Zombie Army 4: Dead War feels like the culmination of Rebellion’s efforts to make a third-person shooter that utilizes arcade game style rewards rather than in-game bonuses or accolades. Getting a high-kill combo pays off with a little retro-sounding audio chime while a skillful long-distance shot will result in the infamous “X-Ray Kill Cam.” It’s a prime example of what I think of when I think of the modern “arcade shooter:” straightforward, mindless, and an absolute blast to play with friends.
One year after the events of the third Zombie Army game (which was only available in the Zombie Army Trilogy that was released five years ago), the Resistance is still fighting the Nazi zombie menace that roams throughout Europe. Zombie Hitler may be dead but the undead legions he raised are still shuffling around looking for some brains to eat. This is where you come in as you assume the role of one of four members from the Resistance. Karl Fairburne, naturally, makes his return along with Boris Medvedev from the original Zombie Army games, but this time they are joined by newcomers Jun and Shola. Together they battle across Europe to discover why all these zombies aren’t going away and, alarmingly, are suddenly showing signs of resurgence.
As you journey from Milan to Sardinia and beyond you’ll encounter a variety of undead foes that range from your standard, slow-moving zombie to exploding zombies and goo-spitting zombies; there are even zombie officers that “buff” their fellow undead and make them faster and more aggressive. All of these enemies are introduced in a steady manner as you progress through the eight Story chapters, ensuring there’s always some new challenge waiting just around the corner. Unlike the sudden hordes or special foes of Left 4 Dead or Vermintide, Zombie Army 4 uses arenas for most of its shootouts; you walk through an area with some ammo and grenades/special items, then you find yourself in a more open space where your exits are blocked and a bunch of zombies just rise from the ground. For some of these encounters you’ll have an objective to complete (defend a point, or grab objects and bring them back to a certain place) before you can move on, while others will simply require you to kill every undead thing you see. Progress through enough of these until you reach the end of the level (denoted by entering a Safe Room), and then move on to the next part of the story.
While you’re mowing down the seemingly endless hordes of ghouls, you are also earning experience points that are applied to an overall player rank. As your rank goes up, you unlock new perks - more health, resistance to melee damage, increased grenade damage, etc. - that can be equipped on your characters, additional perk slots, additional upgrade paths for your weapons (more on that in a bit), and ways to mod the grenades and items you pick up to grant them new or slightly altered abilities. For example, once you hit player rank 16, you can use a medkit to revive yourself rather than rely upon a “Second Wind” skill (shoot some zombies before you bleed out) or hope you have a buddy nearby that can get you up. There are 100 ranks total and while progression through the ranks is steady as you play (usually at least one rank per story level), it is not speedy. This ensures you’ll always have something to chase when you hop in and play, but I wish the game provided some way of seeing what you get with each rank. As you go through the different perks and other unlocks, you’ll see the rank required to gain access to it, but you can never get a big overview of all 100 ranks and what you get in each. It’s a small detail but it does help when you’re debating whether you should push on and get just one more rank, or go to bed.
As I mentioned previously, the other upgrade system in Zombie Army 4 are the guns. Before you start the Campaign, or whenever you get to an Upgrade Bench in a Safe Room, you can choose from one of three different rifles, one of four different secondary guns, and one of three different pistols. Each weapon has three different upgrade paths: the top path adds an elemental effect to the weapon (e.g., setting enemies on fire) while the bottom two improve different stats, such as clip size or reload speed. In order to unlock an upgrade for a particular weapon you’ll need an Upgrade Kit, which are acquired as rewards at certain player ranks, or scattered throughout each level of the Campaign. You can see how many kits are in a level anytime you go to the pause/menu screen (thankfully), but they are often put in out of the way places or require you to do something special in the level (completing a zombie shooting range, for instance).
If you want to upgrade everything, then you’ll need to spend some time hunting these kits down, but if you just get a few through the player ranks and pick them up whenever you see them, you’ll do fine. The upgrades help but don’t make enough of a difference (on Normal difficulty, at least) to really make it a priority. While the character perks and weapon upgrades never reach a level of depth or complexity to make it so you’re “building a character,” there is enough differentiation that playing with friends allows everyone to have some choices and variance.
