(Pocket-lint) - It might not have the same name, but oh word is it nice to get a new Left 4 Dead in this day and age. From some of the minds that spawned Valve's stunning zombie shooters, Back 4 Blood is a sequel in all but name, bringing the older game's four-person co-op into the new world.
With smart updates to keep the play loop rewarding and a difficulty system that gives you loads of control, this is a rip-roaring good time in co-op, and basically a must-play for anyone looking for fun online games on Xbox Games Pass.
It's the end of the world
Back 4 Blood presents a vision of a zombie apocalypse that's a little less isolated than Left 4 Dead's was. Rather than nearly hopeless chases through to dubious safety, you're dropped into Fort Hope, a community of survivors.
There are actual characters here, non-player ones! You'll hear them explain what you're going to be doing in your next run, and see their roles in the camp. While it's still story-telling with a light touch, it's quite nice to feel that you're part of something rather than a lone survivor.
There is a roster of characters for you to choose from, with a load of cosmetics unlockable for each, so you also have the freedom to lean into a look for a character that you gel with. Unique traits like reduced damage, faster healing and others do make your choice relevant to gameplay, too.
It all contributes to the feeling of a little more hope and optimism as you face hordes of undead nasties, but that isn't to say that things are going well the whole time. You're still very much up against stacked odds, and the zombies have plenty of tricks up their sleeves.
In the main campaign mode, you'll be running from point A to B most of the time, occasionally broken up by moments where you have to keep hold of one area. It's one of those formats that ain't broke and therefore required no fixing, so it's no surprise that it works so well again.
There's also a horde mode that lets you see how long you can hold out against ever-increasing waves of enemies, and a team of special zombies controlled by other players. It's chaotic fun, and being up against real enemies makes it feel all the more challenging.
Just like in Left 4 Dead, you'll also get plenty of colourful audio-visual flair as you run through levels: from graffiti and scrawled messages in safe rooms, to the repartee that your group shares among themselves.
Play your cards right
Still, this isn't a Left 4 Dead game, which is something that becomes apparent quickly after you start playing. The real heart of Back 4 Blood is in its deck system - a range of modifiers that you can collect as you make your way through its levels.
These cards come in the order you arrange them, and offer you buffs to help you, from quicker reloads to melee attacks that heal you slightly or provide faster movement speed. At first, you have only a few to use, but you'll quickly unlock loads more.
Just as you can play them, though, the game will counter with buffs for your enemies, perhaps swathing the level in thick fog or making certain special infected zombies more resilient. It's a tug of war that can make all your runs feel distinct in a way that's directly reminiscent of roguelikes.
On the lowest difficulty - which is where every player should start and something that could be a little better communicated - your cards are nice bonuses that make things feel unique. Bump up the challenge, though, and you'll realise that they're the whole point of the game.
Without well-chosen cards, you'll struggle to get very far. Unlocking more will massively widen the range of options you have as you play. Of course, the other big part of your arsenal is the weaponry you'll wield.
Weaponry runs the gamut from assault rifles and SMGs to handguns, shotguns and sniper rifles, with a fair few fun melee options as well. These all handle differently, but the gunplay is perhaps the most pleasant surprise Back 4 Blood offers up - because it's great!
There's a snappiness to everything; a quickness that you can enhance with the right cards, that makes you feel like you've got loads of control. Plus, with a huge range of attachments to find around the levels as you explore, you'll be able to kit them out to suit your playstyle.
Good gory fun
A big part of why shooting up the undead is so satisfying in Back 4 Blood, though, also has to come down to its visual design - which might not rock the boat but has a clear-cut efficacy to it.
Turtle Rock Studios has done a fine job of getting a standard undead right - these running nasties take bullets gorily and die satisfyingly. There're special variants, from vomitous lumberers to shambling rotten hags and overgrown gym-freaks.
The work on silhouettes, to make sure that you can tell what enemy you're looking at near-instantly, isn't quite as clear-cut and perfect as back in the Left 4 Dead days, but it's close enough to get major credit, which again plays into how smooth gameplay feels.
The world itself is a nice mixture of grim and bright - there are haunting forests and farms, but also suburban settings, so the variety is well-pitched. It also knows to drop in moments of levity, be it dialogue or interludes like a raucous fight in a bar using a Black Betty-playing jukebox to draw the horde your way.
That does mean that the haunting, mournful tone of the Left 4 Dead games has slipped away a bit, but whether that's a shame is entirely down to personal taste.
It might not feel like an all-time entry in the canon of zombie worlds, but Back 4 Blood feels immersive and spooky enough to thoroughly convince.
Playing co-op in Back 4 Blood is a throwback pleasure, with great gunplay and loads of fun to be had, but it's the modern touches that make it really impressive. A cleverly designed deck system means that you have control over elements of your runs, opening up strategies and planning.
With a nice amount of variety to get through and a few modes to explore, this is a great option for anyone starved of some co-operative fun. If you're on Xbox Games Pass, meanwhile, its inclusion makes it a total must-try.