Back 4 Blood early impressions: our thoughts on the spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead 2

Back 4 Blood cleaners shooting a Ridden
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

There’s nothing like a brisk bolt through a foggy mine to make you feel alive and, after playing the pre-beta for squad-based shooter Back 4 Blood, the TechRadar team feels very much alive - even if our adversaries weren’t.

From the creators of the Left 4 Dead franchise, Back 4 Blood looks to fill the Left 4 Dead 3-shaped hole in our lives that was never filled. But, instead of pitting players against zombies, Back 4 Blood sees you stepping into the worn-out boots of a Cleaner, one of eight grizzled veterans on a mission to stop a catastrophic outbreak that has taken out most of humanity and resulted in infected creatures called the Ridden chasing down every living soul they can find.

Unfortunately, those living souls happened to be members of the TechRadar team: Vic Hood, Gaming Editor; Adam Vjestica, Senior Gaming Writer; Bill Thomas, US Computing Editor; and John Loeffler, Computing Writer. Ahead of the Back 4 Blood open beta, we got hands-on with the Back 4 Blood pre-beta earlier this week. But while some of us were impressed with the cooperative first-person shooter, some of us couldn’t shake the looming shadow of Left 4 Dead.

Back 4 Blood Cleaner Hoffman walking through a graveyard with a gun

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Vic: So what did we think of Back 4 Blood's campaign mode?

Adam: Pretty strong. I don't know, like, I really enjoyed it and I thought - visually - it's very clean, it's a very nice looking game and there's a lot going on. I really enjoyed the weapon options and customization. But I did kind of walk away at the end of it just thinking I'd almost experienced it before. I know it's by the team who made Left 4 Dead, so there's going to be a lot of crossover and similarities there. But I can't put my finger on the aspect that didn't really grip me. I don't know if it's because, you know, the levels are kind of short and you start at Point A and get to Point B with a little bit of an objective in between. I mean, there were a couple of levels that we played that stood out, which seem to do a bit more, rather than just going from Point A to B. But yeah, I think overall, I enjoyed it but I'm glad it's going to be on Xbox Game Pass, put it that way. 

Vic: You weren't a big fan of it, were you Bill?

Bill: Yeah, well. I got bored of Left 4 Dead back in like 2011. And it is literally just more Left 4 Dead but with an updated engine, better graphics and a couple of new gameplay mechanics. I don't think it was enough to really feel fresh. Especially because it wasn't nearly as challenging as Left 4 Dead.

Vic: We had some issues initially during our preview session so we only got to play a few missions in Act One of the campaign as a full team. But you got a bit longer with it than the rest of us John, didn't you? 

John: I did take some time to play with some of the other journalists on Pacific time. I played through to the end of the campaign preview and it got much harder, I will say that.

First-person view of holding a sniper rifle. The floor is covered in dead bodies and a countdown reads '36 seconds'

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Vic: Did you find it got more enjoyable as the difficulty ramped up?

John: There was definitely a challenge there in the later missions. I generally enjoyed it. I didn't get to play too much Left 4 Dead because I didn't have an Xbox. So, for me, it was definitely fun to jump in. I mean, it's Left 4 Dead. That's just what it is. It's an updated version of that.

But I'm not sure there's much replayability after you finish the campaign. They have some character customization options, you can build card decks and things like that, but I don't know how long you're going to be able to do that before you're going to get bored with the campaign.

Vic: How long was Act One in the campaign preview? 

John: I finished what they had on offer in the preview. It was like eight missions in Act One and we skipped something in between, which I think was a major story element. I think I finished up in maybe two hours. I really wasn't paying too much attention to the time because then I jumped into PvP, and then that was like, four hours of playing that just because I played that all night. But, generally, I felt like it definitely had some challenge to it. It was fun, but I feel like we need to see how many Acts and missions there are before we can say how much replayability it's going to have.

