It’s a dark and foggy night. You, an Allied soldier fighting against the Nazi regime, walk slowly down an abandoned, charred street in Venice. A sickly stench permeates the entire area, as does an inescapable sense of dread. With your sniper rifle at the ready, you amble through the deserted town, until you see, through the thick fog in the distance, a horde of…the undead? Without time to think, you peer through your scope and knock a zombie’s skull clear from its body, blood bubbling from the stump of the neck. You continue to fire, but you quickly run dry as the mass approaches. You desperately pull out your sidearm, but the numbers are too vast, and you, soon, join them…
That’s just one way any playthrough of Rebellion’s Zombie Army 4 could go, though I think that paragraph made it sound much more dramatic and interesting than it actually is. That scenario is pretty much all you’ll be doing in the upcoming third-person shooter, which pales in comparison to its much-better sister game, Sniper Elite 4, which came out almost three years ago. While ZA4 can be fun in spurts, the overall gameplay is dated, loose, and lacking in variety. While the added power-ups and gun mods add a little spice, the game is otherwise hampered by an obtuse, drip-feed unlock system, limited arsenal, and lack of satisfying payoff. Let’s dig into it.
The story of the game, such as it is, can be summed up thusly: Picking up after Rebellion’s first dip into the undead genre, Zombie Army Trilogy, Zombie Hitler is dead, but his minions aren’t. You’re tasked with finishing off the undead hordes and sending them back to Hell once and for all. You can play as one of four characters, one of which is the Sniper Elite himself, Karl. All characters have slight pluses and minuses. Karl, for example, regenerates health slower than the others, but his super sniper shot charges faster. There’s a burly old man character who regens his melee move faster, but in turn, moves slower. Differences are slight, and in my experience, were minimal. Every character feels the same, and the story is the same regardless of your choice.
You don’t come to a game called Zombie Army 4 for a story though, do ya? Nah, you come to kill some dang zombos, and boy, do they have that in spades. Most of the game is shooting slow shambling masses until they’re no longer visible. How’s the gunplay? Well, if you’ve played any of Rebellion’s other games, then you know exactly how this feels. I mentioned Sniper Elite 4 earlier because, realistically, ZA4 is just a reskin of their earlier title, which was a free PlayStation Plus game earlier last year. I spent a good amount of time with it, and I’m sad to report that ZA4 feels just like SE4, but less engaging.
Part of the fun from the Sniper Elite games was balancing stealth and action while making some gnarly, sneaky long shots or a clutch brain blast — which nets you the series’ signature Killcams — against a moving target, who move more realistically, seek cover, things like that. The undead in this game kinda just barrel towards you. The challenge isn’t so much keeping yourself hidden, but keeping yourself distant from the zombies. Playing defensively, even during some of the stationary raid sections, is moot. It’s better to keep running and gunning than sitting put and sniping the day away. Don’t even bother with the s-mines or other planted explosives; zombies rarely trigger them properly anyway.
Oh, and that brings up another thing: sniping in this game is certainly de-emphasized. Levels are dark and sooty, permeated by dark hazes most of the time. The zombies’ skin is also mottled and dark. On top of that, levels are linear; a far cry from the wide-open spaces previously seen in the Sniper Elites — there’s no point in trying to set up a 500km kill shot. I found myself toggling off the scope most of the time and aiming over my shoulder, which ruins any chance at a killcam. My sidearm of choice, the assault rifle, saw much more action than my Gewher rifle did. Sniping still feels good, with adequate sway and a sense of power after lining up an explosive headshot, but without the distance to fully realize the potential of such a powerful weapon, it seems silly that our characters are stuck with one the entire game.
This makes me sad to say that the sidearm gameplay hasn’t been tightened up at all, really. While using sniper rifles still feels weighty and good, other guns feel much lighter and floatier and, as a result, unreliable. Pistols, in particular, are so inaccurate that their relegation to an emergency-only weapon is all but mandatory. The added melee attacks, of which you can unlock four, have terrible hitboxes and don’t add a whole heck of a lot to the gameplay despite being prominently featured in your HUD. The healing one, in particular, Divine Strike, is egregiously useless. The stomping may be my least favorite mechanic in a game in a while, as it takes being in just the right spot to stomp a zombo. It’s terrible.
