Perhaps it says something that, as a rare independent studio in 2020, Rebellion has stuck for so long with its particular brand of third-person shooters, while also balancing board games, comics, and even the Judge Dredd license. The mishmash of pop culture influences has resulted in the most video-game-ass-video-game title ever: Zombie Army 4: Dead War, which wears its grindhouse and comic book influences proudly, but struggles to overcome the same hurdles as any other zombie franchise. Namely, enough originality to justify its own reanimation.
Zombie war (almost) never changes
A regular zombie can still be a good zombie, something Rebellion creative lead Tim Jones will stand by even when plenty of more creatively gory and threatening options are available. A pack of them bearing down on you? That’s even better.
Zombie Army 4: Dead War is exactly the sort of regular zombie shooter that, if you're reading this, you probably know all too well. Once again, you can sniper and rifle blast your way through hordes of undead either solo or with up to three friends across some pleasantly lengthy levels that vary from immense bunkers to the lava-erupting streets of Venice. You’re there for the fun, but you can also compete to rack up the most points of your group along the way.
The biggest new additions are found in ZA4's abilities. Besides the usual sniper, primary, and sidearm combo Zombie Army fans will be familiar with, Rebellion has added a number of ridiculous magic powers that eschew grittiness and embrace a more colorful, fun side of slaying.
Some of the perks are a fairly standard assortment of damage boosters, but there’s also stuff like a medic feat that allows you to shoot bullets that also heal teammates you hit. Want to deal a lot more damage up close? A machete slash ability will let you chop through about three zombies in one swing. My favorite was easily the divine hammer. Channel your inner Thor for a ground pound and the immediate area will get cleared, while also healing you. You can even attach some elemental effects to your weapons along the way that’ll zap and burn zombies, or just destroy them with the power of god.
It’s all wrapped up in a new progression system that rewards you with exactly what you’d expect: weapon upgrades (although things felt a bit scarce here), the aforementioned perks and special attacks, item mods, and some fairly basic cosmetic items. It’s not exactly a battle pass’ worth of goodies. It kind of feels like you could blow through it all in one campaign run, but it does serve the purpose of giving a fairly linear game more replayability than previous entries ever did.
Lending a severed hand
We’re approaching a massively fortified bunker deep in the woods, and we’re knocking on the doors with TNT.
If you’ve played even just one of Rebellion’s shooters, you probably already know what Zombie Army 4 feels like. Fast-paced, arcadey shooting that feels a little floaty, but it could be worse. Despite trudging through a dense forest and then a junkyard full of trashed cars, my loadout appears to be a not-entirely-useful sniper rifle that I can’t dispose of and one other primary rifle or shotgun that I can.
Up to a point, it’s all business as usual for a co-op zombie shooter. There’s plenty of sniping red barrels, shotgunning hordes in the face, and the special abilities let us toss the occasional wild card into the mix, eliminating threats as fast as they pop up from the earth.
The woods of Europe are a sickly shade of green, but even they’ve got nothing on the putrid gunk of a Nazi zombie infestation. Something about the trees gnarled by mortar fire and the vaguely voodoo-like symbols scattered around almost makes it feel like a deep south bayou, choking on hundreds of years of swampy mystery.
Then the Nazi zombie tank rolls around the corner.
Finally, something a little different. Rebellion tells me that Zombie Army 4 will feature a number of these organically mutated machines, and they’re certainly imposing. This particular ride appears to enjoy circling our small battlefield, peppering away at my three fellow players and I until we finally fill it with enough lead, which frustratingly took far longer than it should have, thanks to two dodgy squadmates.
What should have been only a moderately difficult boss fight is soon dragged out into a much lengthier ordeal, with two of our squadmates aimlessly wandering around, constantly muttering to themselves like a couple of chuckleheads who couldn’t care less about just getting on with it, all while their fellow players struggle to tick off objectives. “Heyyyyy, mannnn. Like...what’s up with that tank, huh?” “I dunno, I’m just here for the shotty.”
Maybe I’m being a little harsh on my peers, and on Zombie Army 4, but if being unceremoniously ditched by a couple of supposed professionals sours the experience that much, I dare not think what joining up with random players might feel like.
Thankfully, the rest of my time with Zombie Army 4 improved the further we went into the military base’s guts. Though previous Zombie Army entries had a handful of unique zombie types to confront, Dead War really throws everything and the kitchen sink at you. You want sprinty zombies? Chainsaw-throwing zombies? Flamethrower zombies? Towering juggernauts that clearly go to a dentist who specializes in barbed wire braces? You’ve got ‘em. They make for good fodder, and seem to move a little more convincingly than previous Zombie Army games, shambling with just enough wobble to make them challenging targets. As my team climbs the stairs towards a gym room where zombies are propped up in boxing gear and workout clothes, climbing rope more successfully than I ever have, it’s clear that Rebellion is allowing itself to have a bit more fun this time around.
