Let's not beat around the bush: Back 4 Blood is Left 4 Dead 3 in all but name, and even then it isn't exactly trying to be subtle. Obviously, developer Turtle Rock Studios doesn't need to be considering it consists of many of the same developers who created Left 4 Dead. It's also not surprising to see the studio return to the cooperative zombie slaying that initially put it on the map. The similarities between the original game and this spiritual successor are endless, even after a 12-year gap, yet it's their overt differences that prove to be the most interesting part of Back 4 Blood. It still maintains all of the familiar hallmarks of Left 4 Dead, only now these foundations are interspersed with contemporary ideas befitting of the modern era, resulting in a game that captures what you might expect from a reanimated Left 4 Dead in the year 2021.
Back 4 Blood's chaotic template might be the most overt similarity between the two games, as you and up to three friends are tasked with surviving the ravenous zombie hordes as you desperately fight from one safe room to the next. The campaign is split into four acts, with each one containing a variable number of chapters. The first act is the longest, for instance, coming in at 13 chapters, while the final act consists of a single boss fight. Finishing the entire campaign on the game's regular (and easiest) difficulty will probably take you around six to seven hours, but Back 4 Blood offers plenty of replayability when you factor in the other two punishing difficulty levels and the game's inherent variety. The AI Game Director, which makes on-the-fly decisions on where and what enemies spawn, returns from Left 4 Dead and ensures that each chapter is noticeably different on repeat visits, as hazard placement, weapon availability, and zombie frequency differ with every playthrough.
You're also faced with the same kinds of objectives throughout the campaign, whether that means simply making it to the next safe room alive, alerting the horde in order to remove an obstacle and progress forward, or defending a location until you're able to escape. It's familiar territory if you've ever played Left 4 Dead, and this works in Back 4 Blood's favor when it begins to veer from that exact formula. During one chapter you find the safe room almost immediately, but instead of escaping, you have to locate and rescue a group of other survivors first. There are more interesting examples, too, including a chapter that sees you stumble upon a decimated police station where the only way out is locked by a hand scanner. Not only do you have to find a dead guy's severed arm to unlock it, but whoever picks it up is forced to wield the limb as a morbid weapon while you mash your way back to the door.
There's another chapter where you have to plant explosives on a ship and then escape before it blows, while one of Back 4 Blood's best moments occurs in a bar as you're tasked with creating a distraction so another group of survivors can slip away unnoticed. As it turns out, zombies can't help but gravitate towards the sound of Lemmy Kilmister's gravelly rasp emanating from a tired old jukebox, as Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" provides the energetic soundtrack to a barroom massacre. Not every objective is quite as exciting, though. There are a few too many instances where you have to destroy pulsating zombie nodes before being able to progress, and the final chapters in three of the four acts are disappointingly anticlimactic and tedious.
Fortunately, caving in craniums and filling zombies full of lead remains enjoyable throughout. Your arsenal of weapons consists of the usual assortment of assault rifles, SMGs, shotguns, snipers, and a lethal collection of melee tools. The gunplay is more in line with modern shooters than Left 4 Dead, as you'll spend most of your time aiming down sights to pop headshots and focus fire on the special infected's glowing weak points. The weapons are punchy and zombies react to your shots in satisfying ways, gradually coating everything in a thick crimson layer of blood. There are other modern touches, too, including color-coded weapon rarities, because of course there is. Each of the eight playable characters begins with a specific primary and secondary weapon, but you'll acquire more firearms as you loot abandoned houses and spend copper to purchase new guns in the safe room's store. You can also find and purchase weapon attachments that will boost stats like firepower and accuracy, but these don't carry over if you swap weapons, which feels oddly restrictive.
