Author Note: I’ve played a lot of zombie shooters, including World War Z, Call of Duty Zombies, Zombie Army 4, State of Decay 2, and of course Left 4 Dead 1 and 2. As you might guess, I kinda like the genre.
If you’ve never played a zombie shooter before, the general gameplay loop is something like the following: you and several of your friends are dropped into the start of the level. You’re given guns, a few medkits, and “Good Luck!” and tossed out into the apocalypse. You start in some form of safe area, and your goal is to get to another safe area. Along the way, you’ll be attacked by wave after wave of zombies who want to get their hands on your delicious face meat. Different entries in the genre handle things like when waves of zombies spawn, special super zombies, ammo, and importance of individual performance vs teamwork differently. Groundwork set, so lets talk about Back 4 Blood.
Back 4 Blood is the most polarizing zombie shooter I’ve played. I can attest that you will either love it or hate it. At launch it had a lot of problems with bugs and difficulty scaling; however the current patch fixed most issues. As such, I will be judging the game in its current form as of the Dec. 17th update.
Technically, Back 4 Blood offers two different game modes. There are co-op campaigns through 4 different acts, as well as a PVP mode called Swarm Mode. I think Swarm Mode is an awful experience. If you’re looking for PVP look elsewhere. This game ain’t it. The rest of this paragraph is going to be a short list of why it sucks, but then we’re gonna just ignore it for the rest of the article. Swarm mode suffers from too much downtime between rounds, small map size, and frequent disconnects from either side due to just not being fun.
The PvE experience however is great. It offers high replayability with enormous build diversity and almost infinite skill ceiling in that you can always learn a new thing or two every time you play.
The game offers three difficulties: Recruit, Veteran, and Nightmare. Compared to other games’ difficulties these are comparable to Normal, Hard, and Insane. Nightmare is substantially harder than Veteran. The general progression path for all players is that you complete all missions through Recruit, then grind Veteran until you have enough progression unlocked to handle Nightmare difficulty. The main differences between the modes are the typical numeric difficulty scaling. Enemies hit harder, have more health, and more of them. The only big difference between them though is corruption card system.
Corruption cards add modifiers to change up attack patterns or defenses of the zombies. This can include the zombies getting armored plating to negate bullets, having no weak points, or auras to buff allies around them. This adds a lot of variety to the missions. You can go through the same mission, but have a vastly different experience based on what the AI director through against you with this Corruption card system. It could be common zombies explode on headshot for acid damage, which would incentivize more area of effect weapons like Molotov’s or barbed wire to slow them. Of couse, the AI isn’t the only one who gets neat cards. Back 4 Bloods biggest twist on the genre is its Deck System.
To build a deck, a player selects up to 15 cards to put into one, names it, then selects it and a character at the start of a level when joining a game. Order of cards matters in your deck. Your first card you will always have, but the order you pick from then on is somewhat flexible. For example on the first mission of act 1, you start with your first card but then you get a choice from one of your cards in order of 2 through 6.
This allows you to build the deck in such a way where you can put cards in to counter certain corruption card modifiers on your current run. For example, there are quite a few corruption cards that reduce line of sight via fog, toxic gas, or lack of lights; you can counter this with the card “Marked for Death” which allows you to highlight a red outline of special ridden while multiplying the damage your team does to them by 10%. No one player however can cover all contingencies; but a team can. There are lots of different strategies to deck-building because you can try to create a jack of all trades that can react well to everything, or you can go hyper specialized. The Deck System is complex because most games don’t offer this level of choice in customizing your character in a co-op shooter. You can make hyper specialized character roles, like melee, healer, reviver, sniper, loot find builds, grenadier, etc. or a hybrid between them. Each of the characters has a unique card (see above) which generally provides a unique buff to them as well as a buff to the team such as move speed or extra lives, etc. All characters are viable and usually have unique roles they best excel at. Depending on the campaign you start with a different amount of cards(see below), but you always gain 1 card per level from your deck.
I’m uncertain what is “optimal” but I can confirm that most cards are viable in some build up to veteran difficulty. Once you get to nightmare difficulty I’d say it is reduced to around 20% of the cards.
You get more cards for your deck by unlocking supply lines with supply points. You get supply points from completing missions. The top supply line is mostly damage cards, middle supply line is mostly support cards, while the bottom supply line is melee/utility/copper find cards. All supply lines are mixed with cosmetics to unlock as you play.
That is not necessarily to say that you can’t win without cards, just that it’s significantly easier with using the “best” cards. Still, all the cards in the world are nothing in comparison to having a good coordinated squad. I recommend joining a discord group because this game truly shines with a four man squad on voice comms. I’ve beat nightmare using exclusively in-game matchmaking on nightmare but prepare for lots of failed runs if you choose to do so.
For solo queue meta, the best decks I run with use the same 2 or so damage cards (Glass Cannon 25%damage/ Hyper Focused for 50% Weakspot Damage), 2 or 3 mobility (Run Like Hell for 12% move speed is auto include for all builds) cards and the rest goes to your role. The only role that deviates from this rule is melee, they will be a little weak early game but they are the kingpin to a group. Without melee to handle the common ridden you won’t have ammo to kill the specials or bosses. Pure economy builds based on copper gain or loot find are too slow to come online to be viable as Nightmare runs are reduced from checkpoint to checkpoint and rarely completing a full act in one sitting.
Here below are the decks I’ve used for my nightmare runs. Even though you lay out the cards you pick up 1-15, you don’t have to choose that way, for some runs you’ll react to what the corruption card is for that mission and prioritize getting different cards first. Generally speaking though I will prioritize 2 damage cards always, if the team is doing poorly I’ll get cards that aid the team such as Needs of the Many for extra lives, otherwise I’ll focus immediately on more selfish cards.
