Zombie Army 4: Dead War Hands-On First Look – A Smorgasbord Of Gore And Gunplay
*DISCLAIMER* Keep in mind, this is a first impression based on an early build. This is not a full review, and certain features might change. Got it? Good.
I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of the Zombie Army franchise. Even calling it a franchise feels weird. It’s the bastard child offshoot of the Sniper Elite series, which itself started off as an excuse to make a really dope kill-cam. Adding zombies to anything always feels a bit unoriginal, pandering to the largest base of basic gamers while minimizing how much you have to spend on programming AI. Besides, Nazis are already the living equivalent of zombies in terms of guilt-free murdering. Zombifying them just seems redundant. My problem with the early Zombie Army games is that they felt too tethered to their Sniper Elite roots. It sounds obvious, but a game tailored to a specific style of stealth combat where you pick enemies off slowly from a distance doesn’t exactly meld with the zombie horde formula.
I’m not trying to frontload my negativity to prep you for a good ol’ fashioned Games Journalism turkey shoot. I just wanted to establish how neutral I am on the Zombie Army name. I have no loyalty to the franchise, no rosy glasses to tint my view. I wouldn’t say that Zombie Army 4: Dead War had a mountain to climb to impress me, but definitely a steep incline. Well, someone at Rebellion has been doing some cardio, because climb it did. Turns out, Zombie Army 4: Dead War was a theme park on psychedelics level of fun to play.
Setting the stage, I had about three hours of hands-on time with Zombie Army 4: Dead War. In that time, we got to play a few different maps and the horde mode. Full disclosure, this was a press event. I got to play the game alongside some streamers and other media outlets. So by no means did Rebellion fly me out to their studio to give me a personal sneak peek. I know that industry events like this get a bad wrap for liquoring up journalists for favorable reviews, but I don’t drink. If anything, the events are a massive inconvenience. It was a flight from LA to SF with a same-day turnaround. No one spends time in LAX and SFO on the same day for fun. So consider my journalistic integrity uncompromised.
Booting up the game and heading into a lobby, I was worried Dead War would just be Zombie Army 4: Another One. You pick your sniper rifle, your shotgun/smg, and your pistol. Weapons can all be upgraded using tokens found in levels for completing special objectives. Upgrades vary per weapon, ranging from increased bullet penetration to a chance to ignite the target on hit. Also available are an assortment of perks, which can do some pretty wild stuff. Your ability to shoot while downed is an actual perk you have to equip. It’s pretty spicy having to pick between basic functionality and buffs like extra grenades. You also pick a character, which surprisingly isn’t just a cosmetic choice. The buffs to things like melee damage or move speed are minor but noticeable. Lastly, there are a slew of cosmetics that I only care about because you earn them through in-game achievements.
It isn’t until you get into the gameplay that you really realize that Zombie Army 4: Dead War is its own beast. While you start off with the basic array of trash zombies that serve mostly to fill your special meters, the game quickly starts throwing some more substantial challenges your way. Zombie hordes are your most basic concern, and littered throughout are a collection of powerful special zombies that are a real bitch to kill. Powerful heavy zombies wielding miniguns can take a dozen headshots to down. Mid-tier armored zombies swarm in packs, and require steady focus fire to reveal their weak spots. Sniper zombies zip from rooftop to rooftop, requiring quick reflexes and a steady aim to take down. My personal favorite was the necromancer zombie, which while initially fragile will keep respawning without a well placed shot to the heart. There are also some spicy boss zombies, like a chainsaw zombie (gotta have the chainsaw zombie), a zombie shark, and even a zombie tank.
The diverse challenge these zombies bring to the table is the real meat and potatoes of Zombie Army 4: Dead War. The chaos of the horde is maddening when you have to scramble your team to focus on a bigger brute. Mix in having to then rapidly steady your aim to land precise shots, and suddenly your adrenaline becomes your downfall. Be ready to miss the same easy headshot 5 times in a row because you’re just too twitchy.
But even the sexiest of cacodemons become bland when thrown at you 100,000 times. The real challenge is taking all these meaty morsels and arranging them in a way that it always feels like the first bite. To that end, Zombie Army 4: Dead War takes a novel approach to its level design. Rather than present a linear difficulty curve, i.e. just throwing more dudes at you, the challenge in Dead War is broken down into subsections. For example, one of the chapters starts with a series of open areas accentuated by infrequent structures. This segment culminated in a pitched battle in a large train depot, where basic zombies could man stationary machine guns. Overall, the design was very sniper friendly. The next segment took place in a series of tight corridors, This is where the game introduced a number of fast, crawling enemies. Clearly, this was designed to be more friendly towards shotguns/SMGs,
This style of level design gives Zombie Army 4: Dead War a difficulty curve that more resembles a heartrate monitor. Each segment can have its own peak and valley. While each level does generally lead to a larger end challenge, it doesn’t feel like it’s just pointlessly shoving more enemies in your face. You’ll have to constantly adapt and overcome, which finally gives the game’s diverse arsenal a chance to shine. Your sniper rifle is absolutely crucial for making the precise shots needed to down tougher/distant enemies. Shotguns/SMGs are a staple of your arsenal and not an afterthought. Tripwire mines can be used to disable larger enemies, giving you a real reason to clear out the trash mobs until the big guy triggers your trap. Picking your loadout and perks, you’ll have to weigh the option between specializing and general usefulness. It all adds up to a unique experience that meaningfully sets Dead War apart from other zombie shooters. Take away all the layers of zombie sharks and nazis, and you’re left with a game that has great fundamentals.
Beyond these fundamentals, Zombie Army 4: Dead War does a lot to spice up its world. The game is just brimming with classic horror flavoring. Each level has a unique loading card that’s a callback to classic horror films. The plot is full of little callbacks, that should be a welcome treat for any seasoned horror fan. My favorite was the dance that the chainsaw zombie does, which was an obvious homage to Leatherface’s at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The levels are also loaded with unique collectibles and hidden quests that felt rewarding without being overwhelming. My favorite was the crawling hands, which can be found in some pretty unique situations. I can’t remember the last time a collectible made me laugh, but Dead War did. These details elevated my time with Zombie Army 4: Dead War from solid shooter to point at the screen while calling out the references good time.
I started the article talking about how the Zombie Army franchise never previously clicked for me. WIth Zombie Army 4: Dead War, it finally did. While echos of Sniper Elite can still be heard, Dead War is firmly marching to the beat of its own drum. For previous fans, it’s a slam dunk. The game improves on every aspect without removing the extreme challenge that made Zombie Army Trilogy a niche hit. Newcomers to the franchise need not worry, as the plot is fresh enough that you won’t need to play the previous games to get what’s going on.
Zombie Army 4: Dead War is coming to the PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on February 4th. It will be available for $49.99. You can click here now to check out the PC version on the Epic Game Store and see the various digital Deluxe Editions.