Back 4 Blood closed alpha review – Left 4 Dead 3 in all but name

The creators of Left 4 Dead create a spiritual follow-up that seems like everything fans would want from a modern sequel.

Somehow, it’s been 11 years since the last Left 4 Dead game. In fact, it’s been almost that long since Valve produced a traditional console game of any kind, their strange indifference to their early legacy leaving others to fill the void.

As a result, there have been plenty of Left 4 Dead clones over the last decade, some involving zombies and some not. Warhammer: Vermintide, Payday, Earthfall, Zombie Army, World War Z… even Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare stole liberally from Left 4 Dead, as has virtually any other game since that has featured either zombies or four-player co-op.

Since Back 4 Blood is by original developer Turtle Rock Studios though this doesn’t feel like copying so much as the original creator returning home. Apart from the name this is presumably exactly what they would’ve made if Valve had given Left 4 Dead 3 the go ahead (ignoring the fact that Valve actually made Left 4 Dead 2 themselves) with the same basic gameplay but an appreciable number of new ideas and features.

If you’ve played the original two Left 4 Dead games, or any of the previously mentioned knock-offs, you’ll know exactly what Back 4 Blood is: an online co-op game where you and three allies have to make it from one end of a zombie-infested map to the other. Back 4 Blood is all about working as a team, as the zombies appear in such vast numbers they’re impossible to deal with on your own.

Ordinary, relatively fast-moving, zombies are your main enemies but there’s also a range of even more dangerous creatures that can turn up – and do so more frequently than in the previous games. They have different names now, but Retches are basically Boomers, in that they’re walking suicide bombs whose exploded innards attract other zombies, and Hockers are Spitters, that gob out slime that slows you down and sticks you in place.

There are new creatures as well though, such as the self-explanatory Snitches and the new 20-foot tall Ogre creatures that were the focus of the recent Game Awards gameplay reveal. The map in the alpha is the same one seen in that footage: a building site filled with obstacles and interactive objects that can be used to delay the zombies and get you to the exit. This involves things like using mechanical diggers to climb up to higher levels, while being harassed by the almost impossible to kill Ogres and other special infected.

Importantly, there are lots of randomised elements that change the location and make-up of zombies every time you play, so it’s impossible to learn everything in the map and the challenge is always slightly different every time. That’s not something that’s determined only before you start a match but changes dynamically as you play, with the AI Director adjusting enemy positions and item availability based on how skilled it thinks you are and to maintain an even pace.

The biggest difference between Back 4 Blood and the older games though is how Turtle Rock attempts to expand on this, by introducing a new collectable card system. That may seem an odd thing to add to a fast action online shooter but the cards come in one of four types, which grant a different bonus implied by their name. Brawn cards improve your health and damage; Reflex cards make you faster or giving you more stamina; Discipline improves accuracy, healing, and ammo; and Fortune offers special abilities like being able to shoot while running.

Before a match begins you can select 15 cards to add to your deck and then draw three random ones, and one you get to choose, before you start each stage. Whenever you get to a saferoom, and before you start the next section of the map, you’re then able to add another card until you get to the end – or you all die.

Increasing the chances of the latter happening is the fact that the AI Director also has a set of corruption cards, which determine which enemies and obstacles will be in the next section. These can be an unexpected type of special infected but also environmental problems like a thick fog that makes it hard to see far.

You’re told what the corruption cards are before you start a new stage, which is neat because it not only gives you a chance to prepare accordingly but also ups the tension as you prepare to deal with an Ogre, or other unexpected problem, straight off the bat. There aren’t many different cards in the alpha, so it’s hard to say how many there’ll be in total, but it seems a welcome addition that will greatly add to the longevity.

Another new feature is a Counter-Strike style shop at the beginning of each stage, which allows you to buy new weapons and items using in-game currency that’s found randomly on the map. This is a bigger change than it may sound as previously you got health and ammo for free when reaching a safehouse but now everything has to be paid for yourself.

The way the characters are handled is also different, as they now have unique abilities and stats. The differences aren’t extreme – so it’s still reasonable to pick one based purely on how they look – but things like maximum health and ammo capacity do vary depending on who you’re playing as.

Normally with a sequel the first thing you look for is what new features it has but while Back 4 Blood does fine in that regard the primary appeal is simply that, after all these years, Left 4 Dead is back. The new ideas do all seem like good ones though and, at least on PC, the graphics are a notable step up on any similar game. Individually nothing is that impressive but the sheer volume of zombies on screen at once, and the wonderfully over-the-top explosions, look great.

Back 4 Blood really does seem like the game fans have been waiting for all these years and, based on the alpha, Left 4 Dead looks and plays better than ever, regardless of what it’s actually called.

Formats: PC (previewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Release Date: 22nd June 2021

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