Zombie Army 4: Dead War Review – Deadass Good Time
Serious question: are zombies in, or are they out? It seems like just a few years ago that everyone was complaining that they were putting zombies in everything. There was the Red Dead Redemption expansion, Call of Duty had their zombies, Yakuza had an undead spinoff, people called Unturned “Minecraft with zombies” even though Minecraft has zombies, and hundreds of other examples. Hell, Ska Studios even made a game called, “I made a Game with Zombies in It!” (definitely check that one out, it’s only a dollar). Not one to be left out of the zombie craze, Rebellion studios released Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army in 2013. Technically an expansion to Sniper Elite V2, the game kind of felt like a joke. It was fun, but it was definitely a Sniper Elite game that had zombies in it. The game soon expanded into a sequel, dropping the Snipe Elite part of the title. Then it got another sequel, and dropped the Nazi part of the title. Releasing as a full package with Zombie Army Trilogy, you couldn’t even get the third without also getting the previous two. It was great value for the price, but you could definitely still see how the series was firmly planted in its Sniper Elite roots.
I have two major reasons for bringing this up. First and foremost, I never thought I’d be sitting here and writing a review for a fourth Zombie Army game. As we get further and further away from Left 4 Dead 2, I fully expected the fad to fizzle out and die. I figured that all the zombie modes and spin-offs would fade from memory, relevant only as entries on a list of, “Zombie Games You Forgot Exist.” What’s more, I never thought that Zombie Army would somehow become the leader of the pack. Even dropping the title, it was always too constrained to the Sniper Elite mechanics. Yes, watching zombies explode in slow-motion is fun. Sneakily laying traps and lining up precise shots while a horde of undead nips at your heals is not. And yet, with Zombie Army 4: Dead War, Rebellion has made it all work. And the results are phenomenal.
Following the events of the Zombie Army Trilogy, Zombie Army 4: Dead War doesn’t take more than a second to get you into the action. If you really need one, there is a plot. Hitler did some occult stuff, politically right zombies rose from their graves, a team of 1-4 brave souls banded together to stop it, Hitler got 300-style chest booted into hell, and things started to get better. There were still zombies all about, but they were the benign The Walking Dead type that only serve as set dressing for all the assumed between-game human drama. We don’t get to see any of that. Dead War kicks off when all the zombies start acting aggressively again for unknown reasons. It takes no time for things to go from peaceful to totally tits-up. By the end of the second chapter, Hell Planes are dropping zombie paratroopers into zombie shark-infested waters in Venice.
That’s not to say that Zombie Army 4: Dead War has no plot. It just doesn’t get in the way. You can confidently skip all of the cutscenes, and have no problem understanding the basic premise that zombies are bad. Taking the Left 4 Dead approach, much of the story is told within the context of delivering hot lead to zombie skulls. If you feel like you need more of a story, there are plenty of hidden collectibles to find. There’s comic books, documents, and letters that can be perused at your leisure to help flesh out the world. Still, it’s not like you’ll uncover the gritty serious message at the heart of Dead War. These are whimsical necromantic Nazi suicide cults.
Speaking of whimsy, the amount of comedy they manage to pack into Zombie Army 4: Dead War is mind-boggling. There’s the obvious humor of shooting a zombie in the balls so hard they explode, but references, visual gags, and one-liners permeate every corner of Dead War. At one point I was hunting around for collectibles, only to spot a lovely pair of zombie lovers enjoying the serene Venetian canals. As one zombie wrote in his notebook, the other lazily dipped his toes in the water. Meanwhile, a zombie gondolier in traditional garb navigated the watery passage while attempting to hum a tune. After shooting them all, I took a moment to reflect on the dedication it took to put something so adorably silly somewhere where most people would never see it.
This kind of thing happens multiple times a level. At one point I ascended a flight of stairs and snapped my camera around as a shadowy figure approached me from behind. Failing to find my assailant, I found the monster was actually one of the collectible zombie hands practicing its (admittedly impressive) sword-fighting skills. Who the fuck spends the time to give their collectibles personality? Every level also has a number of evil dolls, that serve no purpose other than to creep you out in new ways. There are also larger set-piece references, like the string of Stranger Things style Christmas lights demanding you spell “Brains” to unlock a hidden safe. Normally this kind of rapid-fire comedy would get old, but they manage to keep it consistently fresh by never recycling a gag. Well, they do bring back the zombie lovers (even if you shot them), but that’s a story that needs to be told.
If you happen to blink and miss one of the game’s hundreds of gags, worry not. Zombie Army 4: Dead War is made to be replayed. The main campaign spans nine chapters, each broken down into three or four segments. Each segment takes 10-30 minutes, depending on how dedicated you are at hunting for collectibles. The chapters have an overall difficulty curve, but each segment itself functions as its own challenge. Again, think of Left 4 Dead 2. Each section has its own objective, climax, and resolution. The level’s arc builds into the larger chapter’s arc, which in turn builds into the game’s overall arc. This flow is heavily aided by excellent level design that feels organic while still being clearly marked and tightly designed. The result is a smooth injection of consistent challenges that never feels like a slog. You’ll go from picking off flamethrower zombies in a trainyard to blasting Hitler’s 100-foot tall zombified doom tank with your divine heavy machine gun, and never wonder just how you got there.
Once the credits roll, Zombie Army 4: Dead War has only just begun. Not only do you have to go back and get all the collectibles (all hail the Gods of 100% completion), but there are a number of higher difficulties and challenge modes to master. You can toggle both difficulty and number of zombies, meaning the most mental of madmen can try and tackle the game solo on hardcore with 4x zombies. Have fun with that, YouTube/Twitch nutjobs. Even if you’re not here to climb the Everest of challenge, you’ll still want to grind out the remaining unlockables. At the end of every level, you’ll be given a score. That score, in turn, gives you experience points towards the next rank. Each rank unlocks a new goodie, ranging from item modifications to entirely new perks. Other rewards are only unlocked by completing specific challenges, like killing a set number of enemies with a grenade or blowing off a certain number of nads. Each new reward feels unique enough to keep you coming back. Even without them, the game is still enough fun to suck me back in on gameplay alone. And if all that isn’t enough for you, there’s an infinitely replayable horde mode.
I’ve so far been all praise for Zombie Army 4: Dead War. Frankly, it deserves it. There are, however, a few little niggles. The biggest one is the weapon variety. Rebellion, you seriously need to learn how to ship games with a satisfying number of firearms. The game ships with only 3 rifles, 4 secondary weapons (shotguns/SMGs/ARs), and 3 pistols. You can unlock one more rifle and assault rifle with DLC. That’s almost 25% of your weapons locked away at launch. That feels shitty. The guns are also initially too generic. I’m just not excited to fire a standard Thompson or Mosin Nagant. You eventually get to upgrade them with elemental powers and other goodies, but there’s this awkward period of time pre-upgrade where the gun just feels uninspired. I know that having a progression system means you have to start from somewhere, but a larger base arsenal would have done wonders.
In our modern era of hyper-serious macho games, Zombie Army 4: Dead War is a reminder that games are supposed to be fun. Its funny, frantic, fun, and a fucking good time. If you don’t like Zombie Army 4: Dead War, you don’t have a soul.
If you don’t like Zombie Army 4: Dead War, you’re as dead inside as the Nazi zombies the rest of us enjoy killing.