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How Turtle Rock Studios are reinventing the zombie co-op shooter in Back 4 Blood

They already did it once; how hard can it be?

There's a type of Special Ridden in Back 4 Blood called a Sleeper. It's a torso encased in a fleshy pod which, in the Freudian nightmare of my brain, is kind of part-barnacle, part-vagina dentata. The Sleeper will launch at you without warning, trapping you and ripping with teeth and claws to do serious damage. The first time I was ambushed by one I swore with such depth and vehemence that it shocked the colleagues I was playing with, including my actual boss.

"That's because you were off on your own, and you weren't watching your corners," says Brandon Yanez, adopting the tone one might use to tell a toddler that it's their own fault they fell over when they were told not to run around the pool. It turns out the Sleeper was designed almost specifically to punish over-confident fools like me. "That character actually came from a want to keep players together. We added the Sleeper as basically a trap," Yanez says.

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Back 4 Blood is Turtle Rock Studio's upcoming four-player co-op game, featuring a PvE campaign and PvP Versus mode. Let's busk the details and say that both boil down to human survivors, called Cleaners, against zombie mutants called Ridden. Special Ridden like the Sleeper are extra monstrous monsters that are thrown in by the AI Game Director whenever you need - or least want, as the case may be - an extra challenge.

Yanez is lead designer at Turtle Rock, which he says means that he does "a little bit of everything", going between departments to make sure everyone is staying on-vision, though he also does some system work and creative design. He looks up and away when thinking about his answers as if he has a crib sheet pinned to his back wall, and generally comes across as a nice, smart and thoughtful man who would rather leave interviews to someone else so he can get on with making a game. Back 4 Blood is a curious case to talk about in any case, because it's pretty much agreed that it's an almost direct successor to the Left 4 Dead series, which was originally developed by Turtle Rock. But the IP is still owned by Valve.

Two humans fire guns at a huge Bruiser zombie in Back 4 Blood
"We're not going to rehash something that we've previously done or somebody else has previously done."

I ask Yanez if he needed to be careful in what he says, or risk rockets being launched from Gabe Newell's yacht down in New Zealand, but he laughs. "I think it's fine," he says. "There's no animosity or anything. We're all just game developers who're trying to make fun products for people." Despite this, though, he doesn't once say the words Left 4 Dead in our conversation, but often refers to "the genre", as in "we're fans of the genre."

Of the Left4Likes that have been announced recently, Back 4 Blood is the one that looks most superficially like Left 4 Dead - the gang of four players working through levels from safe house to safe house, the AI Director, the zombies (though Yanez said he thinks they're technically not zombies). It's hard to completely credit Yanez when he says that, as a studio, they "always want to bring something new to the table so we're not going to rehash something that we've previously done or somebody else has previously done." After all, doesn't Back 4 Blood seem exactly like that? Does its name not suggest a return, maybe even a vengeance, of some kind? But my over-confidence, the reason I kept getting got by Sleepers, is because I played countless hours of Left 4 Dead, I assumed Back 4 Blood wasn't much different, and I got dinged for that assumption.

A huge zombie crushes a human player with their giant arm in Back 4 Blood

Yanez describes Turtle Rock as a "a very iterative-based studio", so they do a lot of trying stuff out, keep the bits that work, and toss out what doesn't. A bunch of what's in Back 4 Blood is part tinkering with archetypes they already knew would work, and part building things from the ground up with a lot of playtesting. The Sleepers are an example of the latter, a response to how players can behave. Then there's something like the Crusher, a giant Special Ridden with a big clubby arm. They already had some monsters that would grab players, but needed one that also fulfilled a kind of Tank role, so it was harder to break out and would need you to use an item to escape, or for other players to concentrate fire and save you. Enter the Crusher, a variant of the Tallboy who has a grabby hand.

Back 4 Blood has modernised the formula, with things you expect in 2021 like sprint, and ADS (aim down sight) on guns. The bigger differences are elsewhere, like in the roster of characters, who have passive stat buffs and abilities that allow you to create different builds. I'm already a fan of Holly, who has buffs to stamina and starts with a massive baseball bat. Yanez says he likes playing healer-y builds, so is often Mom or Doc, "running around trying to keep everybody alive." There, too, they iterated: some classes, like the healer types or tactical damage-dealers were "no-brainers" that they got in pretty early.

"The other ones came over time, as we found pain-points," says Yanez. "Like, 'Oh, it would be cool if Karlee could see dangers through walls' - that came from us play-testing, and players getting grabbed by the Sleeper or coming around the corner and running into birds."

Brandon Yanez, pictured here not bragging about making well good guns.

The weapons, meanwhile, are something that Turtle Rock have really built from scratch, and according to Yanez it took a while. "That stuff is complicated, the spreadsheet for all those guns is, like, massive, you know? Like, I go cross-eyed when I look at it," he says. "I think we did a pretty good job. Obviously in the future we're going to learn from what we learned here and make it even better."

This is, it turns out, entirely too modest a thing for him to say. The guns in Back 4 Blood are fabulous to play with, weighty and wild, and rivalling anything you'll see from other devs renowned for their gunfeel like yer Bungies and Respawns. It's only at the end of the interview, and after I have commented on how brilliant some of the guns are, that Yanez reveals the weapons are something he worked on specifically. "When I hear that they feel good or they, like, feel weighty, which is subtle but was actually hard for us to achieve, hearing that is - I get a little swell of pride."

Then there are the cards, which add a bunch of different buffs. You put together a deck before you play, and then get to choose one card from a shuffled draw of that deck between stages. It can change your build a lot. For my favourite Holly, for example, I'd want to add stamina buffs for more swings of my bat, and the card that gives me HP back for every melee kill.

A player's card inventory in Back 4 Blood

Yanez says the card system wasn't even in the original design. It came up because the AI Game Director can decide to throw different things at the players: fog, darkness, poison in the air, changing what spawns where. "As we played more and more, Chris [Ashton, one of Turtle Rock's co-founders] and I were talking about, 'It would be fun if the player could influence that RNG,' and so we started to build a system that allowed the players to choose things," he explains.

Early iterations didn't work; they tried scavenge cards that added a lot more items to the world for players to scrounge. "The player didn't feel that as much, they didn't know that that bandage came from their card. So we started to scale those back and do bigger things." He gives the example of the combat knife, which changes your unarmed bash into a blow with a melee weapon. "That stuff really evolved over probably the last year and a half."

If you play the right deck with the right character, and pull some nice weapons with all the best attachments, it's possible - but rare - to have an OP run where you "feel like the action badass," says Yanez, though he adds that it's taken them a while to get the balance right so that you don't feel too overpowered all the time.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like this will be a problem for me any time soon. Over the weekend I played some more of the beta and became very well acquainted with the friendly-fire barks of all the characters, and discovered my arrogance in the face of the horde was not enough to get me past the Ogre on middling difficulty. I, who once laughed in the face of expert-level zombles in Left 4 Dead! I'm getting there though; I've started recognising the different noises and rumbles the Specials make long before they appear. I've putting together specific card decks for different characters. I'm seeing how Turtle Rock have worked to reinvent something they already invented once before, and I can't wait to see it in full when it arrives on October 12th.

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