When UK developer Rebellion happened upon the successful Zombie Army formula, it largely did so by accident. Originally a bonus for Sniper Elite V2 fans, the series grew from a silly aside into a franchise unto itself.
Now we’re at the fourth outing, with the previous three bundled into a trilogy collection on the current generation consoles and PC, and it must be said that the series has fully hit its stride.
Zombies are, unless you’re Zack Snyder, slow and shuffling, with the stench of decay and an aura that makes all around flee in terror. Zombie Army 4: Dead War is the opposite.
It is neither slow, nor shuffling, and you are advised to run towards it at great haste as it is about as refreshing a shooter as we’ve seen recently.
Like its predecessors, the third-person arcade adventure doesn’t take itself too seriously. Indeed, it ramps up the trademark, finely crafted Nazi nonsense to an all-new level - throwing plenty of all-new undead threats in your direction, each of which being as deadly as they are droll.
While you get some series stalwarts, such as the standard grunts, suicide bombers, and enormous brutes with mini-guns, you also get some of the game’s most inventive enemies yet. There’s a zombie tank, for starters, with a beating heart in the middle of its armour that must be targeted.
Plus, there are zombie sharks. Zombie. Sharks. We’ll leave that hanging in the air for you to digest. And, it must be said, that’s only the start of the cadaverous craziness.
Also added this time around are location-based traps - something more-or-less lifted from Rebellion’s recent co-op game, Strange Brigade. They are as entertaining as they are effective and are scattered around levels to help you dispatch large numbers of foes in one fell swoop.
There is an airplane propeller, for example, that, once activated through a well-placed shot, will suck everything in its vicinity into the spinning blades. Hmmmm, green zombie mince. One word of warning though, traps like these can equally hurt fellow players as decaying hordes, which can either spoil or enhance your game, whichever way you look at it.
And that’s perhaps what draws us most into Zombie Army 4 and makes it our favourite in the series yet. Yes, it has story progression and level goals throughout a decently-sized campaign, but it also presents a playing field as fun to cock about on as complete.
The main element of the game is its story mode, which can be played solo or with up to three friends. We’ve done quite a bit of both, with co-op play definitely favourable thanks to the hilarity that often ensues. However, as the game tweaks the difficulty and, in some cases, requirements depending on how many are playing, we can safely say that it works well either way.
Each player gets to choose from four characters, each with their own personalities and fighting style. They also have perks that can be customised to aid your own gameplay choices. Add on top the ability to earn extra perks, plus modify and improve weapons throughout the game, and you have plenty of ways to make your playthrough different to others’.
It must also be said that it is refreshing to find a game where there is plenty of loot and character boosts in the game from the start. Levels are often packed with secrets and pickups to discover - not least weapon upgrades - so it also promotes exploration and lengthens play time, so everyone’s a winner. Some weapons and skins will be available to purchase, as will extra campaigns and horde mode levels, but you don’t have to pay to win.
The story is largely hokum. Zombie Hitler is now dead-dead, not just dead, but his original plans to mobilise an undead army have resulted in an apocalyptic level of infestation. You are one of few survivors trying to flee rather than contain the hordes and, er, that’s it really.
There are some twists and turns along the way, but it’s best not to think about it too much. After all, it’s not meant to be War and Peace - more War and Pieces. Zombie sharks, remember?
Instead, this is a game that revels in its checkpoint-based set pieces and glorifies in its gruesome action - you’ll likely not have enough time to stop and consider any intrinsic plot details anyway. As soon as you do, you’ll have yet another putrefying perpetrator in your face trying to bite it off.
The zombie waves are, most of the time, relentless - almost as much in the main campaign as they are in the superb return of the horde mode. You’ll spend most of your time running and a’gunning, with the occasional fetch quest for good measure. And, when you do get a chance to tackle a spot of sniping, you’ll be too enamoured by the gory, gigglesome Sniper Elite-style kill cams to care about much else.
Graphically, Zombie Army 4 opts for a comic book feel - similar to the prior trilogy. It is improved, of course, and supports HDR. There are finer details too, plus a great use of lighting effects, especially in darker locations and levels. Explosions, for example, blaze beautifully on compatible HDR TVs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X look best in terms of the console versions. We haven’t yet managed to check out the PC edition, but have no reason to think that wouldn’t be equally as crisp and defined.
On both Xbox One X - the version tested - and PS4 Pro, there is the addition of performance and quality modes, with the choice of 4K 30fps or 1080p 60fps. We favour resolution almost always in Pocket-lint Towers, but it’s nice to have an alternative for those who prefer smooth motion.
The soundtrack and audio effects are great: appropriately spooky and pulp movie-like. Rebellion has always been great in thematically styling its games, and ZA4 is no different.
As devotees of the original trilogy and, even more so, the Sniper Elite games, Zombie Army 4: Dead War was eagerly anticipated. Thankfully, it delivers on what we hoped for and more.
Where it shines is in its simplicity. You don’t need a degree in World War II weaponry to pick it up and play, nor do you need to be a seasoned shooter fan. Frenetic fun is at the very heart of the game, whether you are playing in a co-op team of up to four or just on your tod. And, it is an ideal antidote to the swathe of po-faced FPS combat games released in recent times.
There are no competitive PVP modes, which might irk some, but it makes up for it with plenty of decaying denizens to shoot in the nether regions. And that’s more than enough for us.