Back 4 Blood Alpha Preview – Brutally Brilliant

Back 4 Blood Alpha Preview - Brutally Brilliant
As Valve continues to demonstrate a lack of interest in releasing a third title in any successful franchise, the hopes for a Left 4 Dead 3 have dwindled since the 2009 release of the critically acclaimed Left 4 Dead 2. While we’re not getting a sequel per se, Back 4 Blood is a spiritual successor in every way imaginable. Set for release in June 2021, we got the opportunity to dive into a Closed Alpha event this past week, ahead of next year’s launch.

If the Back 4 Blood name doesn’t demonstrate a clear intent on building upon the success of the Left 4 Dead franchise, the game wastes no time whatsoever in throwing players into the chaotic, zombie-infested co-op shooting action iconic to the last two Left 4 Dead titles. Packed with zombies, co-op fun, all new characters and locations, and the return of the iconic versus mode, is Back 4 Blood the Left 4 Dead we all know and love?

Even with the limited content available – just a few short missions across a single campaign – playing Back 4 Blood with a buddy was an absolute blast. It’s everything that made Left 4 Dead such an incredible co-op experience, with some new ideas thrown into the mix. Before jumping into a match, players are able to select, build, and customize a deck. This card-based system serves as a way to provide additional perks and abilities for each character.

It’s unclear on whether more cards will be available at launch, how they are unlocked, or how effective they are in other areas of the game. However, the brief introduction to the system and its mechanics make for a very exciting feature that promises to add much higher levels of replay value and character customization. Each deck can consist of a total of 15 cards. A single primary card is available, allowing the player to choose a single, guaranteed card at the beginning of each match. From there, the remaining cards are shuffled and drawn between rounds to add further bonuses and buffs.

The primary card choice seemed a no-brainer at first, as beginning a level with an AK-47 is seldom a bad idea. Nevertheless, there are huge areas for unique and powerful custom builds far beyond that seemingly obvious choice. I initially focused on starting with my AK-47, taking additional cards that increased my teams ammo capacity and chances at finding ammo. I soon began to explore other potential combinations, choosing a melee-focused character in my next run. This character begins each mission with a baseball bat, and the cards I chose increased my melee damage, unlocked a melee charge attack, and even provided small heals on each successful swing. There are clear paths for specialist roles – melee, healer, support, demolitions, and so on – but just as many paths branching out into other areas of expertise.

Creating your own unique deck of cards is engaging and rewarding as it is. The system further excels when you begin combining builds and ideas with the builds of friends, doubling down on certain buffs for a stacking effect or having your friends choose abilities that make up for shortfalls of your team’s overall deck style. It shows a lot of promise, and is definitely something I’m incredibly excited to dive into at launch.

While the deck building aspects of Back 4 Blood are the biggest change to the Left 4 Dead formula, it’s not the only one. There’s a cast of brand-new special zombies that bring their own unique skills and abilities into battle. Although fresh, they take clear inspiration from the unsightly cast of the Left 4 Dead special infected. The Hocker bounces around the environment with cat-like agility, hurtling balls of gross phlegm at unsuspecting survivors – sticking them in place until freed by an allies’ melee attack. Bruisers charge heard-first into the fray, using a massive arm to smash and throw around survivors. Finally, Retches are disfigured combination of the Spitter and Boomer, hurtling green vomit from surprising distances to hinder survivors’ movement and vision. There’s a lot of key elements to the versus concept that we have yet to see, with only a single special zombie being able to actually constrict a survivor player. Despite this, it’s too early to make any real judgments in its limited pre-alpha build.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the new and exciting aspects of Back 4 Blood, but Left 4 Dead’s core aspects – its fundamental design – are still very much present. A good cast of characters, the dark and gritty environments, the often funny and disturbing scribblings written on the wall of each safe house; if I was just thrown into the game without knowing what it was, my first guess would be Left 4 Dead 3.

The mission structure and environments work in much the same way. Each level begins with a brief respite in a safehouse, giving players the opportunity to discuss tactics and their combat approach. Alternatively, this can also grant enough time for one player to buy some gun upgrades, running gung-ho into the first horde they see before the other players have even finished loading in. This often results in said player getting ambushed by specials and wasting very valuable healing resources. Ah, some things never change.

Seemingly identical to Left 4 Dead’s play-by-play on each level, players follow linear paths towards the final objective: the next safe room. While the destination has remained much in the same, the journey has very much gone up a notch. There’s optional loot rooms that can be explored if you buy specific tools, special weapons to find, and gun upgrades to track down. Put simply, there’s a lot on offer for those searching off the beaten track. The director is brutal, unforgiving, and seems all too eager to plan the demise of players at every possible turn. Back 4 Blood feels more brutal, more chaotic, and more punishing than Left 4 Dead, and it’s beautiful.

It’s difficult to find much fault in the Back 4 Blood alpha. Technically, it was near flawless. I didn’t encounter any serious bugs, didn’t have any crashing issues, and the framerate was solid throughout. It was more stable in alpha than many games have been at launch recently (do I even need to mention specifics?).

Note that the AI definitely struggles, especially on AI survivors. They pick up key objective items but never use them, they take valuable supplies and waste them, and they dive head first into a massive horde of zombies with no fear of death or interest in survival. It’s even worse than the companion AI in Left 4 Dead, and that’s tough to match.

It’s very early days for Back 4 Blood; we only experienced four short levels, the versus mode wasn’t available, and we’re unsure of what’s still to come. Despite this, from what we’ve played so far, Back 4 Blood is everything Left 4 Dead fans have been waiting for – and then some.

This preview of Back 4 Blood was done on the PC. Access was provided by the publisher.