Report Card: Zombie Army 4: Dead War (REVIEW)

Reviewed on Xbox One (also available on PS4, PC, Stadia)

Click to play the audio version of this review
By Antonio Guillen

I’m a big fan of zombie games. The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, Dead Rising, there are quite a few stand out franchises at this point, and that’s probably because battling the undead is such a perfect premise. I’ve battled ghouls in every genre from tower-defense to survival horror. But if I’m honest, deep down I’m craving just one thing…the next great zombie cooperative shooter, the next Left 4 Dead. There’s a special joy in teaming up with friends to face overwhelming odds. Frantically mowing down hordes, struggling to stick together, only to get torn apart OR survive by the skin of your teeth. I’m constantly on the lookout for a game in the same vein to sink my teeth into. 

If you’re like me, you might not be too familiar with Zombie Army. Going in I’d only dabbled in the Sniper Elite games by Rebellion Developments and I didn’t realize that this was the 4th entry in its spin-off series. While Sniper Elite never grabbed me, Zombie Army 4: Dead War won’t let go. After completing the campaign I happily jumped online to complete weekly challenges, then started eating away at horde mode. According to the in-game record I’ve killed over 7,000 zombies so far and I feel like the game has loads more to offer.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t love at first sight. Rebellion’s custom game engine Asura takes time to warm up to. Controls feel loose, aiming felt odd, and there’s a sloshy momentum to your character. Fortunately, I didn’t give the unique ‘feel’ of the game a second thought after my first hour or so. It’s important to push through because the engine shines in areas important to the experience. Weapons feel powerful, bullets meet bodies with violence, and explosions wreck havoc. A well placed bullet to the knee can take off a leg, and a shot to the face splits zombie heads with a satisfying crack.

Dismemberment and gore doesn’t reach the near photo-realistic levels seen in Resident Evil 2 remake, but combat feels crunchy and personal. Rebellion’s trademark X-Ray kill cam will occasionally zoom in and highlight your handiwork, following the path of a sniper bullet from barrel to testicle. Seeing the brutal results of booby traps in super slo-mo is a treat.

You’ll normally face a few dozen to a couple hundred enemies at a time. Which may not sound like much compared to games like World War Z that literally feature enormous waves of zombies. I prefer this situation, where each monstrosity must be dealt with individually, instead of watching heaps melt away. In Zombie Army, even a small group can be lethal if you don’t clear the line. 

Rebellion’s trademark X-Ray Kill Cam

Graphics mostly keep pace with a current gen experience. Even though a blue-green haze covers most of the landscapes, that filter is constantly cut by a mix of explosions and bright elemental effects. Zombies look appropriately decayed and their animations are on point. They lurch, hobble, and twitch as they should. The game plays with light fairly well, seeing a pack of glowing eyes creeping toward you is effectively menacing.  

Zombie Army 4’s plot is razor thin. Previous entries take place in an alternate World War 2 timeline where Hitler (yes, that Hitler) raises a zombie army, dies at the hands of zombies and rises again. Zombie Adolf was defeated and banished to hell but now shockingly the zombies are back and you need to figure out ‘who’s responsible’. Could the giant glowing ‘Hell Towers’ popping up in locations around the Mediterranean have something to do with it? You’ll have to play to find out.

I wouldn’t normally say a weak story is detrimental in such an action heavy game, but every blood soaked ritual site and chapter book-end hits you with the same cringe dialogue. ‘What’s happened here! How is this possible?”, “We need to find Dr. Schweiger to help us, he’ll know what to do! Let’s find Dr. Schweiger!!”. Worse, a few NPCs you interact with in small safe rooms look so fuzzy that they stick out egregiously compared to the rest of the game.

Your character being clueless is one of the many attempts at cheeky B-movie charm that doesn’t connect. The game dabbles in humor and what I would call ‘horror-lite’, having creepy toy dolls appear (unexpectedly?) in the exact same predetermined areas and rewarding you for hunting reanimated severed hands that you can catch in some odd acts. Knowing what can be achieved by games that lean in and experiment with the supernatural (see Control and Silent Hill) I wish the game committed to a tone or kept you on your toes. 

