Twelve years ago, a small development team owned by Valve, known as Valve South, dropped a little game called Left 4 Dead — A zombie themed coop first person shooter that pit four players against a zombie horde and forced them to look out for the group as opposed to just looking out for the individual if they hoped to survive.
This helped give birth to a whole new sub-genre of coop survival first person shooters, and while Valve continued the legacy with Left 4 Dead 2, the original developers of Left 4 Dead, now reformed as Turtle Rock Studios, had not returned to the genre that they helped pioneer.
That changes with Back 4 Blood, an appropriately titled four player zombie themed coop survival shooter that goes into closed alpha testing starting today, and if my early impressions are anything to go off of, it’s good to have Turtle Rock back where they belong.
So much of Back 4 Blood is directly inspired by Left 4 Dead that I think it’s actually important to lead off with the areas in which it tries to be different, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its deck building system. In Back 4 Blood, you actually build a deck of cards that you take in with you to each level. These cards are broken up into four categories: Reflex, Discipline, Brawn, and Fortune. Reflex cards typically focus on granting bonuses to speed or stamina; discipline cards are all about efficiency, so they offer buffs that give better accuracy, better healing, more ammo, and so on; Brawn cards buff your health, damage, and resistances; and finally fortune cards focus on giving you a percent chance of something happening, along with other general utility focused boons, like the ability to have unlimited ammo on your secondary weapon, or being able to shoot while sprinting.
You select 15 of these cards to build your deck, and at the beginning of every level, you’ll draw three and pick one card four times, and those four cards that you chose will be your starting set of active buffs and boons that you’ll take with you into the first part of the level. Every time you hit a saferoom and move on to the next stage, you’ll be able to add another active card into the mix. On the flip side of that though, are the corruption cards played by the game’s AI Director.
Each level begins with a selection of corruption cards that inform the players of what enemies and obstacles they can expect to face. Just like how you’re able to add new active cards at the beginning of every new act, there are also new corruption cards that are added that will throw a new curveball at you. Whether it be fog that makes it harder to see faraway threats, more zombie hordes, or a giant Ogre right at the start of the level.
The limited nature of the alpha prevented me from really seeing the depth of the deck system, since there’s only one level and a relatively small selection of corruption cards that can change up how the level is played, but the idea seems really promising, especially the interplay between being able to see what corruption cards are coming up, and then being able to plan out with your team what active cards you want to bring into the next act as a way to prepare. It adds another layer of teamwork and coordination since you have to ensure that you’re not doubling up on cards and have all of your bases covered.
Another big change to the formula is the addition of a mini shop at the beginning of each new act. Instead of being gifted new weapons and items at a safehouse, instead you’re given the opportunity to choose what you want to outfit yourself with before moving on. You do this using a resource called copper, which you can find throughout the levels themselves in scarce amounts. This is actually a pretty big change, since you no longer find any sort of health or item pick-ups in saferooms. It’s up to you to purchase them all yourself, and if you don’t have the 500 copper to afford a first aid kit, you’ve gotta make the tough decision of whether you want to save that copper for the next act, or use what you have to load up on ammo, grenades, or whatever else you can afford.
Everything else is pretty much as you’d expect of a coop zombie survival shooter developed by the team that essentially brought the genre into existence. You’ll need to stick together with your team since there are special zombies that can incapacitate and eventually kill you if you’re not assisted by a teammate. Retches behave almost identically to Boomers, and will explode in a burst of bile that can attract the horde; Hockers spit loogies at you that can slow you down and potentially lock you in place; and Snitches will creep around until they’re startled, at which point they’ll alert the horde if not killed fast enough. But there’s also giant zombies like the Ogre which seemed nearly indestructible and forced my team to turn tail and run if we wanted to live to fight another day.
Likewise, the one level that we got to play was also very reminiscent of Left 4 Dead in terms of its structure and objectives. In one part we had to hold strong against a while a loud Gravel Filler dropped enough rocks to give us a ramp to scurry up and climb over a wall, and in another, we had to blast away a propane tank and then book it across a collapsed bridge to escape the pursuing zombie horde attracted by the noise. But there are also some interesting set pieces that felt completely new. Being forced to contend with an Ogre while also trying to find a way through a cluttered tunnel was all sorts of stressful in the best kind of way, and having to split up the team to plant two bombs on a cruise liner while it gets completely overrun was a nice way to cap off the campaign.
It’s also worth mentioning that despite going through the campaign three times, no two runs ever felt the same. Obviously the card system does a lot of that heavy lifting by changing things up every act, but on a base level there’s just a ton of randomization at play in terms of enemy and item placements. Certain rooms that were completely empty on one run would be chock full of zombies on another. Doors that were completely safe to open might now have an alarm that triggers the horde if you careless open them. There’s just a ton of stuff happening under the hood to ensure that these levels are as replayable as they can be.
Overall, my first experience with Back 4 Blood felt like just the right balance between old and familiar and new and fresh. Turtle Rock obviously knows this genre inside and out, and the ways in which they’re emphasizing player choice through deck customization and vendors at the end of every act feels like a smart shift in direction that still stays true to its roots.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on Twitter @JurassicRabbit