Back in 2020 Turtle Rock, developers of the original Left 4 Dead and more lately the asymmetrical multiplayer game Evolve, revealed the existence of Back 4 Blood. It's a game where four players can engage in co-op PvE against zombies or PvP against other players. It is not Left 4 Dead 3, but because my ideas aren't owned by Valve, I think I can safely say after an early peek at its open beta campaign that it is, to all intents and purposes, Left 4 Dead 3. But more.
You'll be able to see for yourself very soon, too, as early access for pre-orderers to Back 4 Blood's open beta starts today, with general access arriving on August 12th. We had a full team of four in our hands-on preview session - myself, Colm, Ed and Katharine - and although there were some technical problems that delayed us being able to try its PvP mode (Katharine eventually got to play some later on and has report on it here), we managed to navigate the base camp staging area, Fort Hope, and start some good ol' fashioned PvE without any hitches. And let me tell you: it did not disappoint.
Alice Bee: So, as a Left 4 Dead superfan I knew roughly what to expect from Back 4 Blood, but as newcomers to this kind of series, did you two get a handle on things quickly?
Katharine: The base camp was a little disorientating, if only because we were dropped in there without any kind of preamble, but we managed to get our bearings. While I've never played Left 4 Dead before, I've played a fair number of Gears Of War games in co-op now, and so I fell into the rhythm of being on the lookout for rogue zombies and chatting to everyone over voice comms pretty fast. What I didn't expect, though, was the friendly-fire. I don't think I've ever encountered a co-op game with that before, and it certainly made me a lot more careful about where I was aiming my shotgun!
Ed: Like Katharine, I found it pretty easy to get a handle on what we were meant to be doing right off the bat, which came down to: find zombies, shoot zombies. The layout of the maps did a pretty nice job of steering us towards the goal as well.
Alice Bee: In fairness killing zombies is a pretty clear remit. The PvE is set up like Left 4 Dead, so each stage of an area takes you to a safe house, which then marks the start of the next stage, and so on. What was most fun for me early on was figuring out how to respond to different special infected (or Ridden, I should say), and seeing stuff like sound scares initiating hordes of zombies. I think there was one bit in the first level where we were moving through a bunch of parked lorries and startled a lot of birds. Was that stuff cool for you?
Katharine: Oh man, the crows. Yeah, I think we triggered three hordes in a row, but it was fun! I liked having the option of going semi-stealth, especially as the crows were often hanging out next to a handy item crate or a spare hatchet or something that we might have wanted. It's a nice risk-reward system. We ended up making a bit of pig's ear of taking the "softly, softly" approach, but it was good the game presented you with different routes and play styles every now and again.
Ed: I got footage of VidBud Colm wandering over to some crows I'd pinged (using the radial menu, of course) and just straight up swinging an axe at them in a crazed frenzy. I liked the way these bits forced us to coordinate more and broke us out of our regular zombie-killing routine.
Alice Bee: It was later in the same stage that we had one of our first set-piece hordes. We were in a building site and had to activate a machine to dump gravel in order to leg it over a high wall, and straight away you all knew, like, oh okay, we should prepare. Ed set up propane tanks at the bottom of a stairwell, that kind of thing. You bloody loved those propane tanks by the end. You were a latter day Hank Hill.
Ed: Mate, those propane tanks were a dream. Back 4 Blood did a great job of plopping useful things in convenient spots - but not too many. I think whenever I saw a propane tank I screamed with delight and scared everyone. By the end I'd developed a wild lust for gasoline tanks too. Shooting them created a big pool of fire; perfect for an undead roast.
Katharine: I, for one, grew very attached to my shotgun. I don't think I was ever without one. I just loved the sheer weight of the thing, the heft, the power... The Belgian I found was almost like being kicked by a horse with every pull of the trigger. Definitely a lot more appealing than my character's starter handgun. And the reload animations! Cor, there were some excellent reload animations in there. I could watch GIFs of some of those all day...
Alice Bee: My character Holly started with a massive spiked baseball bat, which I loved. Melee weapons were great for clearing zombs if they were climbing up a wall.
"I don't think I was ever without a shotgun. The Belgian I found was almost like being kicked by a horse with every pull of the trigger."
Katharine: I had a go with the baseball bat over in the shooting range afterwards, as it looked super cool in practice, and way more attractive than my rubbish starter Glock. But swinging one of those bad boys drained my stamina bar a bit too quickly for my liking. I'd rather have the lungs to leg it out of danger than get up close and personal.
Ed: I quite liked hopping between weapons. There were plenty scattered around levels if I fancied a switcheroo. I found this burst-fire assault rifle which sounded immense, like you'd dropped a bunch of firecrackers on the floor with each trigger pull. I loved it so much I ended up upgrading it with a new scope and magazine attachment from a safe room shop.
