Rebellion Studios is one of the most unique studios in the industry today. In addition to last year’s Strange Brigade, the Zombie Army games, and the Sniper Elite series, the independent studio owns the rights to Judge Dredd and comic book series 2000 AD, are producing a Rogue Trooper movie directed by Duncan Jones, are getting into the board game industry with a Sniper Elite tabletop game, and more. The studio has quite an extensive, eclectic list of projects on the horizon and under its belt, and it’s all possible because they’re a truly independent studio.
“We’re into games and sci-fi and fantasy and all things good and geeky,” says Rebellion Head of Creative Tim Jones. “We’re trying to be custodians of all these key parts of our culture. We don’t run like big game companies. We don’t have shareholders, and we don’t have anyone pulling the strings or worrying about how the stock market is going. We’re driven by what we’re into. We get to make what we want.”
The studio’s latest contribution to horror/geek culture is Zombie Army 4, which Den of Geek was invited to play at a preview event this past fall. The series started as a spinoff of the Sniper Elite games, but now has a trilogy under its belt and a large fan following of its own.
To put it simply, what I played of Zombie Army 4 was a lot of freaking fun. Taking out waves of Nazi zombies alongside my teammates felt great, and strategizing on the fly was a breeze thanks to the game’s streamlined mechanics. I don’t know that the game brings anything revolutionary to the table gameplay-wise. But the game is so enjoyable to play that I believe adding any radical, “innovative” features or mechanics would probably just spoil the pure, unadorned, arcade-style fun.
At the game’s preview event in San Francisco, I played through sections of both the campaign and horde mode, both of which can be played with up to four players. There are a handful of characters to choose from (with several additional characters waiting to be unlocked), and before setting out on a mission, you can customize your loadout and abilities. At your disposal are a handful of shotguns, pistols, rifles, and machine guns, and each character has abilities that are essentially powerful melee attacks. After filling a gauge, you can use takedowns, which dispatch of enemies in spectacularly gory fashion and grant you a health boost.
There’s a progression system at work here, and it’s all incredibly simple and easy to navigate. You can improve your guns, stats, and abilities as you progress through the game, but it’s all upgrades, with no downgrades to consider when equipping abilities or perks. Balancing your character out isn’t the concern here—the concern is creating a loadout that fits your play style and allows you to maximize your zombie-killing potential.
The campaign demo saw me and my two teammates (we were short a player, but it didn’t negatively affect our playthrough in the slightest) blast our way through a jungled train yard, where we felled wave after wave of zombies as we siphoned gas from abandoned vehicles into canisters, which we would eventually used to open a big metal door.
The area was chaotic. My team initially became separated as we scrambled to find our bearings and survive the veritable flood of undead that was bearing down on us. Shooting indiscriminately in every direction was working for us for awhile, but then a hulking new enemy type that proceeded to swing a gatling gun at us forced us to adopt a new strategy and focus our fire on his bulbous gut. After defeating this mini-boss, we were able to pick up his ridiculously gigantic gun, and beautiful, bloody chaos ensued.
Horde mode was just as fun, with me and my mates blowing up zombies in increasingly difficult waves. Standard stuff. But what’s notable about horde mode is how the environments gradually open up as you progress through the waves of enemies. In one stage, set in Venice, my partners and I began by chopping up zombies in narrow pathways and a claustrophobic, three-story building with uncomfortably tight stairwells. But after we survived a few waves, a boat came down the channel, allowing us to cross into a new area that was more open and outfitted with conveniently placed traps we could trigger to take out multiple baddies at once. The flow of horde mode feels really good, as it constantly forces you to adapt your strategies to the ever-changing environment.
One of the game’s coolest features by far is the inclusion of the x-ray sniper cam from the Sniper Elite series. When you or one of your teammates nails a perfect shot, everyone is treated to a slow-mo, organ busting spectacle that never fails to elicit a gleeful, audible response from at least one teammate. I can’t tell you how many times my team felt like we were drowning in battle and on the brink of defeat, when one player’s glorious x-ray kill suddenly brought us back to life again.
Like Strange Brigade, Zombie Army 4 is meant to be very accessible—it’s fun for new players to hop into a game because the gameplay is straightforward, cooperative, and easy to pick up and play. And while the game isn’t exactly the best looking shooter on the market, and its overall design isn’t all that original, I just didn’t really care about any of that while I was playing because I was having such a good time. That’s the sign of a worthwhile game, when it’s so fun to play that its weaknesses feel irrelevant to the experience.
The game’s approachable nature is aided by its overall tone and art style. “I find the tone of the game is believable and authentic, but it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek,” says lead level designer Jordan Woodward. Chewing up zombies with a chainsaw and shooting at a zombie shark is over-the-top silly and adds to the entertainment value of the multiplayer experience, but make no mistake—the game gets incredibly intense as well.
Solo play may not be the first thing you think of when picking up a squad-based shooter, but for Rebellion, it was important to make the experience fun whether you’re playing with three partners or by yourself.
“Despite all of the talk about everyone being online and multiplayer being the be-all-end-all, the fact is single-player experiences are important to a huge portion of the audience,” says Jones. “I love playing Zombie Army 4 by myself as much as I do playing with other people.”
I’m not sure that there’s anything about Zombie Army 4 that’s going to set the gaming world on fire. You’ve probably played co-op shooter like it before. But what Rebellion has done is taken a tried-and-true formula and given it to us in its purest form. I had a blast with the game, and when talking to my fellow journalists in between sessions, no one had anything bad to say about the experience. From the looks of it, Zombie Army 4 is going to be a solid, wildly entertaining co-op shooter that won’t disappoint, particularly if you’re a fan of the series already.
Zombie Army 4 releases on Feb. 4 for PS4, Xbox One, and Epic Games Store.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.