It just might be a little too much.

The battle against the undead—whether they’re zombies, walkers, clickers or in the case of “Back 4 Blood” the Ridden—is best when it’s a near-impossible job, pitting a small team against an unending horde and who will be lucky if just one gritty hero makes it to the end credits.

The latest entry into the team-based zombie shooter, “Back 4 Blood,” sure nails the impossible odds… perhaps to a fault. “Back 4 Blood” is a gritty and challenging team shooter that borrows deeply from a long line of gritty and challenging team shooters that got its start with the venerable “Left 4 Dead” series, which is apt because “Back 4 Blood” and “Left 4 Dead” share the same developers.

It’s a pretty simple formula: You and up to three other players are the Cleaners who are tasked with blasting their way through hordes of enemies to complete various tasks and, in general, make it to the end of a level with as many of you in one piece as possible. “Back 4 Blood” has a few twists on the genre that make it feel fresh but, let’s be honest, they could have pretty much just made new levels for “Left 4 Dead” and be considered a success.

The new weapons system—where you can upgrade guns on the fly with attachments you find in the field—as well as the eight distinctly different playable characters and the player progression system are all welcome additions. The levels and their blockbuster moments are also great fun that go beyond the linear feeling of the original “Left 4 Dead.”

My biggest gripe with “Back 4 Blood” is how it handles its difficulty curve between the recruit, veteran and nightmare difficulties. The recruit difficulty is such a cakewalk that it almost felt like playing on autopilot—it’s not only unchallenging but it’s also just not that fun when you can easily plow through map after map.

After four or five levels through that mode, we decided to dip our toes into the veteran difficulty and promptly had them bitten off by a ruthless horde of beefed-up Ridden.

While the typical encounters felt appropriately challenging on veteran with modifiers on levels that made them harder (like thick fog, angrier enemies or big swaths of birds that will alert the horde if startled) and friendly fire, the higher difficulty would frequently hit us with unexpected mobs of bullying baddies. On a particularly ill-fated run, we were hit with three bruising Tallboys that could smash away a third of your health bar in one overhand swing and four more Stingers who can tie up players in a sticky web. A frenetic 30 seconds later and we were all dead, with a notification that one of our two continues had been used up for the run. It feels like going from very easy to hard.

To overcome the challenges, you’ll need to power up by building a collection of cards that can greatly increase your power and survivability. It’s a neat system where you’ll build your collection of cards and pick 15 to form a deck for each run, unlocking cards from your preselected deck along the way. In a world where most shooters rely on your own skills or, at most, your gun to ramp up your power, it’s not the most intuitive system. Once you get a hang of it though, you can see how the cards would play together to make for some powerful and fun combos that might push you to be a more melee-focused character or one that gets by with a shotgun. There are several cards, too, that are pure upgrades over others.

Still, it’ll pretty much take a full play-through of the campaign at recruit difficulty to amass enough cards to go toe-to-toe with everything that veteran difficulty throws at you. There’s also the hitch that you can only unlock additional cards and change your deck from the camp, which requires you to break your run and abandon your progress, so it can feel like you’re not making much progress while playing.

It feels like there’s a middle step between the two difficulties that’s missing here, which is a bummer because playing through the recruit difficulty is so easy that it saps the fun out of it while going into the veteran difficulty underprepared is so tricky that it also saps the fun out of it.

There’s a really fun and interesting game in here, and it’s worth the slog through the recruit difficulty. I’d rather the developers had just found a happy middle ground in the first place.

Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at matt.a.buxton@gmail.com.

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