Pros and Cons I took away from the Back 4 Blood beta

Gamers are finally getting their hands on a follow-up to Left 4 Dead, almost 12 years after the Left 4 Dead 2 released. In case you’re new to this news, the original L4D team (now Turtle Rock Studios) are bringing their brilliant run-and-gun gameplay back with their upcoming ‘Back 4 Blood’. The game is currently in open beta, and while I am eager to see the evolution of what I consider to be some of the most enjoyable gameplay ever developed, my thoughts on the current build of Back 4 Blood are mixed. Let’s get into it.

The Undead are truly a mixed bag

Left 4 Dead introduced players to hordes of “the infected”. Don’t say the “Z” word, because these aren’t your regular slow, shambling undead like those Capcom fellas make. The Infected are fast, loud, and more than capable of beating you senseless – like a fleshy pinata. There was a lot of repetition in Left 4 Dead, with players encouraged to move through levels quickly, trying to off as many Infected as possible while they tried to overrun players with their massive numbers.

In Back 4 Blood, pacing is different, because of “The Ridden”, the shiny new undead antagonists. There are slow Ridden, fast Ridden, dumb Ridden, and Ridden who will absolutely notice you trying to sneak by and delight in tearing you apart for your hubris. During my time with Back 4 Blood, the A.I. of the Ridden left a lot to be desired. Some didn’t pose a threat because they were attentive and ferocious, but because they were jammed in a hallway or alley I needed to go through. There were also times where I became frustrated trying to stab them, because their animations were janky and unpredictable. There’s a lot of tweaking needed in the AI department needed before the game’s launch.

The “Special Ridden” Leave a Lot to be Desired

Just like in L4D, Back for Blood has “special” types of undead that shake things up and offer a challenge to players. I encountered most of the specials during the beta, each of them feeling different from each other, though I do find their designs a little bland. There wasn’t anything that surprised me, even the Tallboy has the same one-giant-arm design we’ve seen in so many other games.

There’s something about the spawn rate and AI that is just off about the specials. It feels as though you can spend a lot of your time not coming across them, until a Tallboy appears at a very inopportune moment. It feels cheap, and is frustrating.

The levels are lackluster

I have played Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead on Xbox 360 and PC. I have probably spent hundreds of hours memorizing the various routes throughout the levels, and can even speed my way through some of them on Expert difficulty. I usually find L4D’s level design has landmarks of sorts, whether it’s a gas station, up-turned canoes, abandoned cabins or more. There isn’t a part of the level design that is without purpose. In Back 4 Blood, there is plenty of pointless level design. I found myself saying “is that it?” multiple times when I found a saferoom and completed a level.

That isn’t to say all of the level design is pointless, though. There were also plenty of times where I was truly impressed with what I saw. There is a collapsed bridge with a fantastic amount of detail. There is also a large boat that you’ll need to plant bombs on at one point, which is a ton of fun in itself and looks great, but that also leads me to my next point…

It isn’t always clear where you should go

Back 4 Blood gives players objectives to complete on their runs. Whether its destroying nests, planting bombs on ships, or destroying tunnels filled with Ridden, there is a lot of variety in the  calm-before-the-storm moments that were also in Left 4 Dead. In one level, I came to destroyed bridge. There was a vehicle on the other side, but nothing else of note. I was then asked to destroy some Ridden nests before I could proceed. I explored a massive barn, where there were some Ridden inside, as well as some sort of gross growth that spread across a lot of the barn’s surfaces. No nests in here though, apparently, so I continued.

Finding a cluster of houses to explore, I encountered a number of Ridden, but again, no nests. I made my way back to the bridge, hoping one of my team mates would found one of the nests. Instead, they ran around as lost as I was. Eventually, one of our team found a nest and destroyed it, but I have no idea who or where, as there was no dialogue from our characters. I eventually found the other nest on the side of a building of no particular interest. Just a regular building. To be honest, I’m unsure of if I missed it the first time, or if it showed up after the other nest was destroyed.

