Zombie movies are often about cooperation—and usually not in a nice way. You know how it is: Some jackass who’s supposed to be watching everybody’s back oversleeps, or chickens out, or hides that bite that’s starting to look all black and hangry. Two minutes later, human cooperation has claimed another set of tooth-mark-strewn victims.
Back 4 Blood, the new game from Left 4 Dead creators Turtle Rock Studios, is, on those terms, an extremely realistic zombie game. Like its long-distant predecessor—and, don’t get it twisted, this is Left 4 Dead in all but name—the new title forces players who want to experience its online mayhem to rely almost entirely on the kindness of strangers, in whatever abundance that may be available. At its heights, it’s one of the more thrilling shooter experiences out there right now, a dynamic gauntlet forging teams of distant strangers into apex hunting squads. At its worst it is, like so much of online gaming, an indictment of the human animal as a whole.
The written plot of Back 4 Blood is perfunctory in the extreme; there are worms, they got in people’s brains, those peoples is zombies now. (Sorry, “Ridden”—although the game’s script does contain the phrase “zombie apocalypse,” which feels uncommonly explicit for this genre.) The stories that emerge from play, though, are the sorts of things that helped make Left 4 Dead such an indelible co-op experience lo these many years ago.
Take, for instance, a recent game I was running through the back end of the game’s first Act, which culminates in your crew of 4 “Cleaners” making their way through an abandoned mine in search of a lost team. The game’s Director—a term dating back to Left 4 Dead, referencing the AI that increases or lowers the game’s difficulty to induce tension for players—apparently decided that my crew and I were having too easy a time of it, because we were suddenly swarmed by the barely living. Running ahead (heroically), I blasted a few mineshafts from which Mutated Ridden (capable of knocking out a player single-handedly) and their regular brethren were pouring. Then I (heroically) dashed back when I saw that my anonymous online teammates had been downed.
Having (heroically) saved the (heroic) day, we then pushed forward, getting close to the end of the level, and the safety of the, uh… safe room. Suddenly, a horrifying notification: One of our teammates had been grabbed by a Stalker! My team leaped into action, which is to say, two of my teammates raced to action, running back down a death-crowded staircase to pull our wounded comrade back. Meanwhile, I (heroically) looked around, and then (heroically) walked into the safe room. Then—burdened by almost Herculean bravery—I quietly shut the door and heroically waited as my teammates were cut down, one by one. Once I became, inevitably, the last one alive…victory was declared.
And, hey, if this story sounds super familiar from your days of playing Left 4 Dead 13 years ago, well… that’s kind of the point. Back 4 Blood has a decent amount of 2021 Gaming Cruft sprinkled over it—cards, cosmetics, and emotes abound—but if you’ve missed the thrill of saving the day on behalf of a pack of anonymous strangers (and then in spite of those same strangers, from time to time), then you could do a hell of a lot worse. The addition of actual character builds is an especially nice touch, meaning that, when you bail on the rest of your species in a desperate, half-assed pell-mell for safety, you know it’s exactly what you were built to do.