It’s been more than a decade since we got a new Left 4 Dead game from Valve, and while other shooters have attempted to fill the zombie-shooting void — World War Z, Overkill’s The Walking Dead — nothing since has managed to satisfyingly scratch that particular itch.
Turtle Rock Studios, the original developer of 2008’s Left 4 Dead, is giving it another shot with a spiritual sequel, Back 4 Blood, which is playable starting today in a closed alpha test. Back 4 Blood hews closely to the Left 4 Dead formula — four human survivors punch through hordes of zombies in search of safe rooms, while an AI-powered “director” reacts to players in real-time — but it adds new complexity in the form of player progression and deck-based character customization.
Otherwise, Back 4 Blood feels incredibly familiar, like Left 4 Dead 3 from an alternate universe. I played through one level as one of four “Cleaners” earlier this week, blasting my way through swarms of undead, which are called “the Ridden.”
In Turtle Rock’s take, the survivors here are more than just survivors. They’re capable, confident, and wise-cracking zombie-killers, not the likable everyman and everywoman archetypes of Left 4 Dead’s characters.
“You are amongst a handful of survivors that were either resilient enough to make it through a year of complete chaos, or you’re actually immune,” said Phil Robb, co-founder and creative director at Turtle Rock in a video presentation. “The immunity gives the main characters a sense of bravado and confidence that normal folks don’t have. You’re no longer trying to find a safe place, you’re trying to create safe places.”
The Cleaners, Robb said, accomplish that “by going out guns blazing and killing as many infected as you can.”
Chris Ashton, Turtle Rock co-founder and design director, told Polygon that the studio “wanted to change the attitude” of the zombie genre, to not just focus on the dire sense of apocalypse, but on what comes next.
“There’s been a real influx of popularity of zombie stuff, especially in the last couple of years, whether it’s television or movies, streaming services, and other games,” Ashton said. “If you watch a lot of them, at some point, you get to this point where you’re kind of tired of it, because there’s never any hope for the future. And there’s never a way out of it, it’s just the end of civilization. You’re just witnessing the candle blow out, basically, and so we’ve really wanted to really fight against that.”
Some of that comes through in the dialogue between Cleaners, who sound less scared about their situation and more matter-of-fact, more tactical.
Turtle Rock said it wanted to modernize elsewhere, giving Back 4 Blood players a sense of progression through perks that can be earned through gameplay. Those perks are structured as cards and decks that can be earned in the game. They give players bonuses like fire resistance or the ability to heal themselves when healing others. One perk might give you a health boost for a melee kill, for example. More powerful perks unlock as players tackle harder challenges, and some challenges will require strategic ability loadouts.
“A big question for us was, ‘how do we build a progression system that’s co-op based?’” Ashton said. “Because most games don’t really have to deal with that — it’s all about you as a player, your own progression. But we found that the progression system can be a big divider between players, so we really wanted it to bring players together instead of pull them apart.”
Ashton said that Back 4 Blood’s alpha features what are effectively “starter decks” of perks, which will offer players some insight into the game’s customization system.
“You can build a character that that’s more about healing or more tanky or that has more stamina for melee combat,” he explained. “So you can customize your character however you want, as well as affect what kinds of things spawn in the world. [...] But the idea is you play the game, and whether it’s finishing levels or killing a certain number of zombies, or playing on a certain difficulty or playing PvP or what have you, you’ll earn different cards. [...] The cards make you stronger, and then they allow you to play later missions and higher difficulties. That’s where you need to strategize a little bit more.”
For players who prefer not to interact with perk cards and “just have fun and not worry about that stuff,” Turtle Rock will offer a “Classic Mode” with basic cards.
“One of the things we wanted to do with the game was making it very approachable and easy to play: If you just want to have fun with your friends, that’s super easy to do in Classic Mode,” Ashton said. “But if you really like to dig into the game, and you want to experience tougher enemies, then you can get into the card system. We want to reward people for putting in hundreds and hundreds of hours. The game is changing over time as you play it. You unlock new cards, the director may play different cards, you go into higher difficulties, you face different enemies or enemies that have higher status than you faced before. Hopefully, the game is very accessible, but it has a lot of depth to it.”
Beyond the card system, much of Back 4 Blood feels structured like Left 4 Dead. In addition to shambling Ridden hordes, players will face tougher enemies with “special mutations.” There’s the Tallboy, a towering zombie with a powerful arm; the Retch, which vomits goo on players that obscures players’ vision and attracts common zombies; and the Stinger, a wall-climbing leaper. And of course, there’s the Ogre, the giant zombie that feels ripped from Turtle Rock’s Evolve in terms of its size. Most of those special mutations feel like remixed riffs on Left 4 Dead’s special infected, but Turtle Rock says players will face a larger cast of zombie types in the full game.
Players will take control of those special mutations in Back 4 Blood’s player-vs-player mode, and the Ridden will have their own set of perk cards designed to keep the action fresh and keep Cleaners guessing.
What remains to be seen is how well Back 4 Blood will balance all these new systems, as well as its more complex weapons system. Players can pick up or purchase weapons, and later upgrade them, spending a currency called copper found throughout levels. Add weapon attachments and additional player upgrades, like the ability to carry additional healing items or extra ammo, and Turtle Rock has another delicate balancing act on its hands.
Back 4 Blood is in closed alpha now, which is scheduled to run through Dec. 21 on Windows PC. Turtle Rock and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive plan to release the game on on June 22, 2021 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.