Back 4 Blood Review: A Horde of Problems
As the progenitor of a genre, returning to one's roots must have felt both exciting and daunting for Turtle Rock Studios. The team's intent to re-establish itself as the standard-bearer of the horde shooter would be no small feat after years of like-minded imitators.
Sadly, Back 4 Blood doesn't just fail to fill Left 4 Dead's shoes. It surprisingly doesn't contend with even 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 torn from Back 4 Blood like it's come upon a horde in the post-apocalypse.
Back 4 Blood isn't exactly the Left 4 Dead threequel we never got. It doesn't really try to be, despite Turtle Rock's self-referential choice of name. Both its issues and its merits spring from things old or new to the genre, so while not everything it goes for is a miss, it also strangely whiffs on aspects of horde shooters that this same studio perfected over 10 years ago.
Back 4 Blood Review: A Horde of Problems
At first glance, Back 4 Blood is like so many other games before it, though that's not immediately disqualifying. I love this genre and will always take another good entry to it. This just isn't that.
Players load into co-op with up to three other players. They select their weapons and fight off undead, called Ridden in this universe, in between safe rooms as they scrounge up ammo and complete objectives, ideally with all allies still standing by the end.
Instead of several evenly-sized campaigns, Back 4 Blood is split into acts and chapters of one long story. Those acts can be tough to follow because only quickplay queues are able to matchmake in short order.
Trying to load into specific missions to continue the story as it's told, or even to host private online lobbies, is a laborious, sometimes hopeless process unless you have a full group of four players. Short of that, it seems the game doesn't want to or otherwise cannot let you matchmake with others.
Once you get into a match, your results may vary drastically, and among a litany of issues, chief among them is improper pacing driven by an AI director that feels less authorial and more random and chaotic.
Somehow, the underlying tech must be worse today than it was in 2008, because Back 4 Blood's AI director is faulty to the point of frustration. The most common issue is being spammed by mutations (think special infected), which take so much damage and have such small windows of vulnerability that one or two of them would be a good and familiar challenge.
But Back 4 Blood routinely unleashes what feels like a clown car of these mini-bosses. Strangely, other levels are dead-quiet and suffer from the totally opposite problem.
There's no strategy to be formed when the onslaught gives no room to breathe or even move. Vice versa, there's no fun to be had when a would-be challenging finale forgets to throw more than a handful of enemies your way.
Above all else, it's pacing that sets the good horde shooters apart from the lesser ones. With Back 4 Blood, Turtle Rock struggles to consistently clear the bar it set years ago, even as others have cleared it in the interim.
Suppose you get a good level or even a string 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 bought between levels within a safe room.
There you can also buy other supplies like ammo, grenades, and perks for the team. This makes scavenging for copper, the in-game currency, so important, which in turn provides a great risk-reward balance. How much do you explore every crevasse when the horde is bearing down on you?
Shooting feels really good too, and a very granular aim assist function means if it feels off to you, you'll be able to tweak it until you find your precise preference. I've enjoyed my time with all the usual classes of firearms on offer in Back 4 Blood, and the game makes choosing your exact loadout a fun challenge with overlapping inventory slots that only allow for so many tools.
In the game's best new layer, a card system provides a rogueish element to the game, but it's done in such a way that even naysayers of the trend may well enjoy it. By playing online and earning Supply Points with each successful mission, you can unlock new cards and cosmetics to customize your hero and their perks.
The cards are awesome, allowing for smart players to offset weaknesses, combine strengths, and build together as one collective with their team, layering new buffs level after level on each new run. Building a melee-heavy, super-stamina survivor who heals everyone often and quickly has been one of my favorite parts of the game (when it's working).
The cosmetics, meanwhile, are pretty lacking. This is often the case for games out of the gate, so I hope options will be more robust in time. But at launch, there are a lot of bland palette swaps. Among the cooler options, some are so unreachable that they may as well not exist. Beat every level on Nightmare? 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 tries hard to keep me from making them my own, which in 2021 is blatantly going in the wrong direction.
Back 4 Blood crashes a lot too, and in a first for me, it even fails to load sometimes. My Xbox gives me a never-before-seen error message sometimes when I go to play Back 4 Blood. When I immediately try another game instead, it boots right up.
Even when it's not crashing, the game can be buggy. Joining in-progress matches can mean running around without any weapons (or even hands) for a few seconds. One time I joined and took over as Doc, but her AI counterpart was still there too. Back 5 Blood?
Annoyingly, the game's solo campaign, which would solve at least one of the major issues with the game, does not allow for Supply Points to be earned, thus you can't unlock new cards or cosmetics (or even achievements/trophies, if those matter to you). I'd maybe 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 this too.
When pacing, bugs, and matchmaking woes aren't getting in the way, Back 4 Blood really is as fun as its elevator pitch would imply. But every time I'd see those flashes of brilliance, one of those intrusive issues would spring back into my face, reminding me that this game, despite its delay, probably launched too soon.
Back 4 Blood Review — The Bottom Line
- Solid gunplay and tons of loadout customization
- Flashes of brilliance
- Pacing issues result in hectic peaks and boring valleys with little in the goldilocks zone
- Bugs in the form of game crashes, spawning without weapons, and even duplicate characters
- Matchmaking woes seemingly prevent private lobbies and make it hard to play specific levels
- Solo campaign cuts out critical content like custom decks and Supply Points
Back 4 Blood has been one of the most perplexing review playthroughs of my career. Through the alpha and beta periods, I always had this thought that once the obvious issues were ironed out, it would be awesome. But B4B launches with many of those issues today and even reveals others I didn't see before.
I tend to forgive bugs pretty easily. I'd even overlook some of the matchmaking issues if other parts were stronger. But the lack of proper pacing is unfathomable to me.
I don't know if it's the underlying tech of different engines or the years apart and likely staff changes that came with them, but I didn't foresee this studio forgetting how to make this sort of game, and the poor pacing says it somehow did. Above all, that's where Back 4 Blood fails to live up to its still standard-bearing predecessor.
[Note: Turtle Rock Studios provided the copy of Back 4 Blood used for this review.]