Many today would receive an offer to play a zombie wave survival game and turn their nose up at it. After all, the sub-genre of gaming has been so done to death (no pun intended) it’s almost a meme by this point. There’s a heck of a lot of players out there, tired of zombie wave survival and looking for something else. Developer Rebellion, it seems, would find themselves on the backfoot from the get-go, just trying to release a game like this in 2020. But the team’s clearly committed to the franchise and so, here we are.
It’s fair to say that Rebellion is acutely aware of this predicament. Thankfully, a game like this has given the team a chance to showcase their creative intelligence in a way they’ve rarely had a chance to in the past. Variety can be found everywhere from gameplay, to customisation to game modes. To top it all off, Rebellion believes strongly in this product. So much so that they’re already showing off season one content, the majority of which will be free!
Zombie Army 4: Dead War releases on PS4, Xbox One February 4th. We could find no evidence of it on Steam, however the game will be playable on PC through the Epic Games Store. As discussed later, Zombie Army 4 and all its zombie wave survival madness is intended to be played co-operatively. Rebellion were kind enough to provide KeenGamer with two review codes to ensure we experienced the game as intended.
At the end of Zombie Army Trilogy, fans would finally bear witness to the demise of Hitler. Having returned as a sentient undead, Hitler was cast into a fiery pit of hell, presumably never to be seen again. Alas, the endless horde remains a threat to the surviving allies. Old rivalries are cast aside for the sake of survival and our heroes must venture forth for resources.
Rebellion are very good at dressing up a simple story as a complex one. Indeed, players will need to stop and listen to NPCs to understand the nuance of each campaign area as they proceed. What works to the detriment of this is the co-op nature of the game. Often, it can be difficult to catch everything while the team is all mic’d up. That said, it’s not the kind of game that will leave you clueless for not having listened in.
All in all, the story is a ridiculous romp through one of the most fleshed out zombie horde game worlds you’ve likely ever experienced. It’s certainly no Game of Thrones: Zombie Edition but the voice acting is solid enough and some mystery can be unveiled. Ultimately, Zombie Army 4 is not in need of a story and it’s not likely to be the reason you’re reading this review. While its three predecessors had campaigns, strictly speaking this iteration could have gotten away with not having one at all. Yet the campaign is there regardless. If anything, it’s just one of many efforts Rebellion went to with Zombie Army 4, the rest of which are covered in the gameplay segment of this review.
As mentioned earlier Rebellion has signed up for a mammoth task. In the process of making this review, I realised they had to build Zombie Army 4 in a way that would appeal to new and existing fans. They also had to release a zombie wave survival game that didn’t instantly feel stale in 2020. After all, Zombie Army Trilogy released during the heyday of wave survival co-op games, alongside the likes of Gears of War 3 and Call of Duty’s zombie efforts. Since that time, we’ve grown a little numb to smashing zombies up like the fleshy pinatas that they are. So what have Rebellion done to deserve your continued interest?
One of the coolest aspects of Zombie Army 4’s gameplay is the bullet cam. Here we have the Sniper Elite legacy coming into play. But, how to get this to function properly with various co-op players at once? Cleverly, we have two kinds of bullet cam. A “blink and you miss it” shot for a singular player, while the game world remains live. It’s so brief it honestly doesn’t hinder gameplay. The second kind is the classic Sniper Elite bullet shots, reserved for high scoring hits. The game world pauses here so other players can revel in your bone crunching bullet’s path.
Rebellion have made sure not to get complacent with their trademark bullet cam, however. They know a lot more is needed to keep you engaged. Frankly, they have indeed provided. A great variety of enemy types await your team, each demanding different tactics. Suiciders can blow up in your face and ruin everything at a moment’s notice. Armoured zombies require serious precision to take down, or armour piercing rounds. Crawlers are weak but can overwhelm quickly. Officers can resurrect themselves and other zombies unless shot in a very particular place. This is but a handful of the kinds of zombie you’ll face. If anything, it’s good to write a zombie wave survival game review and say that Zombie Army 4’s horde is no mere faceless morass of fleshy meatsicles. It’s a tiered, complex army of the undead that challenges players every time something new comes along.
