Hands-on Back 4 Blood Preview – Is Turtle Rock’s return already left for dead?

Turtle Rock is Back 4 Blood. See what I did there? Returning to the Left 4 Dead formula the studio pioneered as Valve South, Turtle Rock is attempting to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time. I have a soft spot for the studio, having met many of the team members multiple times in the lead up to the release of Evolve. In my opinion, Evolve was a fantastic game that suffered due to the way it was released and published. So, as a fan of Turtle Rock, I really want to love Back 4 Blood and want it to succeed.

After a few hours with the open beta, I’m cautiously optimistic but am also somewhat concerned. Right off the spiked bat, I’ll tell you; there’s nothing wrong with Back 4 Blood. The shooting is (turtle) rock solid, the visuals are great and the art is fantastic…but as of right now, it just feels ok. Fine, even.

For a game that’s as identical to Left 4 Dead as Back 4 Blood is, I want to feel just like I did when I played Left 4 Dead. Better. And so far, Back 4 Blood isn’t doing that for me.

Back 4 Blood

In Back 4 Blood, Turtle Rock is doing a lot more world-building and meta-game creation than it did with Left 4 Dead. Rather than choosing missions and matchmaking from a menu, players will find themselves in a fortified camp; the headquarters of the Cleaners. From here, players can test out weapons in the shooting range, customise their decks, activate supply lines and matchmaker. It’s far more enjoyable than clicking through menus and gives Back 4 Blood a greater sense of world-building than Left 4 Dead. As you wander around the camp you’ll hear bits and pieces of conversations from NPCs and get a feel for this universe.

This expansion of the game world extends to the new mechanics and features Turtle Rock is introducing in Back 4 Blood. The decks I mentioned are customisable groups of up to 15 cards that upgrade and modify your character. Pre-made decks for Operator, Medic, Soldier and Squad Leader are there for players who just want to jump right in but building a deck offers much in the way of freedom of choice. It’s not as simple as selecting a deck and going on your merry zombie Ridden killing way though.

No matter which deck you choose for your run, you’ll be presented with some options of randomly chosen cards in between levels. With only 15 cards in each deck as a maximum, you’ll be able to pretty easily tailor your deck towards your play style. The cards come from four schools; defence, mobility, offence and utility. There are cards that buff your damage output or reduce incoming damage. There are cards that increase your ammo carrying capacity, health, stamina and the like. Some cards include both positive and negative effects, so while you may get a bonus in one stat, another will take a hit.

On paper, the card system sounds like a great addition to Back 4 Blood but in reality, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t notice it making any difference to the gameplay. Not even when Corruption Cards came into play. These are cards played by the Game Director to alter the way an upcoming level will play. Corruption cards include modifiers like Fog, more dangerous Ridden or optional objectives like not alerting the Horde or only having a certain number of player downs. I kept waiting for either the Corruption Cards or my own deck to make Back 4 Blood feel different, but it didn’t. There was no difference regardless of the cards I activated between levels nor was there any discernible difference from Left 4 Dead.

Back 4 Blood also introduces customisable weapons with a rarity system. Instead of grabbing the shotgun or the assault rifle, players have a range of firearms to choose from. Further, instead of just taking what’s lying around, at the beginning of each level, the Safe House includes a store — like Counter-Strike — for players to purchase weapons and items. Weapons come in Uncommon, Rare, Epic and Legendary rarities with better stats as the progress. They each also have four mod slots; Barrel, Ammo, Stock and Sights. The mods also come in four different rarities. Mods and weapons can be found throughout levels, so players can customise on the fly if they find something they like the look of. Sadly, I wasn’t able to figure out how to change or remove mods once they were equipped.

Equipping a 2x magnified sight to my sub-machine gun turned out to be a terrible idea and I wanted to get rid of it but was unable. So, I was forced to use the gun without ADS so I could actually see what I was shooting. It would also be nice if you could sell your guns at the store. At the moment, if you purchase a new gun, your old one drops to the floor, with all of your mods. Sure, your teammates can grab it, but if they’ve already got a great loadout, your gun lies there, impotent and useless.

Like the card system, different weapon types, mods and rarities also felt like they had a negligible effect on gameplay. So while it’s nice to have options, they all feel superfluous because of the gameplay itself.

I don’t know if it’s rose-tinted glasses or me misremembering but Back 4 Blood failed to recreate the feelings I got when playing Left 4 Dead. I remember Left 4 Dead being tense and a white-knuckle ride through the end of the world. Back 4 Blood feels like an afternoon stroll by comparison. Kotaku AU Editor Alex Walker wrote that Back 4 Blood feels like “target practice, not survival” and I couldn’t agree more. Something just feels off about the enemies, the way they spawn, their numbers, their aggression and their overall presence. Not even the special Ridden felt like a threat and I don’t think my heart rate went up throughout my playtime.

One level tasked us with loading enormous shells into a Howitzer to close a mine and stop the Ridden swarming out. I didn’t even realise it was supposed to be the set piece for the level as it was over almost as soon as it started.

There’s just something missing in Back 4 Blood and while the shooting is great and everything looks fantastic, you can almost make your through each level by rote. There’s very little challenge and that’s not what you want from this kind of game.

As I wrote at the beginning, Back 4 Blood is good, it’s fun and it’s fine but in 2021 I’m not sure if “good, fun and fine” are going to cut it. There are so many games vying for players’ attention right now and plenty of existing and in-development games within the same style and genre as Back 4 Blood. I’m hopeful that Turtle Rock can make this one a success.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for Back 4 Blood.


Back 4 Blood was previewed on PC using a digital beta code provided by the publisher.

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Leo Stevensonhttps://powerup-gaming.com/
I've been playing games for the past 27 years and have been writing for almost as long. Combining two passions in the way I'm able is a true privilege. PowerUp! is a labour of love and one I am so excited to share.

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