Vic: The first thing that hit me when we started playing was landing in that home base and there are all these notifications saying, 'get a card', 'get a supply line', 'do this', and I just felt like there was so much there and I didn't know what the game wanted me to do with it. I don't know if it was because we were doing a preview that there weren't detailed tutorials on those, but it was a bit overwhelming. 

But the actual game itself I really enjoyed. See, I never played Left 4 Dead so I don't have that comparison to draw from and I went into this with fresh eyes. So, initially, I really enjoyed the challenge of feeling like you're in a horror film, trying to fend off waves of zombies. You're just being chased by hordes of Ridden. 

During one of our missions, we were trying to get through hordes and hordes of them, and it took us an embarrassing amount of time to realize that we couldn't actually kill them all and we had to just run through them, shooting as many as we could as we went. And there are a few instances of that, which are fun to be able to recount as anecdotes - I like that bit. But I agree with everyone that the replayability concerns me a little bit. John and I played Versus after everyone left, as there were issues initially with getting PvP working during our preview, and I really enjoyed it but I'm concerned it could become stale very quickly.

An upgrade menu shows images of different ridden and how many mutation points the player has

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Adam: It's interesting because the developers are promising that Back 4 Blood is going to be really replayable because of its card system and because of its game director, which can change how the game plays as you go through. I think there's going to be quite diverse levels, which we saw ourselves. That was quite nice, actually, the levels that we did play, there was quite a lot of variety. In one level we went through a foggy tunnel, which was really dimly lit, through a farm on another, and were on a boat in another - which is always cool. 

The card system itself, I mean, it didn't grab me. I understand how it works, little perks and buffs and I'm sure it will make certain encounters more difficult if bosses get buffed as well. But yeah, it's hard to put a finger on it. I don't know if it's just because of the climate. There are so many squad-based shooters where it's like, 'grab your friends and survive against these odds', that just makes me not as excited for it as I thought I would be. It could also be the Ridden themselves. I mean, the special types that you encounter were quite fun. You've got that one that I think it's called the Hocker or something and it spits at you?

Vic: John loves to play as the Hocker in Versus.

John: He's very OP. Very OP. 

Adam: But at the same time, we've kind of seen them before: a big charging enemy that's really bloated and explodes, one that's more like a bullet sponge. It just feels a bit safe. And that's the feeling I couldn't get away from with Back 4 Blood.

Bill: Every single one of those special Ridden were ripped straight from Left 4 Dead.

Adam: Well, there you go then.

Vic: When we were playing the campaign, I didn't appreciate the Ridden as much as I did in Versus mode. I think in Versus, you appreciate them more, because you play as them. You go between playing as the Cleaners and playing as the Ridden, so you start to get to grips with what each of the Ridden are a bit more. That's probably because you're actually utilizing their skills and abilities. John was playing the Hocker a lot, whereas I was playing the Retch - the one that vomits acid on everyone. 

TechRadar writers and editors playing a pre-beta preview of Back 4 Blood

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

John: I think they only had three maps that they were running in the preview for Versus. I mean, there was a good variety with the maps, they did turn out to be bigger than I initially thought. It was a lot of fun. But, in our preview, the game didn't really explain any of the systems. So they didn't explain the card system at all. There were no tutorials. It took me a couple of matches to realize what the mutation system was.

Vic: The mutation system is the Ridden upgrade system, right?

John: Yeah. So as you're going between matches, you're just racking up these mutation points. The points mean you can upgrade the Common Ridden, for example, which are the hordes of zombies that you have chasing after the Cleaners, which you don't control. You can upgrade them to be armored, or to be Runners, or to be more powerful. You can upgrade your individual special mutated Riddens, so the Retch and the Hocker and all that. And you can just make them more powerful. Which makes it more interesting on the Cleaner side, because as you get to like round two, round three, that the deck is really stacked against the Cleaners. Like you go into the first round, like 'okay, it could last five minutes. In the third round, you're lucky if you make it past two minutes. So there was that pressure there that I actually enjoyed and just seeing a progression. And it did kind of give us a sense of being overwhelmed by zombies, being overwhelmed by these enemies, and just trying to hold back the tide. Which I did appreciate.