Despite a weak setup, waging war against the forces of hell is an absolute blast. The campaign can be tackled solo, or with up to 4 players via online co-op. It features 9 levels, most of which are split into 4 meaty sub-chapters. You play as one of four heroes whose traits support different play styles. I chose Jun for her high base speed and stamina bonus to help me run away when things got too thick, but if you prefer to get up close and personal, you can go with Boris, a melee focused character returning from Zombie Army Trilogy. 

Seeing a pack of glowing eyes creeping toward you is effectively menacing

You’ll visit a variety of locales including dreary forests, the series staple train station, and the volcano cracked streets of Naples. Stand outs include a tank scrapyard and a boat ride down the canals of Venice. Less impressive are the most uninspired and plain version of ‘hell’ I’ve ever seen and a zoo that features zero animals to pet. Level design varies from great to ok. Most offer plenty of verticality and interesting shooting angles; as well as a mix of narrow hallways and large sandbox areas with ample opportunities to snipe.

Objectives are simple. Hit the switch, find items and bring them from A to B. Every now and then, you’ll trigger a portal that floods the room with enemies or a blood fountain that forces you to kill enemies in a small radius. As in Left 4 Dead, you’re ultimately headed for the safe room at the end of each chapter where you can restock and upgrade your gear. But you’re not constantly on the move. Instead, areas need to be cleared before a barrier opens to let you through. Even though you’re not running and gunning, and the game isn’t designed to actively separate you, I found combat equally fun and chaotic. 

There’s a nice variety of enemies in Zombie Army. Basic grunts change visually over time appearing in various uniforms and different shades of rotting flesh. The game does a great job mixing in formidable special units including some who wield heavy weapons like machine guns, flame-throwers, and buzz-saws. You’ll tangle with zombie snipers that leap from rooftop to rooftop with ninja-like agility. Arm-less Suiciders that rush at you with a chest full of TNT, and of course- zombie tanks. Things get weird in Zombie Army and I love it.

My favorite enemies to fight were those that require more strategy beyond brute force. Summoner and Necromancer units spawn and revive reinforcements so it’s important to find them on the crowded battlefield before you’re overwhelmed. Hulking heavies wear strong armor plating and thick helmets that you have to dismantle before you hit meat. Gernaders hide behind massive shields tossing explosives, so you’ll need to catch them as they reposition to land a precise kill-shot. 

Once you take down enemies using heavy weapons you can use them to turn the tide.

When things get hectic you have to prioritize targets, and use every weapon and skill in your arsenal. And hot damn if you’re not given an abundance of tools to work with: Three classes of firearms, multiple melee options, heavy weapons, and various types of grenades, mines and tripwires. Zany traps and environmental hazards can be triggered along with plenty of classic red exploding barrels. On top of that, you can swap out a number of offensive and defensive perks that help do things like increase your ammo, stamina, or reduce the number of kills needed to use special skills. 

Speaking of skills, there are a few important stand-outs: ‘Empty Lung’ lets you spend stamina to slow the world to a crawl so you can line up more accurate rifle shots. A Melee Takedown is available once you get a 10 kill combo. These takedowns not only give you a health boost, but also treat you to cinematic kill animations. Think John Wick post-puppy. If you’re running low on supplies and you’re in the mood to be especially cruel, you can stomp on enemy corpses to reveal ammo and health items.

The game does a great job providing you with limited ammo, forcing you to constantly swap between your sniper rifle, a secondary shotgun or machine gun (your choice), and a backup pistol. There are multiple gun options in each class and they all feel solid and powerful, especially after you apply upgrades. Each weapon has three upgrade paths, and since upgrade kits are fairly rare, you’ll need to choose which attributes to boost first. 

Thankfully, I found every upgrade, whether it was an increase to clip size or the zoom level on your scope, made a noticeable difference and helped keep the gunplay fresh. Of course, upgrades and mods that allow you to add explosive, holy, electric and fire damage to your weapons and attacks are the bees knees. Unleashing electricity that arcs through multiple zombies from my pump shotgun is pure joy.

