Back 4 Blood Closed Alpha gameplay preview: A taste of what's to come
Back 4 Blood seems poised to give us a spiritual third entry in the Left 4 Dead series.
Among the many awards and game reveals at The Game Awards 2020 stood Back 4 Blood, a new zombie co-op shooter from Turtle Rock Studios, the same studio responsible for the popular Left 4 Dead series and the much less popular Evolve. Back 4 Blood promises to bring back the same cooperative zombie slaying that made Left 4 Dead so great, while also introducing new elements like currency and a deck system, which allows you to draw cards that buff you and the team.
Shortly after the world premiere, gamers were invited to register for a closed alpha that took place between December 17th to December 21st, which gave lucky players the chance to shoot, explore, and break Back 4 Blood and offer feedback to improve the game.
After spending about a dozen hours with the Closed Alpha build of the game, I'm happy to report that almost seven months ahead of its release date, Back 4 Blood is shaping up to be the Left 4 Dead sequel fans (myself included) have been clamoring for more than 10 years.
Picking up where we left off
In Back 4 Blood, the world has flipped upside down. A catastrophic parasitic outbreak has claimed most of the world's population, killing them or turning them into infected horrors known as Ridden. You play as one of eight Cleaners, a group of fighters who have pledged to take on the Ridden and cleanse the world of their existence, and they plan on doing that with bullets. Lots and lots of bullets.
Back 4 Blood is not ashamed of its Left 4 Dead roots and wears the influence on its sleeve. Those who played the cooperative shooter will be in familiar territory. Players will start in a safe house and work their way through acts that are separated into four parts.
Simply put, you must get from point A to point B while staying one step ahead of all of the undead masses in between. In the Closed Alpha demo, you fight your way through abandoned apartments, a construction site, and through a ferry to a military checkpoint as one of four Cleaners. Even in this early build, the game runs well, looks good, and plays even better.
Getting rid of the Ridden is no small task, as they come in all shapes and sizes, each one more disgusting and terrifying than the last. There's the Hocker, who shoots webbing that traps players, the Retch who vomits acidic goo that attracts to the horde to the players, the Snitch who lets out a piercing scream that alerts the horde, and the Bruisers, the very tall Ridden with a very huge club for an arm.
There's also the Ogre, a huge, deadly boss enemy that's reminiscent of the Goliath from Turtle Rock's previous game, Evolve. The Ogres are different than other enemies, as they seem to be baked into the level at predetermined locations, which give players the option of preparing to fight or running for their lives.
Also returning to Back 4 Blood is the Game Director, the dynamic artificial intelligence that alters the game's dramatics, pacing, and difficulty to ensure that every playthrough is different than the last. Back 4 Blood captures almost everything the previous game did, and it all works really well. The challenge for Turtle Rock then, is how can they envoke the spirit of Left 4 Dead while offering something new — The answer? A roguelike card system.
An old dog with new tricks
Back 4 Blood introduces a card system that allows players to build a deck of 15 cards, each containing a buff that improves your character's skills. At the start of the game, players draw their top card as well as three other random cards. After every campaign level is completed or restarted, players have a chance to add another random card to their cards in play. The Ridden also draw cards at the start of the game that can give the common and special infected bonuses.
It's an interesting approach to diversifying gameplay and surprisingly, it works. Cards are separated into four different categories and players can customize their deck to fit their playstyle. This addition gives the game a roguelike quality, which it already had thanks to the antics of the Game Director.
You also must consider your choice of Cleaner. This time around, the characters are more than simply different personalities, though there's still plenty of quips and dialogue shared between the Cleaners. Each character has a set of unique skills to consider that adds another layer of depth to the gameplay.
The game also features a currency that players can use to buy attachments, ammo, and other offensive and support items in the safehouse that'll make zombie slaying much easier. While the jury's out on whether the additional risk of exploring levels for loot will be worth the reward, it's clear that Turtle Rock Studios want Back 4 Blood to stand on its own, and not in its predecessor's shadow.
Nickels and dimes
While the game itself is shaping up to be everything a Left 4 Dead fan could want, there's still some concern over the inclusion of DLC. On the first day of the Alpha's release, the official Back 4 Blood Twitter account announced three different preorder options — A Standard Edition, a Deluxe Edition, and an Ultimate Edition of the game.
The Deluxe Edition includes 4 days of Early Access as well as the Annual Pass, which includes three upcoming content drops that include a new story, playable characters, special mutated Ridden, and more. The Ultimate Edition includes all of that, plus some extra character skins and in-game items.
Back in 2015, I was also very excited for Evolve, Turtle Rock Studios' first project after breaking ties with Valve, and while the game itself was fine, the microtransactions were invasive, to say the least. I have no problem with DLC when done right, but the inclusion of a card deck and RNG elements makes me suspicious of potential microtransaction abuse.
Turtle Rock Studios has not confirmed anything yet, so my concern is more of a PTSD, but it's worth noting. I'd hate for Back 4 Blood to be marred out the gate by lame DLC practices, especially considering the Left 4 Dead games were supported for years by loads of free DLC and community-made mods.
Is our old friend back from the dead?
In its current state, I have nothing but good things to say about Back 4 Blood. The game's co-op gameplay works just as well as it did back in 2008 but is now bigger and bloodier than it was before. Turtle Rock Studios is adept at crafting cooperative experiences with lots of personality and I think that they're cooking up something with a lot of potential.
It's not perfect, of course. In its current state, the difficulty is unbalanced, the levels seem much shorter than they were in Left 4 Dead, and it remains to be seen if the charm of Left 4 Dead's survivors can be emulated in Back 4 Blood's Cleaners. If the new roguelike additions prove to be as deep as the developers say, Back 4 Blood could be a game with hours upon hours of replay value. We'll just have to hope that the game's DLC doesn't take priority over the rest of the game, an issue that has doomed some of the biggest AAA releases.
The Left 4 Dead series holds a special place in my heart — In fact, Left 4 Dead 2 was the first M-rated game I ever bought on my own, and I spent hours of my formative years wiping out zombie hordes on the game's hardest difficulty, but after spending about a dozen hours with the Closed Alpha, I'm happy to report that Back 4 Blood is shaping up to be the Left 4 Dead sequel fans (myself included) have been clamoring for more than 10 years. But I'm also terrified of things going wrong.
Left 4 Dead is still one of the best co-op games on any platform, and Back 4 Blood looks like it has the potential to fill the void left by Valve's co-op shooter. We'll have to check back in with Back 4 Blood as we get closer to release. Turtle Rock Studios has already hinted at a new Cleaner and a Closed Beta test in the near future, so we may get to see more of the game before it releases on June 22, 2021, for PC, PlayStation 5, Playstation 4, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One.
Stick together to survive
Left 4 Dead with a roguelike spin
The spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead looks and plays really well, even in its Alpha state. We're optimistic about how this game will come together when it releases on June 22, 2021.
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Zackery Cuevas is a writer for Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore. I like playing video games, talking about video games, writing about video games, and most importantly, complaining about video games. If you're cool, you can follow me on Twitter @Zackzackzackery.