Back 4 Blood open beta hands-on: Everything a Left 4 Dead fan could want

Back 4 Blood
Back 4 Blood (Image credit: WB Games)

One of the most anticipated games coming out in 2021 is Back 4 Blood, the spiritual successor to the co-op zombie shooter series Left 4 Dead made by many of its original developers. Left 4 Dead's huge variety of weapons, zombie types, and the game's AI director that altered zombie spawns and available supplies in each level based on player performance all helped make each of its campaigns incredibly fun to replay. Turtle Rock Studios is looking to recapture the magic of that formula with Back 4 Blood, while also iterating on it by adding a dynamic card-based loadout system to the mix alongside modern gunplay and improved level design.

Curious to see how the game was coming along since I last checked it out during the Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha preview period, I hopped into a beta build of the game that Windows Central was invited to test out ahead of the full Back 4 Blood open beta that's starting this week. After playing for several hours, I feel confident in saying that Back 4 Blood is nothing short of excellent and is offering everything a Left 4 Dead fan could ask for.

A classic formula gets better

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The best way I can describe Back 4 Blood is that it's essentially everything players love about the Left 4 Dead experience, but better. The arcade-style gunplay is nothing short of phenomenal thanks to how snappy and responsive it is, and there are a large amount of different weapons available to choose from and come across as you traverse each level (there are plenty of attachments you can find out in the wild for your guns, too).

The snappy arcade-style gunplay is nothing short of phenomenal.

The way the levels are designed is great as well. Carefully-designed chokepoints force players to cooperate and clear each area strategically — Left 4 Dead's levels were a lot easier to exploit in comparison, which led to the development of speedrunning strategies that I found boring.

To me, the reason why co-op zombie shooters are enticing is because it's fun to kill the undead with your buddies, not because I want to bolt for the safe room as fast as I possibly can. Back 4 Blood does a good job of making sure that you can't just blitz past its arenas, and I love that.

Back 4 Blood is also considerably more difficult than Left 4 Dead overall (especially on the harder modes), with a much greater emphasis on teamwork, positioning, and managing your healing and ammo pickups. Some may not like the challenge, but I'm a huge fan since it both raises the tension and encourages good communication and creative strategizing. Working your way through a tough level with your teammates by making smart callouts, planning out and executing strategies, and saving each other in clutch moments is exhilarating. The AI director ensures that the experience won't be too hard relative to your team's skill level as well, which is great.

It's all in the cards

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These cards add another nuanced layer of dynamic gameplay to the experience.

Everything explained so far is standard for zombie co-op shooters, but how does the game's card-based loadout system fit into the mix? Before each campaign, players have an opportunity to create a deck of different cards that alter their stats and abilities in combat. For example, some cards give you extra stamina so you can sprint for longer periods of time before getting tired, while others improve how quickly or how much you can heal you and your allies. Some cards also give you more ammo capacity, faster reload speeds, or the ability to heal on kill when your health is low. There are a ton of different cards to choose from, and you're encouraged to make a deck that best suits your playstyle.

Once you load into a level, you're then given the opportunity to pick a randomly selected card from your deck to activate. As you progress through campaigns and make your way to new levels, you'll be given more and more cards to activate so that you become stronger and stronger over time.

There's a catch, though — the "Ridden" zombie hordes can use cards of their own, and these can drastically shift the gameplay flow of a level. Sometimes the Ridden will use a card that makes their body more durable, forcing you to focus on landing critical hits. Other times a card will blanket an entire level in fog, making it harder to see incoming zombie hordes from range. These cards add another nuanced layer of dynamic gameplay to the experience, making Back 4 Blood feel even more replayable than its predecessor.

Control the swarm

Source: WB Games (Image credit: Source: WB Games)

The Back 4 Blood beta also includes a PvP mode called Swarm that takes inspiration from Left 4 Dead's Versus gamemode. In Swarm, one team of four human players see how long they can defend an area from four people playing as Back 4 Blood's special infected zombies. There are nine special infected available to choose from, with each one offering unique strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the slow, tanky, and heavy-hitting Tallboys and the low health Reekers that explode on death are strong in enclosed areas like the interiors of buildings, but struggle in wide open areas where players can shoot them from afar. Stingers that can pin players down with sticky phlegm and Retchs that deal area-of-effect damage from afar with projectile vomit are better suited to this environment.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to play Swarm due to a combination of technical and scheduling issues present in the gameplay session we were invited to, but everything I've seen of the mode so far indicates that it's just as strategic and intense as the PvE campaigns. I hope that the full game includes a campaign version of the PvP that brings the action to Back 4 Blood's excellently-crafted levels, but at the moment the developers haven't confirmed whether or not it will have one.

Final thoughts

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Even though I was disappointed by how I wasn't able to try out Swarm, I still had a ridiculous amount of fun playing through a few campaigns of Back 4 Blood's PvE mode. This genuinely feels like the perfect sequel that Left 4 Dead fans have been asking for, and considering that what I was able to play was only a taste of the full experience, I can't wait to see what Turtle Rock Studios has in store for players when the game launches on Oct. 12, 2021.

Even if the game doesn't end up having a Campaign Versus-style PvP mode, I think it's going to be fantastic, and it may even end up becoming one of the best Xbox games ever.

Brendan Lowry

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.