Like their previous games Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, and Evolve, Turtle Rock Studios’ Back 4 Blood (Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC) is a first-person shooter that’s meant to be played co-op. But unlike those games, Blood is also clearly made for people who’d like to play solo. Not to the same point a Call Of Duty sequel or Halogame, where there’s a dedicated story-driven campaign, but certainly enough that you can still have a good time even if you don’t play well with others.
In Back 4 Blood,
a parasite that may or may not be of alien origin has turned people into zombies, and society into a theoretical concept. But rather than sit around wondering if the parasites came to Earth because they watched the TV show The Strain and thought, “look how easy the humans rolled over for those worms,” you decide you’re going to take out as many of the living impaired as you possibly can.
As the name suggests, Back 4 Blood is a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead. Which is why the game has you and three other people going from one safe room to the next, and using a variety of guns, explosives, and melee weapons to shoot and whack any zombies who get in your way.
But while Back 4 Blood is basically Left 4 Dead 3, it differentiates itself from those earlier games in some interesting ways.
For starters, Back 4 Blood has some different kinds of zombies and monsters. While you’ll see some familiar faces — Exploders, for instance, are this game’s version of Boomers from Left 4 Dead, while the single ‘roided-out armed Tallboys are clearly on loan from the Resident Evil series — there are some unique ones. Ogres, for instance, are the size of rancors, and will run off mid-fight, only to resurface later, while Stingers behave like they’re former newspaper photographers who were bitten by radioactive spider zombies, and now use their newfound climbing and stinger-shooting powers with great irresponsibility.
And don’t even get me started about the pod people.
As for other differences…
between Back 4 Blood and the Left 4 Dead games, the biggest is a new card mechanic similar to the one in Gears Of War 5. Not only do they modify your character — improving your reload speed by 20% or giving you a knife to stab people instead of bashing them with the butt of your gun — but they can also modify the conditions of the area you’re about to traverse. Granted, this doesn’t make this feel like a whole new game every time you play, but it does give you a good reason to play this more than once.
As for playing Back 4 Blood on your own, here it also does things different than Left 4 Dead and other co-op-centric games. For starters, “Solo Campaign” is an actual option. Sure, it’s a de-emphasized one, but at least you don’t have to set up a regular game and then change your companions to bots and your online status to “leave me alone” to play solo. It even offers your choice of three difficulty options — “Recruit,” “Veteran,” and “Nightmare” — and has them be as difficult (or not difficult) as their delineations suggest.
It also helps that your A.I. companions in Back 4 Blood are actually helpful. Not only are they good shots, but they’re quick to come to your aid when you need rescuing. They also good about healing you when you’re hurt, often before you think to ask, and are equally as mindful and generous with their extra ammo. More importantly, they’re not idiots who need to be constantly rescued. Well, no more than you do.
Dying in Back 4 Blood also works differently than it does in other games when you’re playing on your own. During one early mission, I was knocked into a river by an Exploder and drowned. But rather than end the round and make me start over, the game instead gave me the option to keep going as one of the other A.I. characters until we were able to find my original character, who was being held nearby, at which point I was able to play as her again.
these elements don’t just make it clear that the “Solo Campaign” wasn’t just an afterthought in Back 4 Blood, but something the developers put some time and effort into. It works much better as a solo experience than, for example, the “Zombies” mode in every Call Of Duty.
More importantly, it’s a lot of fun. The enemies come at you from all sides, the weapons are effect — and yes, that includes the pistols — and the controls are fluid and intuitive. The resulting firefights can be rather frantic, and thus fun, but always in a way that’s far more challenging than frustrating.
It also helps that the areas you explore make for some interesting gunfights. Sure, some are repeated, but all have multiple points of ingress and egress, even if they are largely linear. The game also does interesting things with light and shadow, with underground areas often left dark, or only illuminated by small fires, which gives the undead plenty of places to hide.
That said, Back 4 Blood‘s “Solo Campaign” does not work as well as, well, the single-player modes in Call Of Duty or other first-person shooters. Mostly because of the way its structured, especially where dying is concerned.
Unlike Left 4 Dead and its sequel, which had multiple short campaigns, Back 4 Blood has one long campaign. Sort of. What is has is four acts, with each act, save for the last, having multiple missions. You can only play a mission once you’ve completed the one before it, and the same is true for the acts. Except that what’s odd, and a little annoying, is that once you complete an act, you go back to home base. Sure, you can then go tell the mission guy that you want to start a new run, and at the beginning of the act you just unlocked — which makes this better than some roguelikes, which would make you start all the way back at the beginning — but it’s still not ideal.
Similarly, and equally annoyingly,
if you die, you may have to start that act over. It depends on whether or not you have any spare lives left. Though, on the plus side, if you’re in the middle of an act and stop playing — say, to grab a snack or go to sleep — you can continue your run from the last mission you unlocked. Again, it would’ve been better if there were mid-mission checkpoints, and you could keep going once you’ve started the “Solo Campaign,” but whatever.
There are also some limitations to your companions. You can’t tell them what to do, or how to approach a situation. You also can’t switch characters mid-act; once you’ve picked one, you’re with them until the end of that run. The same is also true for the modifying cards, which is especially irritating when you first start playing and don’t realize you stupidly picked a card that prevents you from using iron sights. That said, you can make changes when you start the second, third, or fourth act, and that includes picking a different set of cards or making a new one and using that.
Though what’s truly frustrating is that, when you start a new act, you do so without any of the weapons or most of the money you had when you beat the previous one. What, did the people at home base steal all your stuff after you saved their butts? Ungrateful bastards.
Back 4 Blood also makes some unfortunately oft-repeated mistakes. Like Outriders, The Division 2, and other co-op games that say you can play them solo, this doesn’t let you pause the game, even when playing alone. Similarly, if you’re playing on console, and sitting at a reasonable distance from your TV, the text is so small that you’ll have trouble reading the menus. Including, ironically, the “Accessibility” one where you adjust the size and background opacity of the captions.
But as annoying…
as these mistakes may be — and they are mistakes, and they are annoying — Back 4 Blood is still an engaging post-zombie apocalypse shooter. And one of those rare co-op-centric games that actually can be played solo (or at least without unduly struggling). Sure, it would be better if it had a dedicated story-driven, single-player campaign, one that has checkpoints. But it could’ve easily been less friendly to those of us who don’t play well with others. By including “Solo Campaign” with well-balanced difficulty options, and A.I. companions who are actually helpful, the good people at Turtle Rock Studios have given those of us who love shooting zombies on our own something we’ll — if you’ll pardon the pun — want to come back to.