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A&E >  Entertainment

Game On: ‘Back 4 Blood’ beta is polished but lacks that special something

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 12, 2021

Releasing Oct. 12, “Back 4 Blood” is a cooperative shooter that tasks four-player teams of “Cleaners” to eliminate hordes of zombie-like “Ridden” to reclaim the post-apocalyptic world or die trying.  (Turtle Rock Studios)
Releasing Oct. 12, “Back 4 Blood” is a cooperative shooter that tasks four-player teams of “Cleaners” to eliminate hordes of zombie-like “Ridden” to reclaim the post-apocalyptic world or die trying. (Turtle Rock Studios)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Shortly following its announcement in December, cooperative zombie shooter “Back 4 Blood” held a closed alpha to gather feedback from gamers. I was fortunate enough to be among those players, and my opinion was decidedly negative. After a few more months in the oven, a quick closed beta ran from Aug. 5-9, and I came away impressed by Turtle Rock Studios’ progress but was still somewhat dissatisfied with the overall package.

From the beginning, “Back 4 Blood” has advertised itself as the spiritual successor to “Left 4 Dead,” which Turtle Rock Studios created in 2008 before merging with Valve toward the end of its development. Valve created “Left 4 Dead 2” the following year and released a slew of content updates before quietly abandoning the popular series. Turtle Rock eventually struck out on its own again and produced “Evolve” in 2015, which was a spectacular flop.

In the gaming business, a development team is lucky to get more than one shot at success before being dissolved by their publisher. Warner-Brothers Games fronted the money for “Evolve” and “Back 4 Blood,” so a lot hinges on the new game’s success. Its closed beta was open only to those who partook in the alpha demo and gamers who have already preordered “Back 4 Blood” – it peaked at 100,000 concurrent players, so preorder sales are looking excellent.

Make no mistake – “Back 4 Blood” is a competent game. But in adopting so many modern first-person shooter mechanics, it has lost the flair that makes “Left 4 Dead” unique to this day. “Back 4 Blood” presents players with a constant trickle of zombies hampering progress, punctuated by intermittent hordes.

“Left 4 Dead” was similar but had moments of respite between battles – you never knew when the quiet was over and the chaos would begin again. Making your way through levels felt tense and unpredictable even after hundreds of playthroughs. The monotonous flow of combat in “Back 4 Blood” won’t offend everyone – after all, “Borderlands” and “Destiny” are guilty of the same sin and continue to sell like hotcakes.

What does offend almost everyone is the lack of a “campaign versus” mode. “Left 4 Dead” was renowned not only for its cooperative play, but also its competitive play – “versus” mode presented the game’s campaign in a four-versus-four format where teams took turns playing as survivors and infected. It wasn’t perfect, but it was shockingly well-balanced despite its asymmetrical gameplay.

“Back 4 Blood” has a versus mode, but gamers are stuck defending a tiny spit of land until they run the clock or die trying. It’s not terrible, but it pales in comparison to the nail-biting intensity of playing through the campaign knowing there are very real people assuming the role of the infected plotting your demise behind each corner.

Despite previously showing footage of such gameplay in “Back 4 Blood,” Turtle Rock has backpedaled and doubled down on the decision not to flesh out the versus mode, citing poor gameplay balance. It’s an insane decision. It’d be like calling your new TV show a spiritual successor to “Game of Thrones” but taking away all the political drama.

Versus mode is the crème de la crème of “Left 4 Dead 2,” it’s the game mode that keeps 15,000 to 27,000 people playing “Left 4 Dead 2” at any given time, according to SteamCharts – almost 12 years after its release. A proper spiritual successor needs the developers to keep what made the original great while adding unique elements to make the game stand on its own.

“Back 4 Blood” adds mechanics and visual flair that weren’t present in the “Left 4 Dead” series, but they’re all copied from other games and feel tacked on – aim-down-sights, weapon attachments, communication wheels and abilities tied to certain “heroes” are nothing new to first-person shooters.

Some have even suggested that another delay is in order, but I disagree. “Back 4 Blood” has a handful of bugs to iron out, but overall it’s a very polished experience for a game still two months away from release. Most of the moment-to-moment issues I bemoaned in December have been fixed. The issues in “Back 4 Blood” are too fundamental to be solved with a simple delay.

I don’t think “Back 4 Blood” is destined to be a bad game by any means, but I do think it’s more likely to be a hit with people less familiar with “Left 4 Dead” despite being advertised as its successor. For all of its faults, there was a certain charm to “Left 4 Dead” that’s proving very difficult to replicate.

Fans of cooperative shooters are likely to find enjoyment in “Back 4 Blood,” just maybe not a decade’s worth of enjoyment. The game’s open beta runs from Aug. 12-16, and anyone who can hop online with their PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S can give the game a shot for themselves before it releases in earnest on Oct. 12.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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