Once you’ve unlocked every enhancement for a gun, you’re given a final special task to complete in order to achieve Weapon Mastery. Mastery rewards for each weapon include a shiny skin and final damage boost. This is one of my favorite goals to strive for. I’m currently attempting to kill 10 zombie snipers by firing a bullet directly through their scope. In life it’s important to have goals.

Each weapon has three upgrade paths

Each weapon class has a unique special attack that slows time and gives you a lethal edge. As you rack up kills, your weapon assist meters will start to fill. Kill ten enemies with a rifle for an Overkill assist that boosts sniper damage. Kill ten with a secondary for a Focus assist that dramatically reduces recoil and bullet spread. Kill ten with a pistol to gain the Brain Buster assist that allows you to tag enemies and deliver a few quick guaranteed headshots.

It’s hard to describe how fun it is juggling between weapons, judging when to bank or unleash skills, and making split second decisions about who gets your next bullet. Filling all the skill meters is addicting. Experimenting with different loadouts is incredibly fun. Watching the destruction play out in slow-mo is mesmerizing.

The entire game changed for me when I realized the importance of leveling up. You gain XP from kills and completing levels but also from skilled play. Kill enemies fast enough, without missing too many shots, and your kill combo can climb into the hundreds. You get a big boost at the end of each chapter for your longest distance kill, longest combo, saving the lives of NPCs, and finding hidden collectibles. 

The game brilliantly doles out a seemingly endless supply of mini-objectives. Each chapter has an optional objective like ‘Kill 30 enemies with propeller traps’ or ‘Kill 10 enemies with fire’ which earns you coveted Upgrade Kits; a few of these are hidden in each level, so, you want to complete these if you want to fully deck out your weapons.

As you achieve higher ranks you’ll unlock weapon and character skins, new upgrade and attack options, item mods, and new perks. Unlock a perk and, you guessed it, you’re given a new objective in order to gain a stronger version of that perk. There’s always a new reward to strive for.

Be prepared to make split-second decisions about who gets your next bullet

The campaign kept me engaged when I played solo but every mode is more enjoyable with friends. Covering squad-mates while they heal and reload is key especially on higher difficulties. Sniping enemies from a perch while a few of your squad battle at ground level feels incredible. I found the game frantic enough on lower difficulties but if you’re a glutton for punishment, there is an intriguing option available. You can actually customize the amount of zombies thrown at you. Meaning, you not only select the overall difficulty of the game, but you can ask the game to punish you further by sending ‘4-players worth’ of enemies at you while going in with only a team of two.

You can complete weekly challenges for unlocks like emotes and more XP. These challenges usually involve completing campaign levels with a twist. I battled hardened enemies with unlimited ammo for SMGs (a weapon I didn’t normally favor) and I enjoyed being pushed out of my comfort zone. I had good experiences joining random players online; my squad mates had my back and came rushing to revive me if I was downed, knowing that our fates were linked. This is a definite sign of a healthy community.

It’s an odd thing to have a weak Horde Mode in a zombie game, but unless I’ve missed something, I found it fell flat. You start by selecting one of a handful of maps that are based off of levels from the campaign. You begin with a single pistol, and fight your way through increasingly difficult waves of enemies. You’ll need to find gun racks, item crates, and supply drops to be able to be able to swap in new weapons. 

Occasionally, new areas of the map are unlocked expanding the battlefield. Every dozen or so levels, an exit opens and you and your team can choose to leave or stay and keep fighting. The simplicity of this mode is underdeveloped in contrast with the complexities of the rest of the game.

Zombie Army 4 isn’t perfect. It lacks a compelling story, the dialogue is terrible, and it suffers from an identity crisis. Still, I’m absolutely hooked. Combat is fun and dynamic; you’re given a gigantic arsenal that evolves over time, and a number of smart systems keep you incentivized to keep coming back for more. Zombie Army 4 may not dethrone the king but it delivers a surprisingly meaty and addicting experience that earns it a top spot in my zombie loving heart. It’s a hidden gem that I can’t recommend strongly enough. Rebellion deserves high praise for delivering the next great zombie cooperative shooter.

Buy this game.

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