We spent a few hours playing one of the campaigns in Back 4 Blood's closed alpha, which is a lot like Left 4 Dead, with some big improvements.
Few co-op games have hit the heights of Left 4 Dead. Developer Turtle Rock Studios' four-player zombie shooter worked specifically because it was deep and dynamic, shifting from playthrough to playthrough to keep players on their toes. With Back 4 Blood, Turtle Rock is relying heavily on that successful formula. This is, for all intents and purposes, Left 4 Dead 3, but with a focus on amping up the original's best aspects--teamwork and replayability--even further.
Turtle Rock recently gave GameSpot a chance to play through one of the campaign levels of Back 4 Blood ahead of its closed alpha test. The level, Evansburgh, is cut into four acts in which you and your team of three others try to cross through a monster-infested town. As in Left 4 Dead, you're constantly fighting off low-level zombies--the parasite-infected "ridden" in this game--and aiming at reaching a far-off safe room where you can have a quick breather before setting out again.
Mixed in with the weaker (but numerous) regular ridden enemies are stronger, grosser mutants, each with special abilities that make them more dangerous. The huge Bruisers have one long, heavy arm they use to smash you; Hockers can climb and leap, spitting a spider web-like gunk that immobilizes players; Retches puke acidic bile, explode if they're shot too much, and can draw the horde down on you if you're showered with their guts; and Snitches scream to alert nearby infected and create disaster situations if they're not killed in time.
So yeah, Back 4 Blood is basically Left 4 Dead at its core. You and three other players have to work together to make it through each of the acts in a campaign, saving one another from the attacks of the infected, reviving one another, and sometimes making stands against the horde as you work to lower a bridge or open a heavy door. And like Left 4 Dead, the whole game has a dynamic artificial intelligence running the show, called the Director, which dictates things like where you'll find weapons and ammo, how many enemies you'll face, and where those enemies will be concentrated, to make repeated runs through the same maps feel fresh.
"We wanted to be able to have someone with 1,000 hours play with their friend who's never played before and introduce them to [Back 4 Blood], but for that game to also be meaningful."
Those aspects of Back 4 Blood feel familiar, and working together as a team to fight a bunch of zombies is just as fun now as it was in 2008 when Left 4 Dead was first released. But where Back 4 Blood goes beyond its predecessor is in the systems that surround the moment-to-moment monster-shooting gameplay, all of which are geared at creating a replayable, teamwork-heavy experience. The game accomplishes a lot of that with a progression system that lets you change the abilities and perks of your character--and your team--every time you grab a gun and head out to face the horde.
Progression is based on perk cards you earn as you play, which you then organize into decks. At the start of a match, you get to pick three perks randomly offered from your deck. These can be simple boosts for your character, like receiving more health from healing items; they can be trade-offs, like greatly amping your reload speed while locking you out of aiming down your weapon's sights; and they can create benefits for your whole team, like triggering healing for everyone when one of you is knocked down and needs reviving.
The cards you choose aren't game-breakers, but they do power up your character and your teammates over time, with each safe room you reach rewarding you with a new perk card from your deck. They also allow you to customize your character to fit your playstyle or your role on a team. Building a deck that's heavy on healing perks can make you a more effective field medic, for instance, while a front-line fighter might want perks that heal you when you make melee kills or protect you from explosions. Some cards give all your teammates perks as well, so as you play more and earn better cards, you're not just powering up yourself: You're powering up everyone you're playing with, too. It's an effective way to add strategy to your run, and getting your favorite perks can give you significant benefits that change up how you play and create a lot of fun, useful variety.
"We wanted to be able to have someone with 1,000 hours play with their friend who's never played before and introduce them to [Back 4 Blood], but for that game to also be meaningful," design director Chris Ashton said in an interview with GameSpot. "It shouldn't be a throwaway game, or that their game is boring because they're so high level, and that's a really challenging problem."
Ashton used an example of a player who might really like molotov cocktails. You might choose perk cards that increase the number of molotovs you can find, or cards that make stronger molotovs spawn in the world--something that benefits everyone, not just you.
"If you say there's going to be a higher quality of molotov cocktail that spawns in the world, that benefits me too," he explained. "So if I find a molotov cocktail, it's a higher quality. It's not just that you're 'better' at molotov cocktails, it's that you affected what spawned in the world and so it benefits my game. There's a lot of that kind of thinking and mentality."
The Director gets cards too, potentially changing the shape of each act as you play through it. In the press preview, the Director could dispense the special monsters we mentioned above, as well as the Ogre, a 20-foot, nigh-indestructible boss creature that was better to flee from than fight head-on. Sometimes the Director summoned "unnatural fog" to mess with visibility, or mixed ridden wearing riot gear among the hordes.
The card system means you get a heads-up about what you'll face in a coming act, allowing you to try to choose perks that might help you counteract those new threats. In our run, we faced a bunch of different scenarios through the same four acts. In one, a towering ogre spawned right outside of the safe room where we started, changing a slow exploration of a neighborhood for gear into a madcap sprint for the relative safety of a trainyard. In another, armored ridden made every moment when we accidentally caught the horde's attention extremely costly, requiring much more care as we moved through a construction site.
In addition to the perks you give yourself, Back 4 Blood includes an economic system that lets you deck out your characters before the start of each act. Every time you make it to a safe room, you're awarded "copper," an in-game currency, that you can use to purchase a mess of supplies before the start of the next section of the campaign. Those supplies include healing items, ammo, grenades, and weapon attachments that can spiff up your guns. As in Left 4 Dead, however, you're also able to find more weapons in the world as you're heading toward your destination--you can find copper in this way as well.
That helps create a situation where you become stronger during the course of a campaign as you find and buy better equipment. It's a bit like the loot system you might expect to see in a battle royale game: The longer you survive, the tougher you become. It also incentivizes exploration throughout the world as you play through it, with Back 4 Blood rewarding you for taking your time and working as a zombie-fighting unit. That gives you a good reason to find weapons you're comfortable with and which serve a purpose on a team, with your dedication paying off as you feel like you become a more effective, more useful slayer of the infected.
The rewards for exploration and the slow build-up of power shows how Turtle Rock is subtly advancing Back 4 Blood beyond what Left 4 Dead established. Narratively, this is a game set about a year after its zombie apocalypse, and your team isn't made up of desperate people scrambling to stay alive. Instead, you're hardened zombie fighters waging a war against the ridden, and while you're still at huge risk during a campaign, you're better equipped to handle yourselves. Back 4 Blood also emphasizes this approach with acts that are shorter, representing less of a time commitment than those in Left 4 Dead, and which feel more focused on action and combat than trying to carefully avoid major confrontations. As executive producer Lianne Papp put it in the interview, one of Back 4 Blood's themes in its approach is "celebrating being a badass."
Ashton and Papp said that Turtle Rock's focus with Back 4 Blood is going bigger than it did with Left 4 Dead--with the scope of the game, for instance, and the threats you face, like the ogre--while also finding ways to make the game relevant in the long term.
"Extending the co-op beyond just saving somebody from (being pinned by an enemy), for example, is definitely part of it," Papp said. "And then, like Chris said, expanding that progression so you feel like you're becoming more powerful, beyond just a single session or map playthrough. So as you progress along in the campaign, things are getting harder, but you're also getting stronger and building your arsenal of tools."