Hands-on: Back 4 Blood combines Left 4 Dead and collectible card games

At The Game Awards this year, Turtle Rock announced they were doing a spiritual sequel to Left 4 Dead called Back 4 Blood and that a limited time closed alpha was going to kick off for a few days. After spending some time with the alpha, I can confirm that this is exactly what you want if you were an L4D fan. It’s the same four-player co-op zombie survival madness that Turtle Rock perfected, but with new characters, new enemies, new maps, and so on.

Frankly, that is probably enough to get most Left 4 Dead fans onboard, but it would also do a great disservice to all the fantastic innovations that Turtle Rock has added to the formula. I would be lying if I said Back 4 Blood felt like some sort of new game, rather than a new entry in the Left 4 Dead franchise, however, I wouldn’t be lying if I said that it felt significantly different, deeper, and more evolved than the games that came before it.

Let’s go over just a few new additions to the formula. There’s a new currency system, which works similarly to Counter-Strike or Apex Legends. You can earn currency, copper in this case, by protecting teammates, taking out special infected, performing map objectives, or simply by finding it on the ground. You’ll get a chance to spend this copper between chapters, which can start you off with healing items, weapon attachments, grenades, or even permanent upgrades.

There are lots of new weapons and a new weapon rarity system that makes it easy to determine whether a pickup is better or worse than what you are currently holding. There are, of course, new infected including massive event-based infected that can chase you through an entire level. Each character now has their own weapons, skills, and abilities making them more than just models.

But by far the best and most interesting part of Back 4 Blood is its card system, which gives it rogue-like and CCG elements. This alone has made me want to come back to the alpha again and again.

You’re familiar with the A.I. director right? It’s a system from Left 4 Dead that changed up every run, placing pick-ups and enemies in different locations each time to keep the experience feeling fresh. Well, now you actually get a glimpse into what the director is thinking before every round. It will play a series of cards that will determine what type of infected and special infected you will encounter along with any environmental modifiers that might impact your gameplay.

Have you been taking out zombies with melee attacks? Now they might spawn with body armor that makes them only vulnerable to guns. Been picking off infected from a long-range so you can slowly work your way through levels safely? Now there might be fog that limits your visibility until you get into threat range. Heck, the A.I. director can even play cards that add unique special infected to your game, just in case you are outsmarting it at every turn.

To counteract these schemes, you get to play cards too. Before the game even starts, you get to craft a deck of one “loadout card” and fourteen other cards to take into battle. These cards will give you special effects of some sort. Some are simple, like starting the game with certain guns or items, while others are more complex, like increasing your hip-fire accuracy and walking speed but removing your ability to aim down sights.

You get your loadout card at the beginning of every game, but every other card has to be drawn from your deck and picked from a group of three. You get to choose three cards at the start of every game (in addition to your loadout card) and then once more between each chapter and an additional one every time you die and continue, meaning you’ll see a minimum of seven and a maximum of nine cards every playthrough, and you will pretty much be guaranteed to see your whole deck throughout your many hands of three. You can also find and buy extra cards over the course of a game. 

This, along with the unique character skills and weapons, means that you can create different builds that fundamentally alter the way you play the game. I have only played for a day and I have created:

  • A melee deck that kills multiple zombies with cleaving attacks and heals with each kill
  • A support deck that focuses largely on healing and keeping other players alive
  • A generalist deck that focuses on giving party-wide buffs to stats
  • A scavenger deck that increases drop rates, reveals hidden items and makes gun attachments available to my whole party
  • A special-infected hunter deck that increases damage to weak points and ensures access to high powered weapons early on in a campaign
  • A demolitions expert deck that is constantly full of grenades, molotovs, distracting firecrackers, and more
  • An L4D1 style deck that takes away special melee weapons, sprinting, ADS, and more for just simple weapon power and hip fire
  • A Leeroy Jenkins deck that gives me bonuses when I recklessly run in alone and then gives my teammates bonuses when I die

And all of these decks were just for playing with randos. They become even more flexible when you realize you can drop and trade items with your teammates. For example, Holly, the melee specialist, doesn’t start with a gun, so you can bring in a deck that starts with a second gun just so you can drop it and give it to her. Cards that give party bonuses stack, so a whole party of four can build decks with party-wide bonuses and end up moving faster, hitting harder, surviving with huge buckets of health, and more.

This is all in the very limited scope of one four-chapter campaign in the alpha. Imagine how much expandability this has. We know that four more characters are coming. Imagine if Turtle Rock released yet more cards in expansion packs alongside new characters and new stages. Heck, we only got play co-op in this alpha but imagine if you got to play your own unique cards in PVP mode as zombies. It’s also not clear how you earn these cards but as long as Turtle Rock and WB Games don’t squeeze us dry with microtransactions, we can only imagine that this will make the game that much deeper.

So yes, Back 4 Blood is Left 4 Dead 3, right down to one of the characters exclaiming “grabbin peels” whenever they find a pill bottle, but it’s also so much more than that. I felt like I had far more agency over my playstyle than I did in either previous L4D games. If this is just what the alpha has in-store, I am extremely excited to see what the main game has to give. It has quickly risen to be one of my most anticipated games of 2021 and I can’t wait to mow my way through zombie hordes in June.