The Back 4 Blood open beta is now live (you can learn how to get in here), meaning fans all around the world are jumping into the cooperative zombie shooter from the studio that brought us the original Left 4 Dead. While many of the key elements from that formative PvE co-op zombie shooter are in place with this spiritual successor, developer Turtle Rock Studios is changing up the game in myriad ways. I was able to go hands-on with the open beta ahead of its wide release to see how the game is coming along.
As you might suspect, Back 4 Blood excels on the PvE side. Selecting your human character (called “Cleaners” in-game) gives some minor buffs (Holly gives +25 team stamina while Evangelo gives everyone a 5 percent boost in speed), but the true customization comes in the way of a card system. Before going into any match or run, you set up decks with gameplay-modifying cards. These cards can range from granting you extra health or damage, improving your reload speed, or giving you an extra life in the session. Some even affect the entire squad, like one I equipped that granted extra ammo capacity. I was initially skeptical of the system, but as I played multiple runs of the same mission, I enjoyed the random elements keeping the experience fresh.
Once you’re in the campaign, you must work together with your squad as you blast zombies, scrounge to weapons and ammo, and push towards the saferoom at the end of the map. Along the way, you mow through tons of zombies (called Ridden), but you can also expect other, more grotesque creatures like the agile spitter Hocker, the lanky powerhouse Tallboy, or the horde-summoning Snitch. In one mission, a massive Ridden variant called an Ogre emerged from the ground and served as a boss fight. Even though we didn’t finish him in our first encounter, he ensured we had a second chance – granted, in a much less opportune moment.
When it’s just the standard infected Ridden or solely the special variants, the engagements are rather simple. It’s when the hordes combine with powerful creatures like the Exploder, which, as the name indicates, explodes to deal massive AoE damage, that the chaos really takes hold. In these moments, panic and rash decisions are your nearly unavoidable enemy as the zombies swarm and your allies begin to fall. It’s in these moments that Back 4 Blood shines, even if it’s often at the cost of my heart rate.
While I expected the PvE to play well, I didn’t expect to have so much fun playing in competitive multiplayer. Rather than the traditional balanced matches where both sides have access to the same abilities and weapons, Back 4 Blood pits Cleaners against the Ridden, allowing players to take control of the undead monsters they’ve grown accustomed to blowing to bits in the other mode. After a brief period where the humans can scrounge for weapons and consumables, the hordes are unleashed. At that point, the A.I.-controlled infected descend upon the Cleaners as the common zombie types, while the player-controlled Ridden take control of the special variants. While the Tallboys and Retches are extremely powerful and capable of dealing substantial damage, I preferred to control the faster creatures like the Hocker, who can leap great distances, trap enemies with a binding spit, and then rapidly slash their health away.
The Cleaners seem all but destined to die, with increasingly dense waves of the undead arriving on the map the longer they survive, as well as a circle that shrinks to bring the action tighter, similar to how the maps contract in battle royale games. After the round, the teams change sides, and the team that posts the longest survival time as the Cleaners wins the round. It’s a fun concept that allows for quick-hit matches, but I’ll be most interested to see how the mode evolves.
While these impressions are admittedly very early, and I intend to continue playing and forming my opinions of the anticipated shooter, I came away impressed by my time with Back 4 Blood. Its combination of tried-and-true formula combines well with the new elements introduced by Turtle Rock Studios to create an experience that feels simultaneously iterative and innovative. While we ultimately must wait and see how Back 4 Blood shakes out in the lead up to its official launch, this time with both the PvE and PvP portions of the game made the wait that much more difficult.
Back 4 Blood comes to PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on October 12.