Dawn of the dead
The loopier aspects of Zombie Army's silly grindhouse aesthetic are something Tim Jones is all too glad to embrace. As I sit down with Jones, he recollects recently seeing a Dario Argento-produced horror film called “Demons” as part of a cinema club in Oxford.
“I’m a massive horror movie obsessive. I feel like Zombie Army is an opportunity to channel a particular vibe which I haven’t seen done in games very much. So many things go in the full goofy direction, very knowing approach, or just plain serious. There is a particular vibe to Zombie Army that channels the absurd, but still serious, deadpan kind of movies through the '70s and '80s. John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone.”
Everything from the menus to the meat of the gameplay reflects this hard turn into grindhouse, whereas previous entries felt like they stuck to a more straightforward horror tone. Title cards for each level look like the covers to X-rated VHS tapes, with names like “Death Canal” and “All Roads Lead to Hell.”
Where things get a little more drab is the progression system. Upgrading your weapons, via the very Left 4 Dead-style saferooms and their workbenches, is less-than-compelling. Pretty much every gun has three possible upgrade trees, but they’re more like upgrade shrubs, with only a small handful of slots to level up that increase damage, accuracy, or add a seemingly predetermined ability, like explosive rounds or “divine shots” that heal. These slightly cooler abilities are where Zombie Army 4 takes what Rebellion learned from the pulpy Strange Brigade, weaving the gritty with the goofy.
Our second level of the day fares proves to be far more enjoyable: A bombed-out approximation of Venice, which provides a far more varied and layered map to explore, even though it ultimately proves about just as linear as the last. At least this time we’re firing from the rooftops of architectural wonders rather than cold military concrete.
The trek is appropriately difficult, with multiple stops to defend chokepoints from swelling hordes, or figure out a simple puzzle requiring us to shoot an electric box from afar. Then we’re ambling down the chewed up roads and walkways until we reach a dock manned by one of the few surviving humans around. I do appreciate Rebellion’s use of a player score to keep things competitive between squadmates. It’s easy to just run around looking at stuff and finding collectibles like comic book art (and there’s plenty of it) but there is a sense of satisfaction to being the one to flush out an entire horde of brain eaters by yourself, and it might be the only meaningful incentive to replay (admittedly lengthy) maps over and over. Compared to previous Zombie Army games, the undead gib more messily.
It wouldn’t be a zombie game without mobs of undead. Thankfully, pretty much all the strengths of Zombie Army 4’s campaign missions translate to wave-based combat. We only got to play one map—a waterlogged canal that expanded to a dock after the first few waves are defeated and a boat comes crashing in—but it achieves the necessary tension any survival mode needs.
The specialized zombies (including a really creepy one that looks like an entire tree mated with a clicker from The Last of Us) shine here, throwing us for a loop when things get tight on space or low on ammo. The tree zombie is blind (the face mask is made of bark—or is that bone) but if you attract its attention it’ll screech, stunning anyone nearby into covering their ears.
Unfortunately, quite a few of those special zombies became bullet sponges for our one remaining player to dance away from. You can escape the area after hitting wave 13 and compare scores with teammates or keep going with additional waves until you die. I will admit things got fairly difficult right away, with ammo quickly becoming scarce, but I struggled to find meaningful ways to adapt my own play strategy beyond just “shoot better.” When it was my turn to bite the dust, I did appreciate reanimating as one of the game’s generic zombies and being able to slowly stalk my fellow players around the map.
It is what it is. Like a lot of zombie games or movies like Zombieland: Double Tap, it's not a reinvention of the genre, and that’s exactly the height reached here.
On the one hand, it’s inarguably the best version of Rebellion’s zombie-shooting formula you’ll play until the next one comes out. The shooting feels a little smoother, the progression is a little more meaningful, and the twisted enemy designs are fun to fill with lead. It’s just that, you know, it’s 2020, and while the world will always love a good zombie shooter, I don’t know if even Nazi zombie sharks can keep things interesting after the first few rounds of play.
To its credit, Rebellion has learned to embrace the silliness it’s been experimenting with since the first Zombie Army add-on in 2013. Even more, the studio is learning to embrace the melting pot nature of horror and sci-fi and all those weird VHS tapes you saw in that corner of the video store as a kid.
Zombie Army 4: Dead War is out on PC on February 4.