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Back 4 Blood review: It’s all in the cards

(XO/PS/PC) *** Age: 18+

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GAME corporations love sequels as much as Hollywood adores franchises. They involve much less risk thanks to a recognisable name and an established fan base who will shell out year after year for a mild update of a familiar premise.

Back 4 Blood occupies a strange middle ground in that it’s neither a straight sequel nor a completely new game from the same people who created the masterful co-op shooter Left 4 Dead back in 2008. That game created the ground rules of four players abandoned to fight a massive horde of zombies, juiced up with special-ability demons and an AI “director” that reacted to your skill level.

B4B follows that post-apocalyptic playbook to a T, bringing a modern sheen to the 13-year-old blueprint but essentially leaving the core alone. You and three players – bots or humans – are thrust into gloomy, putrid stages seething with angry undead. Survival is the main priority as you career from safehouse to safehouse but occasionally quest objectives such as planting a bomb or recovering an item come into play.

So far, so Left 4 Dead. As a tribute act, Back 4 Blood nails the imitation. But you’d also have to ask after a few rounds of the 30-odd missions, why bother? You’re mowing down zoms, frantically backing away from the horde while emptying clips and forgoing much in the way of strategy.

Clearly, that thought occurred to the developers too because their twist here is the card system that acts as a gameplay modifier in each episode of the campaign. This is not quite a randomised deck as you’d find in, say, Hearthstone. Instead, these are cards earned through play and bought with rewards. You can choose a handful of the many on offer going into battle, enabling you to effectively create distinct builds for your characters – focusing on melee or tanking, for instance.

Interestingly, the AI director has a card system at its disposal too, ranging from buffs for the zombies to objectives such as requiring all four players be kept alive to the mission’s end.

All of these subtleties take a while to emerge from the initial soup of Left 4 Dead influences. They certainly enhance replay value if you’re prepared to dig into the intricacies of card combinations and weapon modifications. The latter enables you to craft upgrades that can turn run-of-the-mill guns into lethal ironmongery.

But if you don’t engage seriously with these systems, Back 4 Blood comes off as a fraction generic and a bit scrappy. Just as problematically, solo players cannot earn enough currency to acquire the best cards, thus making the later challenges in the game nigh-on impossible. Obviously, choosing to play any co-op shooter alongside just bots never generates the same spark as happens with real humans. But the developers here actively prevent you from seeing the best of Back 4 Blood if you go it alone.

It takes quite a while for B4B to hit its stride and many players will drift away before it actually becomes fairly compelling, thanks in part to a limp storyline and the slightly mystifying value of the card system. Persistence is its own reward but a more refined on-ramp would have taught you Back 4 Blood’s killer features much sooner.

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