The lack of variety here, too, is concerning. There are actually fewer guns here in Zombie Army 4 than in Sniper Elite 4, with three snipers, two shotguns, an SMG, an assault rifle, and three pistols. The shotguns are powerful, but ammo is so limited that it made it hard to justify using one in single player. I do like the mounted machine guns, flamethrowers and the weird blunderbuss you find occasionally, but since they are one-off special weapons, they don’t factor in too much. Considering SE4 had double the weapons (not including DLC packs), it makes you wonder why the devs scaled things back, especially considering sniping already isn’t the most viable gameplay method.
For every mission you complete (and for every hidden comic book you collect), you’ll rack up XP. Netting XP unlocks… everything, really. Weapon skins, perks, weapon upgrades — anything you actually want to get your hands on is hidden behind level barriers. Unlocking new perks to equip is one of the least fun aspects of this game, as it’s a drip-feed of mostly useless perks or aesthetic changes. While some perk levels are tied to specific uses, like reviving X amount of players online, others are tied to your profile level. One of the perks I saw was hidden behind level 99, as in, one shy of 100. After logging 15 hours in the game, I was barely hitting level 21. If Rebellion actually expects someone to play Zombie Army 4 for the 100+ hours needed for that, it’s safe to say that few will reach that lofty goal.
Still, Rebellion does attempt to bring some replayability and variety into ZA4, though, by introducing a weapon upgrade system. Every weapon has a skill tree, divided into three branches. Unfortunately, it’s very simplistic, and the upgrades on offer are bare-bones and uninteresting. Higher ammo capacity, slight damage boost, a mostly-ineffective elemental damage bonus — that sort of thing. You can’t pick what element you want, either, as every gun is tied into one particular type. Some of the upgrades aren’t even useful. Equipping the Vampir Scope, an upgrade that allows you to lifesteal on critical hits, turns your scope a shade of dark red that makes it impossible to see anything. Few of the upgrades really change how the guns fundamentally feel or operate, so this addition just feels tacked on for the sake of “replayability.”
Speaking of tacked on, I feel like the whole grindhouse aesthetic and the silly advertising was not the smartest choice. While Left 4 Dead doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on in-game level posters, Zombie Army 4 lifts it directly, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed. The writing’s attempt at being funny and tongue-in-cheek does not pan out as expected — frankly, it’s boring. Even with a game featuring zombie demons from Hell, it’s all told so straight-laced and laid so bare that it lacks any sort of heart or excitement. It feels cynical. There are some cute horror references hidden throughout the levels and achievement names, but all the characters themselves are flat, there’s not a joke to be found, and the only thing that seems elevated are some of the elite monster designs. I would say the competitive scoring aspect is a little too arcade-y, but that’s been a staple of the Sniper Elite series since its inception. Tonally, it’s a mish-mash of ideas that leaves it feeling adrift.
The game plays well enough on a technical level. I didn’t encounter any stuttering on my base PlayStation 4, which other games have struggled with. Texture pop-in is still a problem, but I’ve just accepted that as a consequence of not playing on a PS4 Pro. However, I’m not sure why the fire textures take a full two seconds to load on the zombies — it’s a bad look. Worse yet, animations are stiff, and zombies tend to repeat the same ones over and over. Frankly, there are minor issues throughout, with lots of jaggies and rough-looking textures, but they don’t go so far as to ruin the experience. Character movement sometimes feels finicky, and trying to pick things up by either tapping or holding X is infuriatingly specific sometimes. Also, the reload is tied to holding down a button instead of tapping it once, which is by far the most egregious design decision.
As you might expect for a zombie shooter, you’ll be able to play the campaign and horde mode with a few friends at your side. I didn’t spend a lot of time teaming up with other players, but in my experience, multiplayer will be most enjoyed by those who opt to play with like-minded friends, as opposed to rolling the dice and playing with randos, who might opt to skip out on voice chat entirely.
I went into Zombie Army 4 wanting to like it, as I genuinely do like poppin’ undead skulls open. However, my time with it left me wanting more and, worst of all, it left me so bored. Rebellion overpromised a fun, grindhouse experience filled with wacky traps (of which there are few), silly weapon mods (which are functionally limited), and over-the-top horror (which is completely absent). With hardly any guns, an antiquated and meager unlock system, and repetitive gameplay, it’s tough to recommend Zombie Army 4: Dead War to all but the most ardent fans.
While it borrows heavily from its sniper-focused counterpart, Zombie Army 4 doesn't feel nearly as engaging, and it fails to capitalize on its promises of over-the-top gameplay and horror.