The first two Left 4 Dead games were classics on the Xbox 360, and Back 4 Blood unapologetically attempts to take that formula and modernise it over a decade later, but the big difference this time is that Valve has nothing to do with it, and the reigns have been taken over by Turtle Rock Studios and Warner Bros. Games. That might sound disappointing, but Turtle Rock Studios is the developer that actually created the original Left 4 Dead when the studio was known as Valve South, so this really is Left 4 Dead 3 in all but name.
You know what you're getting, then, and fortunately Back 4 Blood delivers what it promises in spades. The core concept is exactly the same as you might remember, requiring you to group together as a team of four and progress through a generous selection of campaign missions (33 in all), blasting zombies in the face at every turn and demolishing a wide array of special enemy types as you go. The gunplay feels just as satisfying as it did back in the day, and the hordes of enemies that you'll regularly encounter are suitably hectic and anxiety-inducing, especially when you're low on health and desperately trying to stay alive.
Back 4 Blood builds on its predecessors in some smart ways, too. In addition to impressive level design and (obviously) improved visuals, it also introduces neat new features such as a Card system. This system allows you to pick and choose certain perks to activate during your run, and the AI will also play Corruption Cards that act as perks against you. This, along with the game's AI Director system, helps to keep things fresh in terms of replayability, and also adds a key element of strategy as the difficulty ramps up.
There's plenty of strategy in the currency system as well, which allows you to exchange Copper for new weapons, attachments, items, team buffs and more at the beginning of every Act. You collect Copper by exploring the environment during levels, and then it's up to you how you want to spend it, such as splashing it on a powerful sniper rifle or paying a little more to give everyone in your group the ability to carry an additional explosive. If you work together as a team, you can make sure everyone spends their Cooper wisely and effectively.
All of this leads to a consistently enjoyable gameplay experience, albeit one that feels much more challenging than it did in the Left 4 Dead days. Unlike those classic games, Back 4 Blood feels compelled to throw wave after wave of special enemies at you, and while the likes of the Tall Boys and Snitchers don't disappoint in terms of their spectacle and brutality, you end up seeing them so often that they lose their mystique very quickly. This can also result in the difficulty feeling somewhat unbalanced at times. Then again, there's never a dull moment, with the game really prioritising teamwork more than Left 4 Dead as a result.
Because of this, Back 4 Blood is at its best with a good group of (human) players. The game heavily encourages you to play online with others, and matchmaking is fairly seamless if you're willing to just jump into a quickplay session. B4B smartly adapts to players joining and leaving mid-match, adding bots to compensate when required, and we haven't suffered any connection problems or lag issues thus far. And of course, you can always just invite up to three online friends to a game, with bots included if necessary.
There is a big catch at launch, however, and it's that if you don't want to play multiplayer at all, the game severely hinders your ability to progress. Back 4 Blood uses Supply Points as a way of unlocking new Cards, cosmetics and other goodies, and you get them by completing levels and certain tasks when playing online. However, Solo Campaign doesn't award these, and so while you can play through the campaign, you won't get any Supply Points for doing so. It's a disappointing decision, and the Back 4 Blood team has already confirmed it's looking into ways to address fans' frustrations about this.
It's a shame, because the bots are actually much improved over the recent Back 4 Blood beta. They're pretty useful for the most part, treating you as the leader by constantly providing you with ammo and med kits whenever you need them, while also doing a welcome job at marking obtainable items around the environment. They're not perfect, but we've only run into a few minor issues with them (such as temporarily getting stuck on objects), and for the rest of the time we've been suitably impressed by how well they've been able to cope with the demands of the gameplay.
In terms of game modes, the campaign is the meat of the experience in Back 4 Blood, and we can see ourselves replaying it many, many times in the months and years to come, but there is another mode in Back 4 Blood called Swarm. This PvP mode sees your group of four online players taking turns to play as Cleaners and Ridden against another team of four, and it's a pretty enjoyable side-attraction. The idea is to survive as long as you can against the Ridden team, and again this is focused around teamwork, trying to group together to fight off the Ridden or take out a Cleaner who has found themselves split from the rest of the pack.
Overall, the game feels like a AAA release in terms of its gameplay and content, and the same can be said of its visuals. The cutscenes in the campaign are visual spectacles at times, while the actual game runs at a smooth 60fps on Xbox Series X and looks excellent for the most part. We haven't noticed any instances of slowdown aside from a couple of major explosions tanking the framerate momentarily, but otherwise it's a smooth experience.
That said, we did run into quite a few crashes during the Early Access period that saw the game returning to the dashboard for seemingly no reason at times. It never happened during the actual game, but rather during menu or loading screens. Fortunately, it looks like this might have already been fixed as part of today's October 11 patch, but we haven't had a chance to test it thoroughly at the time of writing. Here's hoping!
Is Back 4 Blood the Left 4 Dead 3 we've been waiting for? Yes! It's a worthy spiritual successor to Valve's classic zombie-slaying series of multiplayer games, and offers a well-designed Campaign mode with some impressive new features such as its strategic Card system. The difficulty perhaps needs balancing a little more, and the lack of meaningful progression when playing Solo Campaign needs addressing sharpish, but otherwise we've had a blast with Back 4 Blood so far, and we look forward to many more Campaign runs in the weeks, months and years to come.