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At last, just as the wait for the next opportunity to team up with friends and discharge high-calibre weaponry at zombies was growing truly intolerable, along comes Back 4 Blood. The developer is Turtle Rock Studios, most famous for Left 4 Dead—which offered precisely those pleasures back in 2008. If you were worried over whether the new release would simply serve up the same mouldering design that we got over a decade ago, or if it would actually try and freshen things up, rest assured. It’s exactly the same. Well, there is a slight change in the formula: we now have collectible cards to manage, which deck us out with upgrades and special abilities. But don’t let that put you off: the important shuffling is still done by the dead—at high speed—and Back 4 Blood, though technically a new game, is older than ever.
Hence the name, which contains a hint not only of homecoming but of revenge. Whose blood should the studio be after? Is it ours? After Left 4 Dead, Turtle Rock made Evolve, which, true to its name, gave us the opportunity to team up with friends and discharge high-calibre weaponry at aliens. Then there was Face Your Fears, a horror game for the Oculus Go, but, seeing as what a large chunk of people fear is the dose of travel sickness that attends the donning of a virtual-reality headset, not many people actually faced it. Unless you are a connoisseur of V.R., submerging your head at regular intervals, you probably didn’t play Journey of the Gods or The Well, either. The truth—we may as well admit it—is that we did indeed leave Turtle Rock for dead. As such, there is a little sadness to Back 4 Blood; a talented team, known for a single great game, tries to face its fears and evolve, but ends up going back to the well.
Still, when the well is as befouled and bottomless as this, who’s complaining? It took all of four minutes for me to reacquaint myself with the joys of old; though, what struck me as strange was the feeling that they were old—that it had been too long. Surely, in a genre as thronged as the zombie shooter, which thrives on the reanimation of long-dead ideas, Back 4 Blood shouldn’t feel quite so refreshing to play?
It was only recently I was enjoying World War Z with friends, and not too far before that it was Zombie Army 4: Dead War. Both are rich in the brain-busting spray of headshots, and both supply steady hordes that demand teamwork to manage. The answer, I reckon, is in Turtle Rock’s understanding of where the real thrills lie. Not, as you may presume, in the clever coordination of tactics or in the efficiency with which a team, like a smoothly humming machine, can storm its way through each level. No, it’s when one tiny error—disturbing a group of noisy birds, for example, thus alerting a swarm of zombies—ruffles your teammates’ feathers, and smooth humming gives way to frenzied squawking. My favourite moments are those laughably narrow scrapes, where you lunge into a safe room and bolt yourselves in, with all hell broken loose and lapping against the door.
The plot of Back 4 Blood spins around something called “Devil Worm,” which sounds like a funk compilation album but is in fact a parasite, crashed down from space. Earth is overrun by vertically motivated corpses, and humanity survives in small, fraying pockets. Four such stragglers—controlled by you and three allies, hopefully—alight at a settlement in Evansburgh, which is soon besieged, and the action is underway. Now, two things should be noted about this setup. First, it is charmingly schlocky, with its extraterrestrial undertones and its tidy cheapness. And second, I had to Google it. When the opening cutscene began to play, I already had the lively chatter of two friends in my ears, eager to get blasting; and the notion that we might all sit together on the internet, quietly absorbent, as the story was sprayed in our direction, seemed about as natural as the Devil Worm.
This is, of course, as it should be. These are not narrative affairs. I’m pretty sure that Left 4 Dead had a plot, as well—all about the “Green Flu,” and the bands of naturally immune people floundering in its wake—but it didn’t need one. It told the far more compelling tale of the Xbox 360, to which, on consoles, the game was exclusive. That particular period was the belle époque of Xbox Live, backed by the enlightened glow of Halo 3 and grinding merrily with Gears of War. My memories of Left 4 Dead (which capped off that wondrous run of online shooters, never since touched) are of nerve-scarring tension, mixed with bleary-eyed bonhomie—a time best summed up as Night of the Living Headset. Though Back 4 Blood is a multi-platform title, Microsoft is keen to remind us that it mutated from a strain of distinctively green flu; head to Xbox.com, and you will find the game emblazoned on the homepage, framed by the blades of the Xbox 360 dashboard—throwback décor, in celebration of the Xbox’s twentieth anniversary.
Perhaps this speaks to the slight pang of the past that haunts Back 4 Blood. We have been given a finely tooled zombie shooter, but it lacks the power of the original. This has less to do with its diminished darkness—Left 4 Dead was a far gloomier ride, lit by the panicked sway of torches—and more to do with us. And with the years. There is plenty to enjoy here, and I heartily recommend it to any who relish killing the dead. But Turtle Rock Studios wants to take us back to another time, and it’s 2 Late 4 That.
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Available on: Xbox Series X / S [reviewed on], Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date: October 12, 2021
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