The gunplay is more in line with modern shooters than Left 4 Dead, as you'll spend most of your time aiming down sights to pop headshots and focus fire on the special infected's glowing weak points. ...The weapons are punchy and zombies react to your shots in satisfying ways, gradually coating everything in a thick crimson layer of blood
The most notable new addition, however, is the introduction of a deck-building mechanic. As you complete chapters, you'll earn supply points that can be spent on acquiring more cards in order to build a custom deck of 15. The most basic cards provide small boosts to vital stats like health and ammo capacity, but you'll eventually gain access to more elaborate ones that have a tangible effect on the moment-to-moment gameplay. This might be a card that turns your bash into a knife, essentially giving you a third weapon slot, or a card with a team-wide effect that provides everyone with a 30% damage increase whenever someone is incapacitated. You can even build a deck to suit a particular playstyle by focusing on healing-based cards to become the team's de facto medic, for instance, or boosting your health and using a card that heals with each melee kill to become a frontline tank.
Meanwhile, the AI Game Director uses corrupted cards during each chapter to really emphasize Back 4 Blood's variety by challenging you with additional obstacles. One corrupted card shrouds the environment in a dense fog that makes it impossible to see a few feet in front of your face, while another introduces flaming zombies to the mix. These hazards become more devious on the higher difficulty levels, yet it's tough to strategize and counter specific threats with your own cards when the corrupted ones are chosen at random, which does take away from the system's dynamism somewhat.
This also contributes to some glaring balancing issues on every difficulty level. Unlike Left 4 Dead, which threw special infected at you every now and then, Back 4 Blood's strongest zombies come at you in an incessant stream of Tallboys, Hockers, and Reekers. There's nothing particularly special about these abominations when they're almost ever-present, so fighting each variation quickly becomes rote, and that's without mentioning most of their one-note attacks that simply pin you in place. The special infected in Left 4 Dead didn't do much more than this either, but they were infrequent and each one felt unique. Music played a significant part in this, generating a feeling of simmering dread every time the Witch's wailing theme would cut through the silence or the Tank announced its terrifying arrival with a thunderous orchestra. Back 4 Blood doesn't use musical cues, probably because it would be an auditory mess with how many special infected appear at one time.
Playing with friends papers over these issues to some extent, and this is obviously where Back 4 Blood's co-op excels. If you don't have three friends to play with, the waiting times for matchmaking aren't too long via cross-play, and the game's handy ping system means you're able to communicate fairly well without having to talk to strangers. The quality of your teammates will inevitably vary, though, which is a problem when you can't vote to kick AFK players. This is a puzzling omission, especially when Back 4 Blood actively punishes you for playing solo. While you have the option to play through the entire campaign with three bots, doing so cuts you off from earning all of the game's rewards, including both supply points and Trophies. This means you can't unlock any cosmetic items or new cards for your deck, so you're forced to play with other people to make any kind of progress. Back 4 Blood is meant to be played cooperatively, but punishing people who want to play alone is unnecessary, particularly when it doesn't have the tools to deal with players who are wasting everybody else's time.
Outside of the campaign, Back 4 Blood also features a PvP Swarm mode where teams take turns playing as humans and the special infected. Rather than adopting the Left 4 Dead method of making the campaign competitive, Swarm locks you into a multiplayer arena where whoever survives as the humans the longest wins the round. It's fine for a few rounds, mainly because playing as the undead offers something different, but this isn't a mode you're likely to go back to.
The campaign is Back 4 Blood's main draw, but you really need a group of friends to enjoy it to its fullest. As a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead, it ticks almost all of the right boxes. The modern additions add to the game's variety and ensure that each run is unique, while the moment-to-moment gunplay is intense and incredibly gratifying. The overwhelming frequency of the special infected, and their disappointing blandness, is a downer, and the lack of some quality-of-life features makes playing with strangers more frustrating than it should be, especially when you're penalized for playing alone. The landscape of cooperative shooters has changed a lot in the past 12 years and Back 4 Blood might not live up to the heights of Left 4 Dead at its peak. Nevertheless, Turtle Rock's return to the genre it created is still excellent fun, provided you have others to share in the zombie-bashing.