The Zombie Army Trilogy surprised with its solid co-op campaign and OTT take on the Third Reich’s occult obsession during World War II. It wasn’t perfect, but produced three games that offered up a great diversion from the slower paced and more methodical big brother Sniper Elite games. However, their main reason for being (the SE engine) was also the thing that held them back with the slightly clunky movement and core focus on distance shooting. Stumble forward a few years and there’s not only been a big update to the Asura engine, but the teams at Rebellion have learnt lots from their foray into multiplayer wave-based combat with Strange Brigade. Zombie Army 4: Dead War isn’t just a re-skin of that though, it’s a whole new game built from basics by the Sniper Elite 4 team… and it shows. Will it be enough though to reinvigorate those tired of the zombie genre?
If you’d been following the events of the original trilogy, then you’ll know that Hitler’s plans were foiled and he was cast into Hell, bringing peace back to the world. Just when everyone thought it was safe to rebuild Europe with only the husks of the undead left to aimlessly roam the deserted streets, weird tremors start shaking the cities. It’s not long before those minor Earthquakes start rending chasms in the bedrock and start spewing forth all manner of hellish zombies, each and every one intent on wiping out any life they find. Fortunately, Karl and Boris from the previous games are still in top form and descend on Milan to start figuring out what’s going on, bringing along two new recruits to lend a hand – Shola and .Jun. With terrifying obelisks being reported bursting from the ground in various cities around the continent, it’s up to the rag tag bunch of survivors to investigate what on Earth is going on. Travelling through the war torn countries, fighting for every inch of progress against the increasingly blood thirsty horde, they’re on a quest that has the future of the human race in the balance.
It all sounds very dramatic, doesn’t it? And it is… with tongue firmly in cheek. Zombie Army 4: Dead War’s concept is about overwhelming the player with enemies and forcing frantic close quarters battles to stay alive, whilst pausing the action to show slow-motion bullets destroying internal organs. It’s meant to be eerie and foreboding, yet is littered with quips from the player characters as they mow down everything in front of them. It creates a world that’s gone to Hell in a hand basket that’s also managed to retain a sense of humour about the whole thing – very much a dogged cheeriness in the face of certain doom. These are people on the edge of annihilation and they’re damn well going to enjoy it. Yet it’s played deadpan throughout the story and at a decent pace too, it’s not just the enemy encounters that don’t let up. The whole schlock horror cinema vibe suits the source material perfectly, and it wouldn’t be out of place in a faux trailer at the beginning of a Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature. This is about cheap thrills, lots of blood, gory X-ray killcam footage, and an incredulous set of events that won’t ever be questioned for realism. Plus it’s got zombie sharks. Really.
As it’s far from the first co-op shooter on the market, even excluding its own predecessors, there’s a lot of comparisons that could be made to other games, but that’s not entirely fair given how long this series has been going. In short, it’s a third person action game with the emphasis on close range shooting in confined spaces where health management is essential. The levels in Zombie Army 4 are well designed to offer a good mix of long and short range action, but with the tendency of every enemy to make a beeline at differing speeds towards the group, things are going to be up close and personal quite regularly. This is where it really differs from its Sniper Elite sibling – it makes having crawling, lurching undead figures all around you manageable. Movement is smooth and responsive; shotguns, machine guns and pistols are all viable alternatives to a rifle; and melee packs a punch too. Of course, there are preferred arms depending on which Hell spawn needs dispatching, but each gun has a secondary fire that activates after a number of kills, meaning that everything is multipurpose. It’s a wonderful piece of power balancing because with scarce ammo it doesn’t mean you’re worried about being stuck with something useless, each primary and secondary has a redeeming feature.
Upgrades play their part of course. Collect kits or perform certain milestones and there are points to use to make the chosen weapon that bit better. Each class has a default “elemental” ability that improves with the upgrades, and the effects become available over time. Take something like the Garand, it has a fire effect where the barrel is heated with each shot and occasionally it’ll shoot an incendiary round out. Combine this with the rifle penetration ability that comes from getting the requisite number of kills and it can be devastating to all but the most hardcore of enemies. The other classes have a similar mechanic, as does the melee which utilises a cool-down timer for one attack, and the combo meter for another, which also restores a small portion of life. With three meters on the screen showing the various states of abilities, and the visual clues of the weapons themselves, there’s a lot to juggle. However, because there’s so much slaying going on there’s usually always something ready to use, and it’s this that Zombie Army 4 utilises for its flow in the heart of the action.