Vic: Yeah, I really enjoyed that about Versus. But what I did find difficult, though, was that it's clear that it tries to push you to some degree towards playing as a class, right? I think it's in Versus where you have card options like Soldier and Medic, but you can't actually see what everyone else is playing as - or which cards they picked - until they've been chosen. So unless you're actually communicating with your team, which requires using text or voice chat, then how are you going to make sure that your team is balanced? There were times when John and I were playing in Versus with journalists we didn't know. Which meant that we weren't communicating as well as we would have with friends or you folks. So I was just picking cards and hoping that other people hadn't picked the same cards, which is quite difficult if you're going to be playing online with strangers essentially.

TechRadar writers and editors playing a pre-beta preview of Back 4 Blood

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Adam: With a game like this, with it being always online - although they are looking into supporting some sort of offline mode - for a solo player, if you don't have that group of friends ready to play with, it would be interesting to see how your experience is affected. Because, yeah, it's a lot about communication and teamwork and experiencing those moments. Like when we were playing the campaign and figured out that we have to run across a bridge while being chased by the Ridden horde, and someone was shouting 'they're behind me' while we were all trying to take them out. It's all fun stuff. As a solo player, doing that kind of thing alone with strangers, I don't think that's gonna work, personally.

Vic: When John and I tried to play just as a two, we were told that the experience wouldn't be optimal, which is quite sad, because not everyone's going to have a squad to team up with necessarily, some people want to jump in alone. And also some people will want to be able to jump in and to not have to communicate via voice chat with strangers, understandably. You can use the text chat but I don't know how that works on console; we were playing on PC, so it's a bit easier to quickly type. But you don't want to force people into having to do that even if it is a team-based game because not everyone is comfortable in that situation.

Bill: I think it's OK for a game to just not be for solo players. And I think this is one of them.

John: There were a couple of points, especially towards the end of the night when people started logging off, where I would be playing the campaign mode and people would just drop out. And then the next round, I would go in and realize it was just me, and like three bots. The bots did OK, but I was definitely having to pick them up off the floor a lot.

Bill: Again, that's just like Left 4 Dead and that game is also really bad when you're playing by yourself. It always has been. The only times I will play Left 4 Dead is when I have a full group of three people to do the campaign with or a full group of seven other people to do the versus mode with.

Vic: It seems like everyone's a bit on the fence. So, if you could pick one thing that you enjoyed most about Back 4 Blood, but one thing that you think would need to be improved upon to make this a really good game, what would they be?

Adam: I really liked the weapon customization options. I was immediately surprised by just how many weapons there were and I liked the fact that you can add grips, scopes and extra bits and bobs like that to them, which is a really nice touch. It means you can cater to your playstyle. 

In terms of what I would change to make it better, honestly as daft as it sounds, for me, even just changing the Ridden to not be a zombie-based kind of enemy style would improve it. Even if it was just aliens or a unique creature or something that would have let the world be a bit more built up more than just the typical apocalypse with zombies, or Ridden, or whatever you want to call them. I'm just so done with that now. I mean, I think the game so far that has done better than others is World War Z, which really captured that 'there's hundreds of them coming at you' feeling, which was really impressive. I think that would be it for me. I know that would obviously change the game quite significantly, but yeah, change the Ridden for something a bit more exciting.

TechRadar writers and editors playing a pre-beta preview of Back 4 Blood

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

John: Talking about the horde aspect, in the later campaign preview - in like the second to last level - there was one moment where you had to move a car across a doorway and it triggered like all these birds and things. And all of a sudden, the hordes just start pouring through. And they don't stop and you have to walk up a hill to get to a safe house while the hordes are rushing like a river down that hill. So the four of you are just fighting your way up through this stream. It was actually really well done. 

If we're talking a pro or con, I do think that it's a game that knows what it is. And it does what it does very well. This was going to be a Left 4 Dead game. I think that they just tried to riff on what they'd already done and make a better version of what they had done before - and I think they succeeded with that. 