Alice Bee: I think we've stumbled upon some of the differences between Back 4 Blood and Left 4 Dead here. As you noted, Ed, there's a shop in each safe room where you can spend in-game currency on weapon mods, grenades, or secondary items like a taser. And stamina wasn't an issue for me when using my bat because I was playing as Holly, who not only has a buff to stamina, but recovers it on kills. This stuff potentially makes every game of Back 4 Blood very different. Some characters are set up more for support and healing, for example, which we didn't have - and you can't switch characters mid-run. Did you like who you played as?
Katharine: Yeah, old Walker seemed pretty alright! He has a 10% damage buff and landing a precision kill gives him a 20% accuracy buff for five seconds, too, making him a good fit for both some big shotgun action and being a sniper. He also gives the whole team a health bonus, so he seems like a good chap to have around.
Ed: I played as Hoffman, a bloke in a fetching button-up shirt and a cargo vest top. He increased the whole team's max ammo, which proved pretty handy considering we slung lead near constantly. He also had a chance to find ammo on killing Ridden, although I was never really aware of this. One thing I did notice was his bonus Offensive Inventory slot, which let me carry an extra pipe bomb, or grenade, or similar explodey item. We all know how much I value an explodey item.
Alice Bee: I think in general Back 4 Blood adds what the kids called "replayability". As well as the shop, character stuff and inventory items, there are cards. They confused us when we first ran into them, but basically you have a starting deck that you can set before a game, and you pick a new card after each stage. They give passive buffs like more stamina, health, or the ability to break from grapples, and they stack over time. By the end I had, just, a superhuman amount of health and stamina for my bat swings.
But I think the strongest bits are improving on the groundwork of Left 4 Dead. Like the AI director is there throwing Ridden at you, but it can play Corruption cards at you too, so it can do stuff like decide to fill a level full of mist, for example. And the big set-pieces at the end of areas! The one we did was delightful. After fighting through the building site we had to clear a farm, race over a bridge and then set timed explosives on a boat. Only Colm survived.
Katharine: Yeah, the boat was superb. Once we'd made our way through it, two of us were tasked with going back and setting explosives to cut off the horde's path. But we were all really low on health, ammo was scarce and we were fighting off yet more zombies, who were streaming in up and down the boat's staircases. We managed to get the explosives to where they needed to be, but I'd used up all my stamina running to that point, so I didn't have much left in the tank to get out. I was fighting tooth and claw to get up the stairs and was literally within metres of reaching the ramp to safety... but I was too slow, and went boom along with the boat. I have absolutely no regrets though. It was an excellent death.
Alice Bee: It's a great comparison with the second area we played. That was much more spooky, and a lot harder. The stages were full of that aforementioned mist that obscured sight. We were funnelled through a twisty, maze-like forest and into a graveyard, and our heroic final stand in the preview was a safe house in the church itself, which was small and claustrophobic. It was hard to defend ourselves from the special Ridden hammering us.
They're very similar to the specials in Left 4 Dead, which is good because it means they have really recognisable silhouettes and sounds, but there are some very unpleasant new ones that are great fun. One is The Sleeper, which I referred to as The Wall Torso or Barnicle Fuck, and it explodes the top half of a zombie at you without warning. The bigguns with one massive arm (who are like Chargers, are actually called Tallboys, but which Ed just yelled "ARM LAD!" at) were our downfall at the church.
Ed: Those Arm Lads were devastating. There are a couple of variants of them, one grabby and one hammery. They just hoof it at you and smash you. Not to mention the waves of zombies pouring through the church windows backing them up. There was a wood pile we were supposed to use to board up the windows and plug the zombie leak... Alas, the horde overwhelmed us quite quickly.
Katharine: Yeah, despite the seemingly rapid increase in difficulty in that church, it was still one of the highlights of our entire campaign session for me, as it showed that even the game's safehouses weren't always a sure-fire haven away from the horde. I love those moments in co-op games where you're all up against it, cheering each other on and making those last-ditch attempts to save the day. That's where the magic happens, even if all (somewhat inevitably) ends in failure.
It's made me eager to find out what horrors lie beyond the church of doom, as I have a feeling we only saw a handful of the big Ridden boys during our playthrough. My arch nemesis will always be the sneaky spit lads, as I kept walking into their pools of vomit poison and doing myself a mischief. A stark contrast to the large explodey zombs, who just went pop in a burst of blood and acid gore pretty easily. In fact, we were all caked in so much gunge a lot of the time, it was hard to tell who was actually human!
Ed: Teammates or zombies, I'm hankering to rattle bullets at anything in Back 4 Blood. Especially as we'd all earned a bunch of Supply Points we can cash in back at Fort Hope for new cards and cosmetic doodads. My aim is to return to that church with a few new cards in my back pocket and challenge those Arm Lads to another arm wrestle. I will have vengeance.
Katharine: I'll definitely be lending you Walker's biceps, Ed. Those arm lads are so huge, you definitely need another human to make it a fair fight. I'm in.