Regardless of whether you’re playing on your own or with a team, enemies are numerous and deadly, with even the basic classic zombies proving fatal if allowed to get too close. When suiciders come running into the fray strapped with live explosives, armoured giants lumber with the confidence of being impervious to bullets, and heavies start pulling out the flamethrowers and buzzsaws, it can be a bit daunting. There’ll be times when death comes swiftly, though at least the checkpoints and safehouses aren’t too far apart. Fortunately, XP is saved and levelling up for the character continues, opening up new ability slots and dropping in something that might help turn the tide. Interestingly, you don’t need the perks equipped to level them up, simply performing the right actions in the game does that, so when you eventually hit a level that allows a new slot there’s usually a good one to chose from. What’s key is keeping an eye on the combo meter because that’s going to provide the biggest boost at the end of the level. Try to keep it in play for the best result, and use the various tricks between sections to keep it pumped up, like shooting vermin.
There’s a surprising amount going on in each level, and much of it isn’t mentioned, it’s there to be discovered. There are collectables that need hunting down, stickers to gain for the album, and heroic actions that involve working with NPCs, and these are well telegraphed and recorded in the menus. What’s fun is the number of Easter eggs hidden away without any sort of reference. For example, there’s a recurring motif of creepy children’s dolls doing unspeakable evil to each other, yet are only visible when a certain action is performed… and usually for a very short amount of time. Or there are safes dotted around that contain special items, though miss the chance to open it and it’s locked for that particular playthrough of the level. To help thin the herd there are traps rigged around the environments and can range from one off explosions to multiple use electrifying grates or propellers or turbines. Mounted machine guns are strategically placed and, depending on the perk level, can be wrenched off and lugged about. Then there’s the simple touch of the player character getting soaked in blood as they fend off the latest wave of ghouls, though can use a sink to wash it all off; or the disquieting controller speaker sounds when the game is paused.
Zombie Army 4 is able to realise a lot of these subtle details with the engine improvements over the last couple of years, but there’s a tonne of work gone into the way this looks and plays across all the modes. The design and detail really give weight to the levels and it often doesn’t matter which far flung corner you’re searching around, there’s typically something worth spending a couple of seconds looking at. With an option of performance and resolution modes (on PS4 Pro at least) it runs well in either one, though I preferred the 60 fps lock for some of the more intense set pieces. If you’re looking for more outside the main story there’s the wave based horde mode that can prove very challenging even with a full squad of 4 players, and a weekly event that adds modifiers to levels and offers up unique rewards. Everything is playable solo or in co-op, and once a game is started it’s mostly drop in, drop out which makes it easy to find a game. What’s really impressive though is the amount of accessibility options on hand, and these should cater for almost anyone who needs some support in playing the game.
Taking a much more grind-house aesthetic with Zombie Army 4: Dead War, Rebellion are leaning not only into the movie genre to get away with such a ludicrous premise, but also into their own AA status as an independent studio and publisher. There’s a good parallel between the rogue 70’s and 80’s movies that inspired the tone of this game, and how Rebellion are able to take risks and make something that will be entertaining, if not mainstream. It’s crafted with fun in mind, and the joys that co-op gameplay can bring, but doesn’t forget the lone wolf either and pitches what it does just right. There’s a good length campaign with plenty of replayability and a solid set of online modes that will keep players going back. Most importantly though, it feels like it pulls itself out of the shadow of Sniper Elite and has a clearer identity of its own this time around. If you’ve never had the chance to scope these games out then this is a great place to start.
A PS4 review copy of Zombie Army 4: Dead War was provided by Rebellion’s PR team, and the game is available on PC, Xbox One and PS4 from the 4th February 2020 for around £40.