As far as a con goes, I really do think that they're trying to make the card system some kind of big deal and it doesn't really feel like a big deal. It would be good if they had swappable cards that made the Ridden turn red and spit fire at you or forcing you to finish a level in five minutes or you all die. You know, just drastically change up the gameplay and make the cards more relevant. Instead, you just get like five points of extra health, it doesn't really mean anything.

Vic: I think Bill disagrees with a few of those points. 

Bill: I think the gunplay is really good. All the guns feel amazing to shoot. But what I would change is to cut out all the extra stuff. The card system can just go in the bin, it's a waste and it complicates the game when it doesn't need to. It's a really simple formula and it works best when you can get drunk and still understand what's going on. I would also cut out the store in the safe houses. In Left 4 Dead, at the start of each level, you could only pick from a random assortment of weapons on the floor and it raised the stakes by being so simple. I also think this game is going to live or die by modding and if they don't allow modding then I don't think Back 4 Blood is going to have the same longevity that Left 4 Dead had. Because Left 4 Dead's mods are what has kept it going for the last 10 years.

TechRadar writers and editors playing a pre-beta preview of Back 4 Blood

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Vic: I agree with what a few of you have said about the card system. As I said, when I first started, I was a bit overwhelmed by the card system because they really push it. It is simple to pick up, it's just that they push it so much that they make it seem like it's more complicated than it is. When actually they're just buffs, aren't they? But it feels like it's pushed so much and you're offered so many that it becomes convoluted when it doesn't need to be. I shouldn't have started with my negative first, but that's my negative. 

My positive is that I really do enjoy the variety of the levels in campaign mode. In Versus, we did only get to play a couple and they felt, you know, they were okay. Some of the Versus maps had quite open areas which made it difficult to defend if you're playing as the Cleaners, then there were some maps that had lots of areas that you could hide in which made it a bit more difficult for the Ridden to get at you. Then, in the campaign, you've got levels that include a boat or a mine, so you have got all these different environments to make your way through. I enjoyed that because it made it feel a bit less stagnant, even if the constant hordes do sometimes feel a bit stagnant, even with those special Ridden. 

But also, I do think it looks great. I played on pretty basic settings, I didn't utilize all the bells and whistles on offer, but the same still ran well and I was quite impressed. Did any of you use Nvidia DLSS or any of the more advanced performance settings?

Bill: Oh yeah, I cranked all the settings up at 4k. It looks incredible and it runs really well. I was able to run it at 4k on a laptop. Thanks to DLSS on quality mode, I was able to get like 70fps on a Razor Blade with a 3080. On a laptop, 3080 really isn't possible in a lot of games. So it is pretty well optimized already. And I'm sure it's going to get even better by the time it comes out in October.

Vic: Do you think Back 4 Blood would still do well, even if it wasn't on Xbox Game Pass on day one?

Bill: I think people will buy this game, especially PC players, because Left 4 Dead is such a huge force on PC. People have been wanting Left 4 Dead 3 for so long. I have so many friends that still play Left 4 Dead regularly and are chomping at the bit to buy Back 4 Blood, and they're just going to buy it on Steam because that's where their friends are. So this game is just going to sell on PC like crazy. I can't speak for other parts of the gaming community but, on PC, it's gonna be huge.

TechRadar writers and editors playing a pre-beta preview of Back 4 Blood

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Vic: What do you think Adam? Do you think, particularly for console players, that Xbox Game Pass will see considerably more players engaging with Back 4 Blood then would have otherwise?

Adam: I definitely think that Xbox Game Pass is gonna help it massively on consoles. I agree with Bill, Left 4 Dead is one of those franchises that you associate solely with PC. I know it came out on Xbox 360 as part of the Orange Box, but it wasn't really supported and it wasn't really a good version. On PC, people have been crying out for Left 4 Dead 3 for a long time but, on console, that's not really the case. So being able to provide a new Left 4 Dead experience, or Back 4 Blood as it is, for console players is huge. And, as we know with Game Pass, what it immediately does is takes away any barrier to entry that someone may have if they subscribe, and they can try it, they can play with their friends, which is obviously massive for a game like this. 

