I had a grand old time blasting through the open beta of Back 4 Blood's campaign mode earlier this week, and I'm pretty sure everyone from Left 4 Dead diehards to complete newbies like myself will have an equally fun romp with it when the open beta starts for real on August 12th. What I'm less confident about, though, is whether people will be saying the same thing about the game's PvP Versus mode, which will also be available to try in the open beta when it comes out next week.
Due to some technical difficulties during our hands-on preview session, I was the only RPS squad member who actually made it into a PvP match, so most of my experience is based on playing with strangers, which we all know is never as good as playing with a proper group of mates. However, even if you do end up playing Back 4 Blood Versus with friends, the 4v4 maps I got to play definitely felt like they gave the human team a much bigger advantage than the side playing as part of the game's zombie horde. With games spread over three rounds, effectively consisting of six runs at the same objective - stay alive longer than the other team - I wonder whether it will have enough staying power to keep players coming back for more once the campaign's done and dusted.
But first, some basics on how Back 4 Blood's Versus mode works. As mentioned above, there are two teams of four duking it out in Versus, with one team consisting of a squad of human Cleaners, while the other has a go at controlling different types of Ridden zombies. If you ever played Turtle Rock's previous big PC multiplayer game, Evolve, this dynamic will probably feel pretty familiar - only here you're playing as four regular-sized monsters rather than one big baddie.
I started my session on the human side, which began with everyone choosing their character just like you do in the campaign. Everyone comes with the same perks and stat boosts as their campaign counterpart, but you can customise them further by picking from four dedicated decks of cards. As you hopefully read in our Back 4 Blood campaign hands-on, cards are the life-blood of Turtle Rock's new shooter, and playing them right can give you a much needed stat boost such as extra stamina, health or extra ammo pouches, enhance your weapons, or activate certain effects such as automatically reloading your gun when you stow it.
You can create your own custom deck in the campaign, but in Versus each deck serves as a different class type. In my hands on, I saw classic roles such as Medic, Soldier and Operator decks, as well as the slightly more intriguing, but still very offense-based Squad Leader. A pretty safe spread of jobs, all told, but hopefully Turtle Rock have some more interesting classes hidden away for the game's final release on October 12th. In any case, each deck gives you different buffs, items and effects to take with you into PvP, and I like that you're free to pick both your character and favourite class without being tied to specific load-outs.
Once you've sorted your decks out, it's into the game. Humans have a short amount of time to scavenge around the enclosed arena for tools, weapons and other items to help them stave off the imminent waves of zombies, and an organised team could probably lay down some good trip wire traps and such like once they're familiar with the ins and outs of each map's layout. Our first battleground was outside a ruined school building, with plenty of explodable cars leftover in the parking lot, as well as a handy portacabin building to hunker down in.
The scavenging time is pretty short, though, and once the timer ticks down it's pretty much just a matter of fighting for as long as you can while the other team do their best to biff you all. Now, my team was very disorganised, and I think we lasted a whole two and a half minutes on our first go. The other side, however, clearly had a proper game plan when we swapped over, as they immediately made a beeline into that aforementioned portacabin and had everyone's gun trained on the open windows.
This made it very difficult for us zombies to make any headway in the second round, as everyone just got shot to pieces the moment we tried to get through a door or window. It doesn't help that most of the playable zombies are also massive, making them much easier to hit than your run-of-the-mill common Ridden who are also flooding the map at the same time.
There's a pretty good selection of zombies to choose from, all told. Split into the four main families of spitty Stingers, exploding Reekers, big smashy arm Tallboys and regular Common zombies, the full game will eventually give you three of each to pick from. The open beta only let you play as two in each family, but that's still a much wider range of potential undead combos to fill your team with than what you've got going on with the humans - especially since zombies can respawn infinitely during a match, letting you try lots of different approaches in quick succession.
The zombie team also has their own upgrade system called mutation points which you accumulate throughout the match. Like the human copper currency, these points can be used to make your zombie more powerful, increasing your defence, attack power, and improving your utility, which effectively cuts down the movement speed penalty your zombo has while attacking.
However, even after beefing up my attack power, I was still no match for four rounds of sustained gunfire, although it didn't help that my teammates were quickly bailing out of the match one by one until I was the only one left. Without other players to potentially draw their line of fire and attention elsewhere while the rest of us tried to sneak into their hiding place, the match just descended into one big zombie gore fest, with chunks of my undead corpse flying left right and centre.
I stuck it out for another round, as the first part saw me playing as a zombie again, but this second map - a kind of fortified hangar with an enclosed courtyard and large tented military facility - ended up playing out much like the first. The human side all hunkered down in a small room with very few points of entry for us (or rather, my) big zombos, and it quickly began to feel a bit repetitive.
I think Back 4 Blood's Versus mode definitely has the potential to be good fun if you're playing with friends who a) don't bail on you mid-game, b) were all on voice chat, and c) had a vague plan of attack, but based on this early experience of it, it's not something I see myself playing just for the hell of it. Of course, it's highly possible I just had a bum run of maps that happened to offer too many hidey holes for my more savvy opponents, and I'm hopeful the final set of Versus arenas will have a lot more variety to them.
After all, we had some great moments fighting against the horde over in the campaign, with some great set pieces and lots of cleverly designed choke points to tackle in its large maps. I can already tell it's going to be a brilliant co-op game. Alas, I didn't really see any of that openness or creativity in the (admittedly few) Versus rounds I played, but I'm determined to give it another go with some mates this time to see if the game can prove me wrong.