Imagine if you will, a world where World War II was not so decisively won. A world where Germany’s final stand involved raising the dead. A world of Nazi Zombies. Wait, what do you mean you don’t have to imagine? This has been done dozens of times before? Oh, well here it is again in Rebellion’s Zombie Army 4: Dead War.
Zombie Army 4‘s title distances itself from both the Sniper Elite moniker and the word Nazi but keeps just about everything else you would expect. This is the fourth entry in this spinoff series after all, so there isn’t much new ground to tread. Instead, Zombie Army 4 wades full speed into the territory of schlock.
The game is presented with all the accoutrement you would expect out of a ’70s grindhouse movie. It’s honestly not a bad approach given the material, but the biggest question remains: In a game where I can explode 50 Nazi zombie heads a minute, why am I so bored?
If you’re not caught up on the franchise, Zombie Army 4 is a four-player cooperative shooter based around being a sniper. If you’ve played Left 4 Dead or any of its 9000 clones, then you’ll be right at home. Each level is broken into four or so chapters with a safe room bookending each segment.
Unlike Left 4 Dead or the more recent World War Z, players are more or less locked into their chosen loadout throughout each level. Instead of starting with low-caliber weapons and picking up stronger versions as you progress, you’ll focus on upgrading your favorite WWII-era guns, extending the magazine, increasing damage, and adding an elemental effect. Weapons that can be picked up within a level are simply guns that you could have taken to begin with. The main draw here is the X-ray system. Well-placed shots will occasionally produce a slow-motion glory shot of the gory end result. It’s very satisfying every time.
Additionally, as players level up and complete challenges, they can unlock new perks and melee attacks. The idea is that a stack of four players could increase their odds of survival by picking complementary loadouts. The problem here is that, at least on the standard difficulty, Zombie Army 4‘s campaign is mind-numbingly easy. Animated corpses walk, run, or sometimes crawl at you at a totally manageable pace. Even situations with over a hundred geeks are easily handled by shooting a few times and then relocating until they are all dead.
Left for… not alive
That only is an issue if you plan on playing this game solo. If you can manage to wrangle three of your pals to wade through the game with you, I’m sure it’d be a blast. However, just like in my review of Ghost Recon Breakpoint, I refuse to give credit to a game for the fact that I enjoy spending time with my friends.
You’ll need to provide your own teammates though because, as of this writing, matchmaking seems to be a total bust. After multiple attempts to quick-join any game in both campaign and horde mode failed, I just gave up. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with servers or if there just aren’t people playing this game. Either way, it’s not a good look for a game that has just come out.
Dead alive or brain dead?
Technical issues aside, my main concern is how can this game with such a whimsically fun, if cliche, concept be so dull? It is sort of hard to nail down. The gameplay itself is solid enough, built on the back of Sniper Elite‘s over-the-top brutality. Blasting Nazi zombies in the dome piece is all well and good, but if that’s all there is, this game might as well be an arcade shooting gallery. Zombie Army 4 has plenty of different set pieces and visual motifs that are interesting enough on their own, but where it falls short is what those levels are designed around.
Almost without fail, each level will have you do one of two things: march down a linear path capping zombies along the way or enter a large area in which you need to flip three switches in order to move forward. Each level culminates in a big shootout against a hundred or so undead fascists. It’s boilerplate in its objectives. If this came out early last decade it would likely be a fondly remembered B-game. We don’t have to imagine that because that’s exactly what the first Nazi Zombie Army was.
There are hints at more interesting objectives. An early level has you sneaking past blind zombies. Any sound you make will trigger them to attack. However, there are only two of them in that level and they basically never show up again. What was the point? Rebellion seemed so intent in shoving every zombie cliche of the last 20 years into Z4A that they didn’t bother to make the experience cohesive or engaging.
I know that this review has been very down on the game so far, but it isn’t terrible. It’s more painfully average. I had some enjoyable moments, particularly in the later levels of the campaign. The game has plenty of collectibles and challenges to keep you occupied for a second playthrough. (Though I completed 90% or so of the challenges in a single run almost accidentally.)
I just wish there were more variety. Sure, there are plenty of different types of Nazi zombies to shoot — standard grunts, ones with machine guns, brutes, necromancers, creepy crawlies, blind ones — but everything approaches you from basically eye level. With almost no verticality, there really isn’t much point to you having a sniper rifle at all.
The ultimate example is one of the mid-campaign missions. There is an entire level called Zombie Zoo that lacks a single zombie animal. All this tension about missing polar bears and elephants with zero payoff. What a tremendous waste! It’s not like they don’t have precedent for weird zombie stuff. Several missions have zombified half-tracks and tanks. It’s not much to ask for a video game to have slightly more ambition than the movie Zoombies. The game could have been so much more interesting.
Lastly is the aesthetic. If anything, Rebellion might have been better off copying House of the Dead instead of Left 4 Dead. All the cutscenes have a goofy-looking fake grim film grain over top of them that looks terrible. The music and audio stings sound like they could be straight out of any John Carpenter knockoff film. I mentioned ’70s grindhouse as the overall theming earlier, and it does a decent homage but doesn’t go far enough. Honestly, the whole thing might have worked better with an over-the-top narrator like old horror trailers used to have. But then again, maybe that’s more ambitious than the developers cared to be with this project. Zombie Army 4 just feels like a reanimated corpse most of the time. But sometimes, just like a bad horror movie, that can be comforting.
Ultimately, Zombie Army 4: Dead War has the same feel as any later-day entry into a horror franchise does. It has delved all the way into the realm of schlock, completely unapologetic for its own existence. There’s something almost admirable about that, but the magic isn’t quite there. That said, if you and your buds are looking for a decent way to pass 10 or so hours, there are certainly worse choices than this. The shooting is among the best around and the X-ray shots are endlessly entertaining. I just wish there were more here to hold my attention past a single playthrough.