Republished on Wednesday, 11th January, 2023: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of January 2023's PS Plus line up. The original text follows.
This isn’t Left 4 Dead 3. But it is Left 4 Dead 3. But it’s Back 4 Blood. Four survivors blast through a co-op campaign split into various acts, with safe rooms acting as checkpoints. Most of the Ridden (this game’s choice of colourful pseudonym for the z-word) are your basic fodder, though when they appear in larger numbers things can get a little more hairy. Besides these practice targets, though, you’ve got Special Ridden to give you and your squad a much harder time; creatures like the Tallboy, Reeker, Crusher, and the fearsome, enormous Ogre – among many, many others to mix things up.
If you've played Left 4 Dead, you've played Back 4 Blood, and that's not a bad thing because the Valve classic (and its sequel, of course) are beloved for a reason. Gunplay here is snappy and satisfying, with meaty sound effects and absolutely spectacular gore. Level design is strong, too, but it's the encounters with hordes of zombies that make the game what it is and while we often felt overwhelmed, we never felt like Back 4 Blood was presenting us with impossible odds.
It’s all very familiar, but in a way that feels rather snug and comforting, rather than derivative and same-old. It’s ostensibly about getting from A to B, where A is a safe room and B is, er, another safe room. Each scenario has multiple chapters, with a variety of well-crafted wide-linear maps that offer copious set-pieces, secrets and – most importantly – a seemingly (and actually) never-ending stream of Ridden to blast into meaty chunks.
Replay value is the name of the game here, and it’s given focus via the Director system that ensures – so sayeth the marketing – no two sessions will ever be identical. Said Director – through faceless, voiceless AI – will play Corruption Cards that change the rules of each mission, another one being proc’d with every new area you reach. These cards have varying effects such as increasing the count of particular Ridden types, or simply making them more lethal. You’ll also get cards that affect your visibility, with a thick, pallid fog blanketing the ground. It’s not all bad, though – some challenges offer a risk/reward system, such as having you ferry objects all the way from the start to the finish, taking up valuable inventory space. It’s worth it, though, to be rewarded with more Copper.
Yes, Copper – the in-mission currency. Don’t panic, we’re not talking about microtransactions here: during each stage, you’ll find little caches of Copper all over the place, as well as being rewarded with it for skilled play. It’s used in the safe rooms between levels in order to buy you and your team guns, items, and special perks. That’s not to say you necessarily need it; firearms and melee weapons are all over the place (as you’d expect from a zombie apocalypse), but it feels good to be rewarded for your diligence with a more powerful shotgun, for example. But Copper isn’t the only collectable, which brings us to the rest of the card system.
You’ll need to earn Supply Points in order to unlock cards for your own deck; a series of equippable and game-changing buffs and benefits that form the real meat-and-potatoes of Back 4 Blood’s laudable customisation. With these you can tailor your playstyle to your deck, bringing in bought cards (as well as those found in the missions themselves) to improve ammo capacity, healing speed, and all manner of different modifications to the game. This is alongside any benefits you get from your chosen survivor, essentially a class-based format where you may find a particular character more useful than another in specific maps or scenarios.
Of course, all of this would be worthless without strong online performance. Fortunately, we had absolutely no issues getting a session going either with friends or with randoms; the quickplay options always delivered and setting up a campaign – even late-game – never saw us waiting for long.
We wish we could tell you it was equally good in single player, but it's not. You can't earn Supply Points playing alone; a bizarre choice considering there's really no good reason whatsoever for this limitation. That said, it's unlikely that solo is going to be anyone's major focus – especially since the bots that will fill out a (rare) incomplete team are so slack when it comes to reviving an incapacitated player. Stick with randoms or your mates, we say; Back 4 Blood shines with friends and you'll have an absolute riot regardless of your mutual skill level. We wish that Left 4 Dead 2's console split-screen would make a return, though.
Speaking of which, the PvP in Left 4 Dead 2 was very popular, but Back 4 Blood's implementation of a similar-ish mode – called Swarm – feels almost insultingly barebones. Players take control of both survivors and an army of Ridden, but it has none of the nuance or tactical scope of Left 4 Dead's beloved versus mode; it almost feels like an afterthought, and one that should absolutely be addressed in future updates and/or patches.
At least it's a graphical treat, running at the slick 60 frames-per-second you'd expect from the PlayStation 5, with vivid colours and lighting that we think (and whisper it) outdoes the Xbox Series X's very slightly more washed-out look – though both run at the same 4K resolution. Being cross-gen, we're sure that it could in theory look better but you'll hardly have time to complain about the aesthetics when you're shoulder-deep in Ridden entrails.
Having spent a lot of time with Back 4 Blood, we think it's well worth your time and, crucially, your money. It's just a lot of fun blowing Ridden heads off or smashing them with a baseball bat like a watermelon in an anime beach episode. It doesn't really deliver a compelling experience solo – the bots are just a touch too stupid for that – but Back 4 Blood ought to become a multiplayer fixture for the rest of the generation to come. Unless they bring out Back 4 Blood 2 in, like, a year.