Developed and Published by: Rebellion
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, Stadia
Release Date: Out Now
As I have mentioned before, multiplayer can be a key selling point for games that might otherwise pass you by. In particular, this has been the case over the last year of lockdowns and isolation, where a communal aspect to your game can turn it into an essential experience, especially if you remove much of the barrier to entry; this might be by including free-to-play and/or crossplay (e.g. Dauntless or Spellbreak) , or in the case of Zombie Army 4: Dead War, making it available on subscription services PlayStation Plus and Xbox Game Pass. Indeed, when two of my friends and I were alerted to Zombie Army 4 being added to PS Plus along with Days Gone – clearly some sort of zombie theme going on this month – the co-op aspect drew us into downloading and playing the third-person arcade shooter together. It is undeniably ridiculous and rough around the edges, but it nevertheless has a lot of enjoyment and a surprising depth of content to uncover.
From Rebellion, the developers of the Sniper Elite games, Zombie Army is an effective spin-off of said series, taking the sniper-rifle-oriented (who would’ve guessed) mechanics from that game and applying them to a zombified setting. The story set-up is that Hitler has risen the dead as a last resort at the end of World War II – if this is your first Zombie Army experience, as it was for me, then you may be wary of a lack of story knowledge to this point. However, the game establishes early on how Hitler is stuck in another dimension after the previous game (as I say, ridiculous) and is attempting to return. Other than that, the main thing you need to know is that there are zombies, and you need to shoot them. Look, it isn’t a complicated set-up, but in a game called Zombie Army 4: Dead War then I think it’s clear going in you’re not here for a complex, layered story; you’re here to have fun shooting zombies, perhaps with some friends, and so it is the moment-to-moment gameplay that emerges as the most crucial aspect.
Good, then, that this is where the strengths of the game lie; let’s do the rundown of the framework of Zombie Army 4. There are three main modes within which to play: the main campaign, which charts that aforementioned plot of Hitler returning and the swarms of zombies brought with him; a wave-based Horde mode, where you go up against increasingly tough sets of enemies; and the Weekly Challenge, which most recently is the Horde mode with a unique modifier and special rewards for completion. Whichever you choose, you’ll be in control of one of four survivor characters from an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective. At your disposal is a loadout consisting of a primary sniper rifle, a secondary weapon (a submachine-gun or shotgun, generally), and a pistol for desperate moments. Speaking of, you can also melee when you’re really, really desperate, and stomp on the ground to finish off downed enemies. Finally, you have a set of three abilities on timers at the bottom of your screen Mass Effect-style, which include stronger one-hit melee and takedown attacks as well as focus/piercing effects for your weapon. All combined together, it is hardly original or innovative, but supplies a decent amount of options for tackling situations in different ways.
Something that does set Zombie Army 4 apart from the myriad other run-and-gun zombie shooters is the Sniper Elite DNA running through it, pushing into wielding rifles first and foremost. This is not, say, Call of Duty, where you can tackle the game with different weapon styles similarly; the submachine guns and shotguns being put in your secondary slot is a clear sign of this, as well as how noticeably quickly those weapons run out of ammunition. You are immediately taught to prioritise your sniper, though for those with an aversion to using a scope, you can handily tap a button to aim without it in a stance more suited to close combat. Also, sniping is the source of gratifying bullet-time animations of your bullet flying across the map, complete with an X-Ray shot of which area of the enemy has been pierced (including some unsavoury parts of the body… !). The Sniper Elite series is infamous for these camera shots, so it is unsurprising to see them appear here, and they add a bit of unique flavour to the game – though you may find yourself turning down the frequency of them in the options; especially in multiplayer, where you don’t necessarily need to see them every five seconds.
Going alongside the sniping as a defining element of Zombie Army 4 is the combo system, and how it affects your performance in each level. Every zombie elimination raises your combo meter, and to maintain it you must keep getting hits (even if not lethal) on enemies without getting hit directly, missing shots too frequently, or waiting too long. If you are seeking the highest score possible for each area and the Gold Rankings, then this is the way to do it, and adds a sense of urgency even to lower difficulty modes as you keenly focus on keeping your combo going. When playing solo, you can tactically plan out how to ensure you don’t lose your streak, but it takes on a whole new dynamic in multiplayer. There are only so many zombies; for the competitive types out there, you’re going to be battling to get to those zombies first and keep your combo going! I mean, with your statistics on show in the end-of-level leaderboard for everyone to see, there are reputations to uphold, you know… Whether on your own or in a group, once you get to the harder difficulties, then it becomes a fine line of whether to take a step back and play it safe or to risk getting into the thick of the action to keep your combo going. It might seem a superfluous aspect of the game, but without the combo and points meter, Zombie Army 4 would lose much of the inherent impetus it has.
As you’d expect, it is more than just zombies you have to consider when balancing that risk and reward. Your progress further into the game is met with a whole host of new enemy types mixing it up. This starts with variations such as zombies that throw poison at you and runners that explode when they get too close (particularly troublesome), before progressing to hardy ranged attackers with machine guns, flamethrowers, and buzzsaws; with the upside that you can take their weapons once defeated! Though, when in a group, watch for this; in turns out friendly fire and flamethrowers are quite a bad situation, aha! In the later stages of the game, Screamers are appear too, who detect based on sound and encourage stealth – stealth that, sadly, the rest of the game is not really built to facilitate, reducing them to very tough opposition instead of something more clever. Zombie Army 4 is definitely most fun when multiple different enemy types are being thrown at you, asking you to be adaptable instead of conservative, which plays into the challenge of sustaining your combo momentum.
