Nice parquet flooring. Is it weird that that’s the first thing I notice? There is some very nice parquet flooring early on during the campaign in Back 4 Blood. But maybe it’s not weird at all. Back 4 Blood is the spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead – it’s another zombie game. And zombie games are, perversely, often the most domestic of games. To work properly they have to take place in a recognisable world, so game designers must drag themselves in from the heavy metal album covers and space stations and focus on the things a lot of us live around. Like parquet flooring. (I wish.) Nice, perhaps a little scuffed. Maybe a bit too much blood and brain smeared about.
I have put in a few hours so far, and they have been happy hours. This I was not expecting, to be honest. Over the last few days I have getting a sense that people are a little annoyed with Back 4 Blood. Progression systems and unlocks that don’t work if you play solo. Frustrations that I can easily understand.
The more I play, I suspect the more this stuff will make itself known. The basics are clear at least from my first few hours: reanimated for 2021, the Left 4 Dead template now has the trappings of most modern live games. Unlocks, things to earn towards, cards that flair each run in different ways. I will leave this stuff for Chris Tapsell and his review to pick through. I’m not ducking it because I can’t be bothered to dig into it. I’m ducking it because so far I can only play Back 4 Blood the way I used to play Left 4 Dead: as a game in which progression is a fairly alien term. A game that takes place in an endless pinwheeling present, with no thought for what comes next, what comes after.
It feels a lot like Left 4 Dead in this regard, which is to say that Back 4 Blood understands both parts of the deal. The zombies must be energetic and panic-inducing and studded with Specials, the way that muesli is studded with raisins. (Too few raisins and you feel robbed, too many and you feel strangely disappointed, as if the rationing that makes the whole thing special is missing – for more on this read Fergus Henderson.) That’s one part of the deal. The other part is that your team, the four of you pitched against this antic wilderness, you four must feel a bit like the cast of a Community-type show. A sitcom with a thing for violence and menace and chaos, but with a warm heart too. You must like the people you are, the people you travel with, and their frantic barks during firefights must go beyond information – ammo! Bandages! – and feel like bickering: in-jokes, personal frustrations, a funny thought occurring at the worst moment.
Back 4 Blood has this too, thank God. Already when I play I’m keeping an eye out for those special zombies while simultaneously leaning forward so I don’t miss a zinger from one of my team. The roster you pick from are called Cleaners, which is just the right kind of cool, aloof term for this hipster apocalypse. I already have favourites: who wouldn’t like the woman who has taken the time to drive nails into her baseball bat? Who wouldn’t like the one whose nickname is “Mom”?
You follow these people through worlds that are both familiar and rather new. The wriggly route through destroyed buildings and scattered lawns feels very familiar – that sense, instantly evocative, of ducking through a hole in a wall, then out a window and across a pathway of planks strung above a car park. The wonderful realisation, just as your ammo starts to get low, that there is a safe house nearby. But new stuff too – new flame effects when someone (generally me) blows up a petrol can at the wrong time. A really surprising variation on special events and – whisper it – the odd boss monster who towers over the scenery.
And perhaps a new eye for the striking piece of staging. Rounding one corner a few games back I found a room of blazing reds and oranges as fire did its out-of-control thing. But in front of that, silhouetted against the raging heat, five dark figures with bits missing. They heard my approach and they started towards me, and thoughts of cards and decks and unlocks were very far away for the next ten minutes.
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