Because it almost feels archaic to me to expect that all your friends are all going to go out and spend $60 on the game that you have no idea if you're going to like so that you can all play together and hope you have a good time. Xbox Game Pass just completely removes that. I've discovered so many games through Xbox Game Pass, which I wouldn't have touched otherwise, like Second Extinction. It's not a great game by any means but it's kind of similar to Back 4 Blood, but you go around shooting dinosaurs instead of the Ridden. It was fun but there's no way that game would have any sort of reach on console and I know that game was relatively popular on PC as well. So yeah, I think Game Pass is big. Obviously, that doesn't apply to PlayStation players. So it'll be interesting to see the numbers. 

And I think more importantly, though, aside from Game Pass, a major benefit for Back 4 Blood is the fact that it will support crossplay. I would probably play a game like this on PC, it felt really good with mouse and keyboard on PC and it's probably going to play best on PC, games usually do, especially if you have a Nvidia graphics card that supports DLSS. And knowing that I can play with my friends who are on console is massive. 

John: Xbox Game Pass is definitely going to be a huge help for the game because I have friends that I'm going to play this game with that don't have PCs, so they play on Xbox, or they play on PlayStation. PlayStation may not have Xbox Game Pass but it will have crossplay. You're going to want to play with your friends and when it comes off Game Pass, you're going to buy it. If that's what your friends are playing, you're going to want to play with them. You might pick it up on sale or something like that, but Game Pass is going to get you into it. It just expands the audience, so I definitely think Game Pass is going to be a huge boon for Back 4 Blood.

TechRadar writers and editors playing a pre-beta preview of Back 4 Blood

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Vic: Yeah, to reiterate what Adam said there, games are becoming so expensive that you can't afford to take the risk of spending roughly $60 on a game to see if you like it and then hoping that your friends will also spend $60 on it too. That's big money and I don't know if I would have spent that money on this game if it wasn't on Game Pass. I'd likely have waited to see if I heard good things about it through word of mouth. Because it's on Game Pass, I will play it after this. I'll try it with my friends and spend a bit more time seeing if it is the kind of game for me. Do you think you folks will play the full game?

Adam: Back 4 Blood is one of those games that, when it was announced, my friends and I thought it looked really cool and then we forgot about it. But when it was announced for Game Pass, we were like 'we'll definitely play that'. I don't know how long I'll be playing it for obviously, there are some big games dropping at the end of this year which might take me away, but I'll give it a go and see how it clicks with me and my friends. I'm sure that if we get into the swing of the mechanics, picking up cards, completing the campaign and spending time in PvP mode that there is longevity there. Yeah, I'll definitely give it another go. And I am interested to see how it runs on consoles as well, to be honest.

Vic: What about you Bill? I know you've been a bit critical of Back 4 Blood not living up to Left 4 Dead.

Bill: I was underwhelmed, but I have a huge group of friends that are already planning on all picking it up and playing it, so I will be playing it. And I'll probably be playing it a lot because it is a game that's just going to be fun with a bunch of people.

Vic: John?

John: Well, I have been playing it [laughs]. I genuinely had a really good time playing it. There are a couple of good set-piece moments in the campaign that were fun and PvP was great. PvP definitely brought out this visceral thrill of just annihilating this team that is desperately trying to stay alive. There was something that was very fun about that. It's definitely something I'm going to play again and keep playing.

Adam Vjestica

Adam was formerly TRG's Hardware Editor. A law graduate with an exceptional track record in content creation and online engagement, Adam has penned scintillating copy for various technology sites and also established his very own award-nominated video games website. He’s previously worked at Nintendo of Europe as a Content Marketing Editor and once played Halo 5: Guardians for over 51 hours for charity. He is now an editor at The Shortcut.