, depending on your skill level, what cards you have, and team coordination, you can fight that guy and potentially beat him.”

Fight the swarm

On the other side of the coin, Back 4 Blood features a PvP multiplayer mode called Swarm. Two squads of four face off in a battle of human vs Ridden. The human team’s goal is to stay alive as long as possible, killing zombies as a Fortnite-like circle constantly shrinks the arena. Meanwhile, the other team controls special Ridden monsters that can spit acid, explode on enemies, or clobber them with hammer-like fists. When all humans are dead, the teams switch roles and the second squad has to beat the time set by team one.

It’s a tricky dynamic to nail. How do you make puny humans and mutated monsters with supernatural powers feel like they’re on equal footing? As veterans of asymmetrical multiplayer experiences, Turtle Rock is up to that challenge and has put a lot of thought into how to make it work.

“Asymmetrical gameplay is something that’s always fascinated us, so we’re always trying to figure out how to do it well. It’s a challenge,” says Robb. “The Ridden are pretty powerful, but they die a lot easier than the cleaners do. But they can always come back. Cleaners have one life to live, but have a lot more firepower. It all evens out in the wash.”

A massive Ridden looks over its shoulder in Back 4 Blood.

In the two rounds my team played, the formula still felt like it could use a bit of balancing. Even the biggest Ridden monster feels like a glass cannon. I would pound away at a human two times smaller than my fist for 10 seconds only to be easily outgunned. Many Ridden move at a snail’s pace too, making them feel doubly weak. I ultimately always felt weaker as a towering monster than I did as a pipsqueak with a shotgun, which feels a little off.

To counteract that imbalance, Ridden can collect currency throughout a round and slowly upgrade the team’s power. However, the system doesn’t quite land in its current state. To upgrade, players need to manually open up a menu and allocate points. There’s a counter on screen showing how many points you’ve collected, but it’s so small that my team didn’t realize it was there until the end of our second round. It’s easy to forget that the system is there entirely, but it’s a necessary system for keeping Ridden competitive.

Despite those balance concerns, Swarm has potential. It clicked for my team in one round as we almost started treating it like a MOBA. Once we built a team of monsters with roles in mind, we were able to better coordinate a strategy. One player would sit on a roof spitting acid across the map as a distraction, while another would use the opportunity to web someone in place. That allowed the game’s Boomer-equivalent to trot in and self-destruct. Our one winning round ended in a glorious, explosive triple kill.

In both PvE and PvP, coordination is king. Even when playing as a shambling gang of monsters, Back 4 Blood is never mindless. It’s always encouraging players to formulate a plan and it gives them the tools to accomplish it via deep customization options. For Left 4 Dead fans, Back 4 Blood seems like it’ll offer even more reasons to squad up and put their teamwork skills to the test.

Back 4 Blood launches on October 12 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC. It will be available on Xbox Game Pass at launch.

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