Most zombies can be taken down with smart use of the environment. Cranes can be shot to drop their load. Boobie traps can electrocute, lure, explode and mulch when shot at the right time, all feeding into your score multiplier. Campaign, Horde Mode or Weekly Events will all offer this score system as players can get competitive with each other if they choose. Really, it’s there to feed into a light loot grind.
Mechanically, Zombie Army 4 takes some getting used to, as I soon learned in the making of this review. The game never really holds back and expects you to work together as a team or die out of negligence. Indeed, playing solo is possible, if a little flirtatious with the impossible. As a result, I couldn’t help feeling the game would have been a smidge easier using a keyboard and mouse for that added precision. Thankfully, Rebellion don’t seem to miss a trick and console versions do offer the mouse and keyboard as an option!
Mobility is a big deal in games like this. Getting overrun and smashing through the horde quickly is essential to long term survival. There’s a keen feeling that Rebellion has provided some but not all of the tools needed for these tricky manoeuvres. While we do have a sprinting melee, along with tactical items to cover your retreat, other things are woefully missing. A dodge roll would go down a treat, alongside a quick turnaround function. Without these, this excellent game can sometimes feel a little sluggish during the more frantic moments. But who am I to say what Rebellion’s vision was? Perhaps they wanted us to feel slightly disadvantaged and ensure the game could not be “cheesed”.
When all is said and done, Zombie Army 4 is still a Sniper Elite game in a zombie game’s skin. That means players are encouraged to keep a good distance for the gameplay rewards that tends to bring. Ironic then that, simultaneously, the game’s long distance handling wants also to function in close quarters encounters which are frequently thrust upon you. Players who favour anything other than a sniper rifle may find themselves in Zombie Army 4’s settings, tweaking a few things.
Speaking of settings, Zombie Army 4 offers an unusual array of options on consoles from sound system setups, to mouse and keyboard connection. Perhaps not quite so functional is partnering up in Zombie Army 4. Of course, we can drop in on a friends session as per the norm. However, for those starting from scratch and setting up a lobby, things may get a little tricky.
While party management appears at the top right of the menu, one player will first have to begin a game and select “host co-op”. Otherwise that party management will be selectable but greyed out, leaving you to wonder what the heck is going on. First time around, it could feel a little uncomfortable. As if you’re starting a game without friends connected and Rebellion could do with a little optimisation in this area.
Graphics & Sound
Rebellion have gone from one success to the next, with smart mechanical gameplay decisions as seen in their similar title, Strange Brigade. A lot of that “retro” design can be found in Zombie Army 4. Everything from music design to bloody postcards on load screens are reminiscent of the Escape From New York era of film making. Everything here is synthy keyboards let loose and cheesy B-movie stylish retrograde.
Despite all of Rebellion’s apparent skill, imagination and originality, the team remains not quite in triple A status. It’s for that reason, the Zombie Army 4 graphics engine is impressive and deserves particular attention in this review. Where Rebellion’s efforts will not go unnoticed with the engine is with the zombies themselves. So much love and attention has been poured into each zombie type in the way they move and how painstakingly they’ve been built.
Swamp zombies rise out of the water, covered in barnacles and algae. Crawlers are dirty from such proximity to the ground. Tank units have clearly been walking through barbed wire without a care. It all adds to the feel of the game and every zombie, at least, has some memorable character about them. One of my favourite things was if a team player died, they’d rise up and I’d have to gun them down. While not playable, they still became just another zombie in the horde. It’s this that Rebellion are proving very good at -- giving their games a soul.
As you lay eyes on Zombie Army 4, you’ll not be seeing the real time texture sharpening of the Unreal engine. You’ll not be seeing the jagged shadow borders of Unity, no sir. Rebellion have been making use of an engine called HOOPS. Never heard of it? Doesn’t matter, it looks as crisp as the morning dew. One zombie character model in the main menu will confirm that for you.
For all their efforts in recent years, Rebellion not breaking into the triple A space is a little like the time we all moaned that it was high time Leonardo Di Caprio got an Oscar. It’s hard not feel like Rebellion is in a similar space right now. For years, they’ve released games at the highest quality a small independent studio could hope for. The beginning and end of last year saw a few acquisitions for the studio so maybe that ascension is coming. Graphically, mechanically and aesthetically, Rebellion’s undying commitment to quality has me pleasantly surprised once again. In a zombie wave survival game, no less!