Back 4 Blood's Swarm mode sounds like a clever escalation of Left 4 Dead Versus

Watch: Back 4 Blood's PvP multiplayer showcase

The Left 4 Dead games were unique for a lot of reasons, but what stuck out to me about all else was the 4v4 Versus mode. In Versus, one team controlled the special infected like Boomers and Smokers and had to stop the survivors from reaching their safe house. Turtle Rock is keeping the legacy of Versus mode alive in Back 4 Blood's PvP Swarm mode, but the developers are also making some intriguing changes that I'm both excited and worried about.

Swarm is still 4v4, but it won't play out in the same campaign missions you get in the standard 4-player co-op. PvP will be an entirely different mode.

In Swarm, the survivors have to hunker down in a single area and fend off waves of AI and player Ridden (Back 4 Blood's fancy name for zombies). Teams take turns playing as survivors and Ridden to compete to survive the longest. It's a best-of-three format, but it's not clear if that means both teams will have three full rotations as humans and Ridden.

The Human team can upgrade their arsenal throughout the rounds just like in Campaign, but the Ridden also have their own upgrades called Mutations that apply to everyone on the team and carry over between rounds.

There's already a lot more going on here strategically than what I remember from Left 4 Dead. First of all, there are a whopping nine Ridden types to play as this time around:

  • Reeker
  • Retch
  • Exploder
  • Tallboy
  • Crusher
  • Bruiser
  • Stinger
  • Hocker
  • Stalker

Some of those will be pretty familiar to L4D fans, like the noxious Retch (Boomer-ish) or pouncing Stalker (sounds like a Hunter), but most of them seem like genuinely new roles for this type of game. Each of them also has variants, apparently. The Ridden mutations sound like they could be significant, though we didn't get a good look at them beyond one that adds a fire effect to attacks. 

What I'm less sure about is the action of the mode itself. Instead of fighting toward a specific destination, both times are simply trying to down the clock as long as possible. Something about the setup sounds so game show to me, and less like an intense survival game. Finding somewhere to hunker down sounds inherently less interesting than staying on the move through a continuous map. Part of what made the original Versus mode so scary at times was the looming threat that a player zombie could come pouncing around the next corner or lie in wait for ambush. With a more static play area, you mostly have to worry about your group's current surroundings.

I guess there will be some amount of mobility, though: the video did demonstrate that the play zone can move and shrink to force survivors out of their comfort zones. That's not quite the same as moving through a linear map as in Left 4 Dead—it sounds closer to the last few minutes of a battle royale game than anything.

My other worries have more to do with Back 4 Blood in general. When I played the alpha test late last year, I wasn't totally sold on it. The performance was pretty framey on my RTX 2060 and the gun felt a little stiff. With its reliance on aim-down-sight over L4D's hipfire shooting, Back 4 Blood is undeniably a slower game. In keep, Swarm also sounds like a slower mode than what Turtle Rock fans are used to. 

Swarm sounds fun in its own right, but I have to agree with some early fan reactions worried about how long defending the same zones will remain interesting. I suppose it'll depend on how many maps there are and if we'll see any twists on Swarm mode in the future. And who knows—maybe we'll also get a more traditional Versus mode that takes place inside Campaign missions, too. Back 4 Blood seems desperate to offer as much variety as it possibly can to keep players hooked.

An open beta for Swarm mode starts on August 5, a few short months before the full game finally drops on October 12. It's been a hectic few days for videogame announcements, so keep up on the weekend with our full list of every game at E3 2021.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.