We then needed to destroy a final nest, which magically appeared on the vehicle that was across the destroyed bridge. I shot at it until it exploded, summoning a horde of Ridden. At this point, we were down to two human players, and it the situation became chaotic. Special Ridden ambushed us, all the while we held the bridge like it held all the answers, only it didn’t. Downhill, though, rubble formed a makeshift bridge over the river. It wasn’t implied that it would happen, and we weren’t told that it did – I found it by accident.

This is hugely problematic, as Left 4 Dead always made it clear where you had to go. Back 4 Blood s a jarring experience in this regard.

Weapon attachments are a welcome addition…

Simply throwing in a couple of assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns and SMGs won’t do this time around, and Turtle Rock have added loads more weapons and items to stumble upon. Part of the enjoyment of Left 4 Dead was finding a specialised weapon that could turn the tide of battle in your favour, and this is only magnified with an even greater variety of weapons and weapon attachments. Do you ditch your basic assault rifle for one with a long-range scope, or do you buy fast mags and a laser sight for it in the next round? There’s a lot of risk to holding onto weapons, but it can also pay off in a big way. I had a Vector SMG with an extended mag, tactical stock and compensator, which once customised, made me pretty invincible towards the end of my run.

But melee weapons suck

Ahh yes, melee weapons. Truly a divisive topic in Left 4 Dead circles. While people still debate the benefits of a fry pan over dual pistols in L4D, there’s no room for varying opinions with Back 4 Blood: the melee weapons straight up suck. They’re slow, and at times, inaccurate. You truly are better off simply shoving the zombies away or having a secondary pistol. More often than not, a tactically minded player on my team would play a card that replaced our shove with a small knife, which proved essential. I ditched my machete for this stratagem and never looked back. Speaking of the card system…

I dislike the card system, but understand its value

Part of the appeal of Back 4 Blood is its unpredictability. Left 4 Dead was great for its day, but players want more than repeating the same levels, weapons, characters and objectives over and over, though. This is where Back 4 Blood’s card system comes into play. Instead of an RPG-style skill tree like in World War Z, Back 4 Blood features a card system, where players unlock various cards to tailor their game experience, to a degree.

In a recent interview, Turtle Rock’s Chris Ashton stated that the card system allows Turtle Rock to be more transparent about their “game director” AI and allow players to develop a counter strategy for it. While some cards simply offer the player some more ammo or stamina, completing in-game challenges or simply making your way through the game will reward players with more advanced cards, though these will likely have their trade-offs. I can see a “less hordes of Ridden but more special Ridden will appear” card being an example of this.

Personally, I would have preferred levelling up, and a skill tree. This would allow for better matchmaking too, ensuring players of a certain level are grouped together with similarly experienced players. This works perfectly with World War Z, as well as the near-perfect Warhammer: Vermintide 2.

If it wasn’t part of Game Pass, I’d probably skip it at launch

$89.95 is a lot to ask Aussie gamers at the moment, and the majority of games are overpriced down under. I could rant and rave about the “Australia Tax” and why it’s absolute bullshit for it to still be happening, especially in a digital marketplace, but I’ll stick to talking about Back 4 Blood for now. It’s clear that Back 4 Blood is going to have problems at launch, and while I want nothing but success for Turtle Rock, there needs to be more than a lack of problems for B4B to be worth $90AUD.

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic for the game’s full release

There’s a lot of bugs to iron out of Back 4 Blood before it releases, and even then, is it fun and rewarding enough to warrant your hard-earned money, as well as your time? Hear me out: it’s both Back 4 Blood is so similar to Left 4 Dead that it will definitely scratch that itch for you. That being said, Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are still capable of scratching that itch. Back 4 Blood treads such similar ground that there are no surprises. The Ridden are a slower, dumber Infected. The Breaker is pretty much a Tank, etc.

I would have loved a little more experimentation to the formula. For a game that many (unfairly) are saying will revive the zombie shooter genre, Back 4 Blood is something we’ve all pretty much played before. Turtle Rock is actually banking on that fact, so that it has an existing player-base of sorts at launch. I don’t know about you, but I need more than cards when it comes to long-term rewards. Here’s hoping we’re all in for a surprise when the game launches on October 12th.

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