The individual chapters, of which there are nine, are all – with the exception of the final act – split into four parts, with safe area interludes that act as moments to restock, see your score(s), and upgrade your gear at workbenches. There is a welcome level of depth to the loadouts and unlockables; by picking up Upgrade Kits hidden in the world or earning them through levelling up, you can exchange them for modifier slots that open up new attributes to your weapons; this might mean a higher rate of fire, or Divine Bullets that heal your friends when you shoot them (just make sure you are using the right bullets when you do this… Speaking from painful experience here). Once you complete an entire upgrade path for a weapon, not only will it be much more effective, but unlock a final challenge you must complete in order to achieve Weapon Mastery. Furthermore, you naturally gain new perks for your character along the way, which might increase your health or give you a way to revive yourself – in addition, new melee attacks become available too. Again, none of it is groundbreaking, genre-smashing stuff, but there is plenty here, crucially supplying the longevity to run alongside the sheer amount of hours you could put in – especially if playing as a group.
On the other hand, I must say that I was disappointed by the cosmetic offerings of Zombie Army 4, or the lack of them, that is. The main four survivors are quite bland, and lack personality outside of their occasional corny one-liners, and there is a severe lack of visual customisation available unless you pay up some real money. This is the sort of arcade shooter that you’d expect hilarity from in the costume department, but sadly it’s not immediately viable. Despite the illusion of it now being on PS Plus and Game Pass (which are pre-paid, remember), it’s important to realise this is not a free-to-play game, so it is disappointing to see so much content locked behind payments. I have less issue with the DLC packs for new areas, of which there are quite a few – it is more the microtransactions that leave a sour taste.
Get Me A Souvenir
Zombie Army 4 is actually a surprisingly globe-trotting adventure from Rome to Berlin and beyond, even if the lack of much engaging character dialogue and a generally dour colour palette sadly do much to mask the differences – there are a lot of dark greys and reds here, and whilst I know this is an apocalyptic setting, the arcade tongue-in-cheek nature of it would justify more extravagant variation. Overall, the presentation is decidedly unpolished, with murky textures and regular anti-aliasing jaggies on my base PS4; movement, too, is quite clunky – the area detection around zombies is very angular and makes running through groups more of a lottery than anything skill-based. In one way it is endearing in that arcade-game sort of way, but in another, it’s just inconvenient and an obstacle to enjoying yourself.
More fun than looking at each area is exploring it. They have a selection of collectibles to be searching for as you go: there is lore in the form of documents, the upgrade kits I brought up before, and comics – with the latter being the highlight for me, having creative bespoke zombie-themed cover art. Despite the lack of visual variety, the situations and environment design are much better, confronting you with verticality, tight spaces, and sprawling areas throughout a roughly ten to fifteen hour runtime (though that could definitely change depending on repeat playthroughs and difficulty level). You also get a welcome selection of scenarios to face, from the Blood Fountains where you must harvest zombies in a specific area, holdouts against waves of zombies, or run-and-gun sections that occasionally have some escort elements added in. Or even zombie tanks, which – pro tip – can be very bad when attempting to revive a teammate, as shown in this video!
Out of it all, I most eagerly anticipated the end of each chapter, as these tended to be the toughest questions of your improvisational skill – often against a daunting quantity of zombies that cause chaos amongst your party, making you consciously save up med kits, grenades, mines and more for the occasion. They were a contrast to how some of the interstitial build-up could be a bit straightforward, and often delivered the action I was craving. One major disappointment, though, is how the finale of the campaign really didn’t raise that to the crescendo I hoped for; the final battle is disappointingly passive and reliant on enemies you have already faced. At that point you are ready for a brutal test of all you have learned to that point. Sadly, it was a case of “oh, that’s the end?”.
The Horde mode goes some way to make up for that, as you know there is that extra content awaiting you afterwards, and whilst it of course lacks the surprises of going through the campaign, seeing whether you can survive through the Waves is satisfying stuff. At a base level you have twelves waves to clear before you can complete it, but nothing stops you from going on and on to see the wave you can reach; it is where most of the replayability is found. As well as this, the Horde mode rips away your customised guns, instead offering you new gear in Supply Drops as you go. So, instead of your well-trained loadouts you are familiar with, it is a nice way to ensure you experiment with different weapons and perk arrangements.
Playing Zombie Army 4 has torn at me, because as I was spotting all the issues with it from level to level, I was also having an undeniably fun time – and to bring it back to the intro to this review, a lot of that is down to the multiplayer. It is so much easier to be forgiving of the flaws when your friends and you are in the midst of a zombie swarm, clinging onto survival together and witnessing hilarious moments you’ll remember for a long time. The unexpectedly long-lasting unlockables and enticing combo-based shooting does enough within the settings to facilitate this, which is to the credit of the game. As tempting as it is, though, I can’t let gloss over how unrefined much of Zombie Army 4 is: indeed, the story is shallow and unsatisfying, the controls are clumsy, and the visuals inelegant. Yet, if you can shamble your way through that murk – perhaps with a few friends to help – then you may well be startled how much fun you find.