When you fire up Zombie Army 4 for the first time, even if you’re like me and are totally uninitiated to the series from UK developer Rebellion, it’s clear that you’re playing a polished game where every decision has been carefully considered. It’s not exactly a story-heavy, serious experience but it embraces the inherent weirdness of its premise, has smooth and intuitive controls, fantastic set-pieces, and delivers one of the more exciting shooters I’ve come across in the last few years. I can’t help but compare it to the last zombie shooter I played, and I can assure you that Zombie Army 4 is everything that game wasn’t.
It’s the waning days of World War 2 and a boxed-in Hitler has been (literally) sent to hell, which I presume happened in the game’s predecessor Zombie Army Trilogy, but is sort of explained with a well-done cut-scene to kick this game off. The dictator’s final act is to raise the dead, somehow, and use the hordes of zombies as the massive final wave of soldiers to beat back the Allied forces. And, of course, there’s only one person that can stop them (it’s you).
You’ll pick your character from one of four diverse offerings, two new and two from the publisher’s Sniper Elite series, each having their own mildly-useful special ability but otherwise fairly interchangeable besides their look. There are advantages to each, but Zombie Army 4 allows you to switch between them so you’re not locked into a choice for the entire game. This encourages you to experiment and find your preferred groove.
Whichever character you decide to stick with (or even if you decide to rotate between two or more), you’ll have a capable soldier on your hands that will be able to mow down the ever-advancing hordes using a wide variety of upgradeable and customizable weapons, with a surprising amount of firepower available to you right out of the gate. Upgrades include your typical bumps to firing rate and damage, but also cosmetic upgrades that don’t really seem necessary unless toting around a solid gold machine gun that you can barely see during gameplay is on your list of priorities.
The gameplay in Zombie Army 4, thanks to years of iterative improvements on the engine, is silky smooth. Even with dozens of undead filling the screen, it still runs crisply and responds well. Tension builds as hordes pour into the environment, keeping you on your toes as they shamble relentlessly at you, forcing you into corners until you fight your way out. A nice touch is that you have to shoot down these foes, but also remember to curb stomp the bodies to make sure they’re dead and to release power-ups. For some of the trickier later sequences in the game, you’ll also need to employ traps such as tripwire bombs to unseat more persistent enemies.
Zombie Army 4’s ethos seems to be delivering on the fun that comes with blasting wave after wave of fascist zombies, while tapping into various horror influences that Rebellion’s Tim Jones has acknowledged, such as “[Mario] Bava, Giallo films, [Dario] Argento, as well as the more obvious American influences such as John Carpenter.” I don’t know about all that (though the Carpenter influence is pretty apparent) but the game’s aesthetic works for me and the overall look and feel of the game – from the graphics to the music to the action itself – feels coherent. I do like that each of the campaign missions, based around locales in Italy, are presented as a self-contained horror film, each with its own schlocky movie poster. Visually, the game pops with detail on your character, the environments, and the zombie horde. If I were to make a criticism, it’s that the zombies themselves don’t have a ton of variety and after a while, cutting down the crowds of identical shamblers seems a little rote, but that’s a criticism of zombie games in general and Zombie Army 4 has some truly spectacular environments and set pieces – a zoo that’s been overrun with the undead and a harrowing gondola ride through the canals of Venice are standouts – to keep things interesting.
If I haven’t been clear, Zombie Army 4 is an incredibly violent outing, and the zombies explode in an admirable splatter of blood when taken down in the right way. You can also employ something called “X-ray Kills” which are carryovers from the studio’s prior efforts like Sniper Elite. When you get a shot just right, the camera will follow the bullet and show exactly the kind of damage being done to the zombie, similar to the bone-breaking closeup cutscenes in the Mortal Kombat series. These kills are immensely satisfying and encourage you to work on your marksmanship. Plus, you can use Photo Mode to export these exquisite(ly gory) shots to share around.
Multiplayer co-op is mostly a joy to play and includes some interesting touches, like having to shamble along with the horde when you die and are turned. You won’t be able to control yourself at this stage and you’ll have to wait until one of your teammates dispatches you in order to respawn, but it’s fun to watch and it’s an interesting dynamic to cheer your teammates on as they blast your character to smithereens.
Zombie Army 4 is a great package that is worth your time and money if you’re at all into this sort of thing. It doesn’t reinvent any wheels that the Left 4 Dead series innovated, but it’s got enough to set it apart while executing everything very well. Developer Rebellion is behind the title and has committed to supporting it for a good long while, with the promise of add-on content that includes new levels, more playable characters, and an expanded arsenal. For a game like this, that kind of support is an assurance that there’ll be undead hijinks for a long time to come.
Zombie Army 4 is out now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.