In the most recent December update they added a new type of one-use-per-level card called “Burn” Cards which apply a buff for one mission in any act campaign you are playing in. They cost on average 50 supply points, which is steep for beginning players. If you are a new player just ignore the burn card supply line and focus on unlocking all the other cards first. This feature is good because it allows you to take out some randomness in the game, for example if you are a LMG build, you can use a burn card to guarantee a LMG for your character at the start of your mission.
I was iffy on burn cards and this following statement is speculation; I am concerned at how easy it would be for TRS to turn Burn Cards into microtransactions where you buy supply points with real cash, so you can apply those buffs every mission for a campaign. The same could be said of regular cards as well. If such a thing happens though I feel like most players would drop this game. TRS are definitely treading a fine line with the introduction of burn cards. In its current state however it is an amazing addition to the game. Here below are some of the burn cards.
Core Game Flaws in summary:
- Supply Point Acquisition is ergo the rate at which you unlock stuff is too slow, also no points gained from losses is unnecessarily punishing.
- Not being able to see allied players’ decks to strategize accordingly.
- New Player experience is mediocre for 6 hours at least which is intolerable for any game. For any casual player that is at least a week before the game gets “good”.
- Swarm PVP sounds good conceptually as contests to who can hold out longest, but all the downtime between rounds and in practice feels awful to play with random Battle Royale Circle of gas closing in. Left 4 Dead definitely had the formula right with PVP through the regular campaign.
- For Back 4 Blood the ratio between common zombies and mutants is around 75:25 where most zombie shooters are closer to 95:5 so the game feels more special hunting than massive hordes of zombies like most other games in the genre.
- Lots of bosses with Big Health bars appear in the different missions, more than half the time the proper thing to do is just ignore them and run. The UI does a disservice in that all gamers have been trained for generations to see a big HP bar and kill it, not run. It’s a tough call though and I understand it’s useful for a player to know at a glance how close a boss is to being dead.
- Map objectives are sometimes unclear, lots of levels have parts to them where they spawn endless hordes of zombies until you reach some area. An objective indicator stating such would be nice.
- Back 4 Blood failed the silhouette test which is how easily can one spot the difference between the mutant ridden variants based on shape outline alone. In Left 4 Dead you can tell at a glance between Boomer, Smoker, Hunter, but in Back 4 Blood that only applies between the first level special mutant ridden. You can tell the difference between “Tall Boys”, “Stingers”, and “Reekers” however most of the variants of each are subtly different which in the heat of battle are harder to distinguish. For example the visual difference between a tall boy and bruiser is that a bruiser is spikier on the arm, but a bruiser has substantially more HP. Generally speaking when you play enough you learn anyways but I feel more could have been done to differentiate between them all to uphold the silhouette test more clearly.
Core Game Pros in summary:
- Corruption System/Deck Card Roguelite system feels amazing
- Makes every run feel different and promotes experimentation with different strategies accordingly.
- Enables players to feel powerful towards the end of runs in ways no other in the genre successfully captures.
- Allows players to finetune decks to cater to a specific playstyle that they enjoy rather than forcing each player to play only one way. There probably is an “optimal” deck for each campaign section and each role but most cards are competitively viable for a given role and feel impactful.
- Highly replayable level design is great in that it’s still linear so you don’t get lost but complex enough where there are a lot of little things to learn even when you’ve played the level twenty times.
- Cosmetics are all unlockable via in-game progression, and not with microtransactions aside from launch edition bundles of 4 skins. This will probably change, but on the whole is a sight for sore eyes in a world where everything is like 10 dollars a skin in the rest of the world in AAA gaming.
- Monthly Patching keeps things fresh and exciting. The november update killed this game with heavy nerfs and ridiculous special spawn rate bugs, but they redeemed most of the problems with the december update with burn card system, and buffs to cards, while nerfing speedrun strategies. When speedrunning was exclusively the only way to play the game, it was just not fun and warranted nerfs. It’s still viable in coordinated group play but no longer required.
- The corruption system that randomly buffs them throughout your campaign playthrough is a nice touch to keep you on your toes to change how you proceed through a level. This helps a ton with replayability, as you might gravitate to more bullet stumble type weapons to stagger armored ridden, or you could go for lighter faster firing weapons when they are all fast packing acid or fire heads.
- The item shop between missions in an act feels amazing. You are constantly torn between pooling enough coins together to buy a team upgrade for long term power, or biting the bullet and buying up max equipment like frag grenades to shred bosses, or other items. Adding economy as a facet of the game is a huge win for enabling a pause to strategize with the team, as well as extreme flexibility to different strategies for any level. While other games have economy mechanics, none are quite like this for the zombie shooter genre.
At the end of the day I think if you like roguelites, and Left 4 Dead you will love Back 4 Blood. However, Back 4 Blood surprisingly isn’t a zombie shooter, like that’s the story flavor but gameplay wise it’s truly too different from everyone else. World War Z, Zombie Army 4, Call of Duty Zombies, Left 4 Dead are all games which nail the aesthetic of there are millions of these guys and you need to mow them down and get to that next safe room as soon as possible.
Back 4 Blood and State of Decay 2 play more into a slow proactive playstyle with few bursts of action and a focus on efficient resource use. The spice in Back 4 Blood is experimenting constantly with different card builds seeing what works and doesn’t work for you. Tailoring decks specific to each act ultimately. The power curve where you start weak, but over time become a god at your role is addicting in a way no other in the genre captures.
It’s possible you’re not sold on the game, which is understandable. I personally recommend playing Back 4 Blood on something like Xbox Game Pass first just to try it because the game is very polarizing. Some people love it, some people hate it, but no one comes out of it with a neutral opinion.