For better and for worse, Back 4 Blood is its own thing. It is a successor to Left 4 Dead, but it’s not the long awaited third installment in that series either. Instead, I like thinking of Back 4 Blood as a modern spin on the original game. It takes obvious inspiration from its predecessors, but imbues the formula with the kind of characteristics needed to bring those games up to speed. It loses things and gains others. It’s like if your favorite book was written by a different author—familiar but also foreign.
I think this is essential to understanding why Back 4 Blood is an enjoyable game, if not a great successor. Or maybe it is, and being a great successor doesn’t mean what we think it does. The projections being pushed onto this game were always bound to happen—the marketing emphasizes the connective tissue between the past and the present, while the title is a fun (if slightly detrimental) invocation of the former. This has only made the game’s journey harder, because for as much as there is shared DNA between it and Left 4 Dead, Back 4 Blood is also fighting for its own identity out from under that long shadow. Once you’ve cut through that veneer though, you can appreciate the differences, evolutions, and even missteps that make Back 4 Blood more than a hackneyed throwback.
Like a book, you shouldn’t judge a game by its cover, but by its text. In the world of games, this translates to a couple dozen things, not the least of which is its mechanics and how it feels to play it. Back 4 Blood and Left 4 Dead may be kin thematically, but could not approach their respective ends by more different means. They may look alike, but they’re mechanically opposite each other.
Back 4 Blood, much like Left 4 Dead, focuses on a party of four survivors, or “Cleaners” in this game, who slice, bludgeon, burn, explode, and of course shoot their way through seemingly endless waves of undead. Among these zombies (in Blood they’re called the Ridden), there are specialized types with unique abilities, like hurling at you, sniping you from a faraway rooftop or wall, crushing you with their oversized arms, etc. The nouns are different, and the verbs might be remixed a little, but functionally these stories are assembling similar sentences.
Where Back 4 Blood starts to stand apart from the old is in its construction. The Director AI, which famously scaled Left 4 Dead’s difficulty live and made playthroughs more dynamic, is back but now with a system called Corruption Cards. With every level (the game similarly consists of four-stage acts), the Director will play different Corruption Cards which inform the player of what modifier they will be up against. These vary from flocks of birds that will alert hordes to stronger variants of existing Ridden. Sometimes they’re more environmental, like a fog over the whole map, or apply pressure in the form of speedrun challenges or side objectives that will reward you with copper, an in-game currency you can use at shops in the safe rooms and scrounge for throughout levels.
If the Director in Left 4 Dead was about chaos—and make no mistake, it was—then Back 4 Blood’s take on it, complete with this roguelike card system, is about seeding control back over to the player. It accomplishes this in a comical amount of ways. Players draw from their own deck of cards at the start of levels and boost their stats and gain abilities, like healing per melee hit, to meet the challenge. The shop and in-game currency lets you stock up on supplies, and there’s a mind numbing variety of attachments and weapons topped off by rarities that further stratify them. It’s all a bit convoluted to look at, and the benefits of this minutiae can often seem bafflingly incremental to the point of eliciting astonishment at their inclusion, but over the course of a run a player can wind up so wildly imbalanced they beg to be enjoyed. For example, I joined a run whose players either left or disconnected, allowing my friends and I to inherit the characters they’d built up. While I got a fairly well-rounded survivor out of it, my friend got one whose player seemingly doubled down on stamina gains every round, granting him something like 16 stamina bars where the typical player may have four to six.
It’s layered in a way that makes clear the creators of Back 4 Blood, who are largely the folks who made the original Left 4 Dead, have purposely cast aside its simplicity for something else. Survivors now have class abilities rather than being reskins of the same base character. There’s a stamina system which slows everything down (unless you’re my friend up there) and even a trauma system tacked to your HP, which allows wounds to accumulate over a run, reducing your total health pool until you scramble to a health station. There is such a deluge of gears grinding against each other at any given point, you don’t even need the Director to imbue the campaign with dynamism anymore. It’s there in every step and misstep you make.
Sometimes these seemingly endless layers come together to make for a frustrating run, especially on the highest difficulty, where Back 4 Blood throws out (often) unfair amounts of superpowered Ridden and the deck feels stacked against you. The game feels loaded in the AAA sense, in that it’s bursting at the seams with ways to engage with it simply because it can afford to. This can absolutely hurt the pacing of a run and derail the feeling of the game as a whole. But when it works, Back 4 Blood begins to feel comfortable in its own skin and becomes its own strain of fun, randomized four-player co-op survival. And while it may feel and look different (due to age and a different engine) you can still find enough of the fun of Left 4 Dead in this idiosyncratic package.
Ultimately I appreciate that Back 4 Blood doesn’t go with the simplest possible route. In becoming its own beast, it drops some weight and picks up its own baggage, and whether that will connect with an audience going in with specific expectations remains to be seen. When players do have that chance, my hope is that they will weigh the game on its own merits, and not compare it too closely to a game from over 10 years ago.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.