Hitler is making his play to return from hell in Zombie Army 4: Dead War, which is where players left him at the end of Zombie Army Trilogy. At E3 2019, this latest Sniper Elite standalone spin-off offered a comfortingly fun demo of gory zombie shooting, another potentially moreish four-player co-op shooter to join the growing ranks that have emerged since Left 4 Dead 2. You'll be taking survivors through formerly picturesque Southern Europe, now occupied by Hitler's undead.
My PC demo was actually in singleplayer, and I played as Sniper Elite protagonist Karl, who's among several other returning characters in this entry. That means I carry a sniper rifle and shotgun, but on top of that, I have an electric fist melee attack that's good for knocking zombies back, too. There's an '80s genre movie influence hanging over the game, which is most noticeable in the moody John Carpenter-esque music.
Sniper Elite's kill cam returns in Dead Army, along with an explosive cam for when you kill a lot of zombies at once, say with the careful placement of an explosive. You'll also encounter different variants of zombie, naturally, with exploding undead turning up towards the end of this demo. There's a lot of satisfaction in picking them off from a distance through a sniper scope. Nothing about what I play feels particularly new, but it's a very pretty game that captures a lot of what I currently enjoy about playing co-op shooters on PC.
Upgrades are important in Zombie Army 4, which take the form of weapon enhancements, cosmetics, special attacks and even emotes. "The biggest thing we wanted to build upon was the player progression side of things," says lead designer Ryan Baker. "We really wanted to add to the perks and the way you can pick the abilities. You can get abilities that will let you rip the heavy machine gun off a turret and move around with it, or you want might go down the route of combat medic." Abilities include the likes of Second Chance, where you can keep death at bay by landing last-second kills to keep yourself going, which is particularly handy if you're attempting the game in singleplayer.
Zombie Army 4 feels like it benefits from its relationship to the Sniper Elite series and even last year's Strange Brigade, another four-player shooter starring 'big' characters with individual specialities. "A lot of it comes from our gunplay," Baker says when I ask about the benefits of that crossover. "With Sniper Elite, we really go for the realism, so we really try to nail down that solid feedback in making guns feel enjoyable to use, but the realism adds to the enjoyment without you necessarily realising it. Having that basis for Sniper Elite, and being able to put that into Zombie Army 4 is really useful, then we've got the added level of gore. Ripping off the limbs, and the reactions to the bullets, all the stuff like that. It melds the two things together really well."
Rebellion won't be drawn on how long the game is, but expect what's described as a "meaty campaign", with larger levels than those seen in the Zombie Army Trilogy. "We're set in and around Southern Europe, Italy and surrounding areas in the Mediterranean," says head of creative Tim Jones. "In the trailer you'll have seen Venice, which is certainly a fun level with all the waterways, and we start the game in Milan as you've seen in the demo. There is a derelict zoo in there as well. It varies wildly from apocalyptic cities and towns to rural areas and forests and swamps."
Characters will interact with each other during missions this time, which is something that fellow co-op shooter Vermintide 2 does really well. "One of the big changes this time around is [the characters have] got dialogue throughout the game," Baker says. "They'll talk to each other, reacting to what's going on. So if someone gets a particularly high combo or something, one of the characters will say something about how well they're doing, then another character might chip in with a retort. They'll also have narrative conversations if a big event has happened during some quieter moments. All of that has added a lot to our characters."
Rebellion has historically released its games on Steam, of course, but Zombie Army 4 is launching as a timed Epic Games Store exclusive. In a May-published MCV interview, CEO and creative director Jason Kingsley said, "Our plans do not involve doing anything exclusive like that but I think it'd be dishonest for me to say we would never do it or rule it out. But I think it’s extremely unlikely."
Speaking to Kingsley during E3, he's frank about why Epic exclusivity made sense for Rebellion, even if it does seem at odds with some of his comments from that interview. First, I ask what he makes of Epic's exclusivity strategy. "They're great guys. Steam are great as well. And I think that Epic, from their perspective, they've got to fight against someone who's incredibly dominant in the market space. One of the ways they can do that is by offering something exclusive."
"It makes sense from their perspective, and it upsets a few people. And maybe upsetting a few people isn't necessarily bad, because it gets you attention as well. And one of the challenges for us making games, and a challenge for any indie studio, anybody that doesn't have a huge amount of money to spend on marketing, is discovery. How do you get people to even know your great game exists? Before they can buy it, they've got to encounter it. If they encounter it, they [might] like it. If they haven't encountered it, they don't know whether they like it or not. So discovery is an interesting thing, and that's exactly the same for Epic. [They've got to] work super hard to build up that market share to get to the point where they're competitive. So I think they're being very smart in what they're doing."
Kingsley then talks more specifically about the upside to Rebellion. "On PC it'll be a 12-month exclusive," he says. "They offered us a ton more support than we were going to be able to give the game ourselves in terms of marketing, so it's been a very good experience. It comes with some downsides. Some people don't like what Epic are doing, and I understand why, but it's been very good for the project. It's been very good for us."
However you decide to play Zombie Army 4, I'm hoping it follows the Sniper Elite series' trajectory of steady improvements between games. In an otherwise quiet E3 for playable big hitters, Dead Army was one of the easier sells to me: rock-solid, nice-looking zombie shooting with weighty-feeling guns and silly powers that I wouldn't mind sharing with friends.