Release Date: February 4, 2020Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: RebellionPublisher: RebellionGenre: Shooter
Laying waste to hordes of Nazi zombies isn’t exactly a new idea in video games, and Rebellion Games’ Zombie Army 4: Dead War doesn’t reinvent the wheel in that regard. It’s a third-person, up to four-player horde shooter that feels pretty straightforward and familiar from front to back, but what’s important to emphasize is that the game is super fun. So fun, in fact, that I spent around 20 hours playing through the game’s handful of modes, and at no point did I feel compelled to stop, which, sadly, is a common occurrence in the wild world of video game reviewing. This game gives you your money’s worth right out of the box, and that’s saying a lot when considering the current gaming landscape, which often hides games’ true value behind paywalls.
That’s not to say that there is a ton of content available when you buy the base game–there are nine campaign missions, four horde mode maps, weekly events that let you play through sections of the game within specialized parameters, and four difficulty levels to master. But what lends the game longevity is its progression system, which is standard level-up fare, as well as unlockable weapon and perk upgrades, not to mention the fact that dismembering zombie Nazis doesn’t really get old.
You choose from a handful of characters, each with a few unique traits, but not unique or powerful enough to drastically distinguish them from the others or to say that the game has a class system. Some characters can take slightly more damage, others do slightly more damage with explosives, etc. Your loadout consists of a pistol, a rifle, and a secondary weapon, with a handful of choices available in each category. Each gun is upgradeable, which adds to the game’s replayability. You can also unlock up to four special melee attacks, which are also upgradeable, and pick up various grenades and deployable traps throughout the game.
Perks play a big role in customization as well. There are about three dozen upgradeable perks available to unlock, and equipping the right ones to bolster your play style is key to surviving the undead onslaught. The perk “second chance” allows you to jump back into the fray as long as you can kill one zombie while you’re bleeding out, a good option if you don’t like relying on your partners to revive you every time. Some perks raise your resistance to different types of damage, some raise your proficiency with certain weapon types, and some reduce ability recharge time. There’s a good amount of depth here.
The campaign’s nine missions each take place in and around 1940s Italy. The story involves a nearly defeated Hitler summoning an army of dead soldiers to combat the allied forces, and a group of heroes sent out to take the Nazi bastards down, ultimately offing Hitler himself. The narrative is fleshed out via collectibles peppered throughout the maps, so if you’re looking to read into the story in-depth, you absolutely can (I opted out, and appreciated the choice to do so).
The stages are varied artistically and architecturally, with each one packaged as a sort of mini horror movie, with crusty, grindhouse movie posters representing them in the level select screen (a nice touch). You’ll be shot at by zombie snipers as you ride a boat down the waterways of Venice early in the game, while in a later level, you’re plunging into the depths of hell to hunt down Hitler at the foot of a diabolic version of Mount Vesuvius. The stages are badass, and there are plenty of tongue-in-cheek nods to classic and cult classic horror movies to keep the mood light.
Battling through the campaign solo is good fun for the most part, but many of the environments and scenarios definitely feel more finely calibrated for co-op play. This isn’t too big of a bummer, but I would have liked for solo play to offer something unique and compelling that co-op play doesn’t, which sadly isn’t the case.
The good news is, co-op play is terrific. Whether with one comrade by your side or two or three, the campaign is really fun with teammates. Find yourself a like-minded squad, though—there are special items, easter eggs, and weapon upgrades hidden throughout the levels, and if you’re interested in exploring at your own pace, you definitely don’t want to partner with someone who’s going to rush ahead and run past the levels’ nooks and crannies, of which there are plenty.
Horde mode is even more enjoyable than the campaign, as it shows off just how balanced the gameplay, level design, and progression systems are. The horde levels are taken from sections of the campaign and expand as you progress through waves, opening up new areas every handful of rounds and moving ammo and supply crates around randomly, forcing you and your team to really think on your feet, work together, and adapt.
The varied enemy types are a highlight of the gameplay, posing individual challenges and creating a unique cocktail of problems in different combinations. The standard shamblers are easy to manage as long as you’re hunting for headshots to conserve ammo and staying nimble on the thumbstick, but when a flamethrower zombie charges at you from one direction and a hulking “butcher” swings his chainsaw at you from another, all plans go out the window — and quick. The game will keep you on your toes.
The core shooter gameplay is good overall, though on the micro-level, the nuances are a bit of a mixed bag. Takedowns—special melee moves that recharge as you kill enemies in succession and grant you a health boost if landed successfully—are great in that they force you to play aggressively to survive. Regular melee attacks, on the other hand, leave a lot to be desired because they don’t land half the time and almost always result in you taking damage yourself.
Traversal is where the gameplay is most lacking. The characters control a bit tank-like, which means your movement and momentum are completely halted when you all but graze an enemy or a tiny piece of the environment. Too often, I’d be sprinting away from a gaggle of zombies only to come to an abrupt stop because my character’s foot touched a bucket on the ground. It takes way too much time to get moving again, and this lack of mobility cost me too many games for my liking.
These are gameplay nuances that will most certainly be tweaked and fine-tuned post-release. Overall, the game’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Even as I write this, I’m itching to jump back in with my squad and level up my character, which I think says it all.
Something notable about ZA4’s development is that one portion of the dev team worked on Rebellion’s cheeky co-op shooter Strange Brigade, while several other members of the team worked on the studio’s popular Sniper Elite series. You can see the influence of both franchises in ZA4, and the ideas taken from both games are woven together organically.
The most obvious feature taken from Sniper Elite is the X-Ray Cam, which slows down the action in epic fashion and zooms in on your bullet wreaking havoc on your target’s insides. The game’s sniping mechanics are also quite polished in general, as you would expect. From Strange Brigade, ZA4 takes the trap mechanic, which sees the campaign and horde maps littered with diabolical traps players can use to distract and destroy large numbers of hapless undead at once.
The game’s art style is heavily influenced by horror movies old and new and strikes a nice balance between gory and grotesque, and cartoony and fun. The graphics aren’t going to blow anyone away, but the game looks pretty slick and performs well, particularly on the PS4 Pro, which boasts a steadier framerate than the base console.
It’s hard to be hyper-critical about a game when it’s such a pleasure to play, and that’s precisely the case when it comes to Zombie Army 4. It’s far from perfect, I’m not exactly in love with it, and it didn’t rock my world by any means, but I like it a lot, and it’s a super easy game to recommend to anyone even remotely into shooters.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.