Playing through any Campaign mission in Zombie Army 4 with a group of buddies is largely the same as playing the game solo; you’ll make your way to an arena/objective point, clear out scores of undead/complete the objective, and then move onto the next until you clear the level. As you play through the mission, the only major change is an increase in the number of enemies you’ll face. Health/ammo/special item pick-ups are available to everyone so you’ll need to coordinate a little bit. Aside from that, it’s pretty much business as usual. However, what makes the game so much fun with friends is that all those weapon and character upgrades start to feel a little more impactful. For instance, one of your buddies may opt to use a shotgun they’ve upgraded that occasionally fires explosive rounds and pairs it with a rifle that sets enemies on fire. You, meanwhile, have opted to use guns that use “divine rounds” (which doubles the damage dealt) and chosen a character perk that heals your teammates whenever you kill zombies with divine bullets. Between the two of you, your buddy is essentially providing crowd control while you’re healing them back up.
As I mentioned before, these kind of choices/upgrades don’t quite make enough of an impact in the Normal difficulty to really stand out (fun as they may be), but coordinating your character perks and weapons does become more noticeable in the Hard mode where enemies have more health and do increased damage (there’s also friendly fire for Hard, so watch where you’re shooting). Those perks and upgrades can sometimes mean the difference between victory and defeat, though nothing compares to being able to pull off precision headshots consistently. The only downside to this system is that you’re going to have to play a lot to really see the benefit of it. Most character perks are tied to hitting certain player rank levels (all the way up to rank 99), and most of the Upgrade Kits are found by playing through the Campaign. So, while this system may provide a reason to keep playing, the way it’s setup also obscures one of the best parts of playing the game cooperatively. The one silver lining is that character perks carry over into the Horde Mode and you can earn player rank experience in that mode, too.
Once you complete the Campaign (or need a break from it), you can pop into Zombie Army 4’s Horde Mode. There are five (one was released last week for free) different maps from which to choose, and, similar to the Campaign, you can choose your character and perks. You cannot, however, choose your guns. Instead, you start off with a basic pistol and then be able to pick up additional weapons as you progress through the waves of undead. The further you progress, the more upgrades will be “baked into” the guns that are provided, so it’s to your advantage to change up what you’re using every so often.
For each map, you’ll start off in a small area that expands out the more waves you clear. These maps always feel a little cramped, however, there’s a good mix of chaos and strategy as enemies usually spawn from just one direction for a given wave and there are choke points. You won’t know where all the zombies are coming from until the wave starts, but if you’re able to respond quickly, you can set up at the opposite side of a choke point and take care of them as they come. After clearing the 12th wave, you can make your escape and successfully clear the map, or you can fight on to see just how high you can go. While the whole wave-based survival mode has worn a bit thin these days, Zombie Army 4’s manages to still be fun due to the pairing of the overall solid gameplay mechanics and the shifting nature of the map/weapons available to you.
Here’s the thing about Zombie Army 4: if you stripped away the upgrade mechanics and player rank system, you’d still have a very solid third-person shooter. Getting headshots on zombies from 30 yards away feels good but also takes some skill as the game still uses the physics of Sniper Elite where bullets are affected by wind and gravity. Killing multiple zombies in a row fills up a combo meter that pays off in a little audio chime that harkens back to the arcades of old (on the PS4 it even uses the built-in controller speaker that somehow just makes it that much better). Encounters always feel planned out in a way that challenges you to employ some on-the-fly tactics, but nothing that requires a ton of thinking or planning. So, taking all of those systems and adding an upgrade mechanic on top of it is like icing on the cake.
As if that weren’t enough, everything is amped up further when playing with friends. When a buddy gets an “X-Ray Cam” kill, you all get to watch and collectively shout and laugh over the (ridiculous) brutality. When faced with special zombies, you can come up with a game plan for who handles what (“I’ll cover you so you can snipe that officer!”) I thought I was over the whole “zombie shooter” genre, but then Zombie Army 4: Dead War comes shambling along to show me that there’s always room in my heart for a third-person arcade shooter that nails the overall gameplay and tops it all off with a few fun flourishes.
The Co-Op Experience: Four players team up online to tackle the game's campaign, or face the challenge of the Horde Mode
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