(Back 4 Blood is out now for the PlayStation, Xbox, and PC. The distributor provided a review code)
Spinning off from the beloved (but undoubtedly aged) Left 4 Dead series, Back 4 Blood (see what they did there?) is a nostalgic effort in reanimating a straggling franchise. Unlike many others who try the same, only ending up in a ghoulish Weekend at Bernie’s type of deal, B4B succeeds in avoiding most pitfalls that prey on these endeavors. But in its haste to smooth out the kinks of its predecessors and add value to a full-priced experience, B4B ends up feeling overstuffed, especially when you play it alone.
I played Back 4 Blood in teams of varying sizes and with completely computer-controlled NPCs. Out of these variants, it is naturally playing with friends that work best. Even one extra person is enough to bring the game to life, but three is the magic number, allowing for the most flexibility and insanely epic zombie mayhem to ensue.
But it does lead to a problem. If you’re someone who doesn’t have a dedicated gaming crew around them, or just doesn’t like playing with strangers, Back 4 Blood has very little to offer you. As a single-player experience, it’s mostly an arduous slog that never gets going the way it does with others around you.
Part of that is the maps, which range from sprawling and even a tad boring to intense and overwhelming. NPCs can’t be trusted to help you even on a good day, and those are few and far between in the undead world of tomorrow.
Now, arguably it’s unfair to judge a multiplayer game on its single-player experience, but there are those who end up going at this by their lonesome. It’s only fair to point out the obvious.
With friends, much of the experience becomes far more palatable, even if some additions grate from the offset. The new card system feels tacked on, and it becomes stressful to monitor your bonuses while organizing new decks and considering potential upgrades multiple levels in advance. Eventually, we just gave it a rest and didn’t look at which cards we picked. This is probably why we had such a hard time beating some of the levels.
That’s because B4B is surprisingly hard, and sometimes that’s not a good thing, either. The game wants you to play through it multiple times, each time one level harder than before. But it gives very little incentive to do so. Unlike competitors, like the Diablo franchise, loot just isn’t as compelling here. Instead, harder difficulties feel like a slog, especially when you realize that death pushes your progress back by multiple levels at a time.
This leaves B4B in an odd place. It’s not quite the breezy, kick-back-and-relax kind of game you’d want to blast through with friends. But it’s not quite the competitive shooter experience, either. You can’t compare your stats properly with your teammates, which takes away from the personal competition, and loot drops are rarely wacky enough to entice further exploration. The setpieces are remarkable fan favorites of zombie mythology, and it’s never boring, not really at least. But it’s never really compelling, either.
After completing the campaign for the first time, I haven’t had the urge to go back. Not because I didn’t like it, but simply because there are better co-op games out there.
It’s a good game, but the competition just happens to be better.