If you’ve never fought off a horde of zombies while Dick Dale’s (and Pulp Fiction’s) “Misirlou” blares on a beat-to-shit jukebox, by all means, give it a go. That’s how one of the missions toward the middle of Back 4 Blood’s first act ends. While a group of survivors tries to escape by bus, you and your crew — the Cleaners — get to play bait. And nothing captures the attention of zombies quite like surf rock.
The jukebox defense is a rare moment in Back 4 Blood where you get to just “be cool, Honey Bunny” instead of stressed. As fans of Left 4 Dead, the spiritual predecessor to Back 4 Blood, know, the zombie horde is something to take seriously. And that’s what Back 4 Blood does: It takes Left 4 Dead seriously. Someone — or many someones — at Turtle Rock Studios spent a lot of time thinking about what Left 4 Dead would look like in 2021. And all that thinking paid off, as what’s different between Left 4 Dead and Back 4 Blood is just as interesting as their many similarities.
Back 4 Blood feels like someone dropped Left 4 Dead in some radioactive ooze and let it sit for 12 years — which isn’t surprising, since Turtle Rock Studios is composed of many of the same developers who originally built Left 4 Dead. It emerged with the same bone structure and shape, but with some evolved features more fitting for the modern era. Weapons have color rarities and attachments, there’s a useful ping system, it looks gorgeous, and yeah, it’s got some deck building.
Gone are the days when people would just play a few acts of Left 4 Dead to have fun. Now it’s for fun and progress, be that in the form of usable loot or cosmetics. Back 4 Blood’s progression takes the shape of a game mechanic that’s become familiar over the past several years: cards and decks. By completing runs, you’ll earn points to spend at a shop in town, permanently unlocking new cards. You can then slot those cards into a deck, and play them on your next run.
These cards add yet another layer to Left 4 Dead’s already roguelike formula — transforming it into a roguelite instead. Each run, even those on the same map, is slightly different from the last. The Director — Turtle Rock’s HAL 9000-esque name for its zombie AI — plays a card at the start of each run. On lower difficulties, this might just give you an incentive, like getting to the exit with all players alive. At higher levels, it’ll give enemies different perks to make them more lethal, or make it easier for you to alert the horde. To combat the Director, you can play your own cards, which can impact your stats or even augment your basic gameplay abilities. One card transforms your standard kick into a more lethal knife, while another may just increase your health, or make you deal more damage with shotguns.
As you run through levels, playing cards and dodging the Director’s shenanigans, you’re collecting and upgrading your weapons. You’re picking up coins as well, which you spend at safe houses on improvements to your guns or pills to keep yourself alive. These coins are only useful for the run you’re on, so you have to spend them all before the finale, since you can’t take them with you. And while you restart with basic weapons and cash each time you begin a new run, you’ll always be able to buy some more cards and build a permanent deck once you get back to camp.
Back 4 Blood’s cards and currencies are nice, and they make you feel like you’ll walk away from each play session with something new in your pocket. But what surprised me most about Turtle Rock Studios’ new zombie venture was the sheer diversity of its levels.
Sure, the first several missions took me through some factorylike areas, made me interact with objects to “alert the horde,” and all the other Left 4 Dead hallmarks. But then I played missions where I found the safe room within minutes, yet needed to rescue nearby survivors before I could get inside. One mission asked me to destroy three zombie nests looking for a dead man’s arm, and when I finally found it, I had to use it as a melee weapon so I could defend myself before scanning it to open the safe room. Another asked me to load and launch howitzer shells at a tunnel to close off the horde. And then, of course, there was the jukebox.
Every time I’d start to feel bored by the classic Left 4 Dead formula, Back 4 Blood would do something like hit me with a stealth level, or ask me to build my own safe room. Left 4 Dead 2 had a level where you needed to fill up a racecar in a mall with gas so you could escape, and it’s still the one I remember most vividly. The Left 4 Dead series had other similar sequences, but they were mostly reserved for the big finales of the chapters. Back 4 Blood hit me with that variety on a regular basis, and it kept me engaged even when I was playing with random players or bots.
Left 4 Dead is a beautiful relic, something I and many others spent hundreds of hours playing in high school and college. But with games like Warhammer: Vermintide 2 and even Aliens: Fireteam Elite branching out and taking more of a class-based approach, I was sure Back 4 Blood’s more classic bone structure would crumble under the pressure. But Back 4 Blood is more like that makeshift, armor-clad Hummer you see in every zombie show and movie: The bones of what it once was are easy to see, but it’s been reinforced to survive in a new environment.
Back 4 Blood will be released out of its early access period on Oct. 12 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a pre-release download code provided by Turtle Rock Studios. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.