I’m a big fan of horde shooters and Left 4 Dead 1 & 2 are some of my favorite games of all time. Playing them in split-screen on PC with my wife, we loved going through and mindlessly blasting hordes of zombies together. Having some of the devs who worked on it come back to the genre was exciting, and after a solid beta, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, the controls on console are, to put it bluntly, appallingly bad. Does that keep this game from being worth at least a try on Game Pass as it launches directly into the service? Let’s find out.
The Ridden Are Coming
Announced in March of 2019 and unveiled at the Game Awards 2020, Back 4 Blood is a spiritual successor to the Left 4 Dead series. Featuring a more competent group of “Cleaners” to fight the “Ridden”, this title features a far more robust story in its lengthy campaign. I found all eight of these characters to be so incredibly annoying whenever they talked that I muted all in-game dialogue and simply read the subtitles occasionally. Not many are coming here for the story though, they’re coming for the 4 player cooperative action and surprisingly decent PvP mode called “Swarm”. Let’s start with how the campaign works.
To begin you start with a tutorial that is just an easy version of the campaign that you can play solo and offline with bots. Having this option is great, except for a few major things. The first is that you cannot unlock any achievements this way. The second is that you cannot unlock the second half of the 8 playable characters either. To do this you must play through matchmaking, and while in the early access period given to those who spent extra money on the deluxe and ultimate editions it could be incredibly difficult to find an online group that matched the level and difficulty you chose. When I did though things generally went well with the players being focused on accomplishing missions, helping heal each other, and spreading out the randomized loot. The game features full crossplay between Xbox, Playstation, and PC. The campaign itself is broken up into 4 acts. Acts 1 and 2 are long and varied, with act 3 only being a little shorter. Act 4 is one final big level, and it all felt far more difficult than it did in the beta.
A few months before launch a large portion of the game was put up as an eventually open beta. Controls felt ok, and the difficulty could be high at times, but it felt fair. I was surprised at how unbelievably hard things could be in the retail release, and greatly disappointed at how terrible the controls felt on console. It took me a frustratingly long time to dial in something that only felt bad instead of completely unusable. The default control scheme is a mess and I’m not sure how they thought it was ok to release the game with them set that way. I highly recommend upping the sensitivity in hip-fire, lowering it in ADS (aimed down sites), turning off re-center on recoil, and turning off the snap to aim system to start with. The controls are a let-down but the setup for missions is not.
Cards Because of Course!
Like seemingly every game now the game features a card system of some sort. This one is used to customize each run to your liking. In the offline solo mode, you are handed every card at the start, but in the online matchmaking one, you must earn them. You earn Supply Points after each mission, and you use these to run through Supply Lines linearly. These lines contain new cards and customization items such as emblems, sprays, and skins for your weapons and characters. Cards can offer buffs, extra inventory slots, and various condition changes that keep each run feeling fresh as you progress through the system.
Your inventory has 2 weapon slots, main and sidearm, and 3 consumables. These are offensive, defensive, and tools. By the end of a run you may have gone from being able to hold one of each to upwards of 7 or 8 if your party has been buying the party upgrade cards at the shop. The shop is available at the start of each mission, and you use the copper currency which is mostly picked up but can be earned through certain cards. There are also corruption cards that give you a negative effect but offer a lot of copper and supply points if you succeed in doing what they ask. It’s a rather deep and engaging system that is worth figuring out, and the game does hand you basic decks, so you don’t have to worry about it too much if you do not want to.
Tools of the Trade (of killing zombie…. Ridden)
The game features a standard number of weapon types. For your main slot you can get shotguns, SMGs, Assault Rifles, Rifles, Sniper’s, and LMG’s. The secondary slot is for melee weapons, pistols, and sawed-off shotguns. Melee weapons use a stamina system that is also tied to your ability to run. It can be punishing early on, but as you upgrade your stamina you can focus on a full melee build if you’d like as melee weapons never break and have unlimited “ammo” they are fantastic if you’re in a good group. I found myself using shotguns and melee weapons more than anything on console because as I said earlier, the controls never feel good for any type of medium to long-distance shooting. Initial settings are incredibly twitchy, with far too much aim acceleration. Even after attempting to dial things in it still felt like at random the game would 45 degree turn me the instant I tried aiming left sometimes.
From what I played of the beta on PC the controls on Mouse and Keyboard are great. This feels like a similar situation to Outriders, another game I reviewed and it still has issues with aim acceleration on console that hasn’t been fixed 6 months after launch. I hope Turtle Rock can make the game feel good on console because if they did I could see myself playing it often when I want something less sweaty than the upcoming Battlefield 2042 or Halo Infinite multiplayer modes.
Unreal Engine 4 Still Looks Nice
Graphically the game looks good. The tens of thousands of Ridden you’ll kill satisfyingly go flying after each shotgun blast, or lose chunks of themselves as you hack them apart with a machete. The art direction can be a bit dull at times location-wise, but it gets gross when you’re in a highly infected area. The set pieces didn’t tax my Series X too hard and it felt like a steady 60 frames per second though I was playing on a Variable Refresh Rate monitor. The texture and animation work also goes in the good enough category for me, as it never got in the way of seeing where to go or who to shoot the majority of the time.
The sound effects are great, with satisfying oomph behind the gunshots and terrifying screams from the infected. The music isn’t for me though, as it’s an incredibly try-hard metal soundtrack that occasionally was mixed far too loudly into the action. It matches the tone of the game though, which isn’t a good thing.
The game’s tone is one of bad-ass irreverence. These people are not afraid of the infected, instead, they quip non-stop about them and it’s terrible. I turned down the dialogue sound after a few hours of the beta and ended up doing the same with the retail release. None of it is ever funny, at all. The comedy comes non-stop, and it never lands. If you’re just hanging out with a group of 3 friends I recommend turning it down and just have fun shooting horde after horde as you shoot the shit together. At times it feels like the game is actively doing everything it can to keep me from wanting to enjoy it, and it all comes down to how hard the tone of it misses for me. In between missions you can explore your base camp, which outside of an excellent gun range is mostly just a visual representation of the pause menu. You can set up your cards, and pretty much just do everything that’s already there when you hit the view button.
The multiplayer mode is called Swarm and I’ve had some real fun with it, though it does feel terribly balanced on a controller when going against mouse and keyboard players. It is a human vs. ridden deathmatch where after a minute-long scavenging and setup period you can spawn in your Ridden or try your best not to die as the humans. It’s time-based to start, and the humans attempt to hold out as long as possible, with each Ridden killed making that player wait before they can respawn in. If you take 2 minutes to kill all the humans then you’ll have to hold out for 2 minutes and 1 second to win that round. It’s fun if not particularly deep.
Few games have a beta a couple of months ahead of launch that somehow plays better than the retail release. Back 4 Blood is one of them, and I’m baffled how it happened. If they can fix up the controls, or you’re like my friend who seems to think bad FPS controls on console are actually great then this game is worth a check-in on Game Pass. If you’re on PC I’d say go for it no matter what, as if you’re able to look past how bad the dialogue is the gameplay itself can be mighty fun.