With rumours about that Left4Dead 3 will soon be officially announced, players who have clung to their eleven-year-old copy of the second game in that series may soon have something to cheer about. For those of us that have moved on, however, there is no shortage of squad-based zombie blasting games — the best of which just happens to be the newly released Zombie Army 4: Dead War.
Conceptually, there’s nothing new in Zombie Army 4 and you all know the drill by now. Up to four players each take on the role of one of several members of the resistance, a band of warriors fighting across Europe in the aftermath of World War II. History is not as we know it, however, and prior to his demise in the previously released Dead Army Trilogy, a certain fascist dictator has unleashed endless hordes of undead to bolster his ranks.
With Hitler dead, you’d think that the zombie hordes would lie dormant or at least reduce their level of focussed aggression, but thanks to the work of a secretive death cult, the undead continue to pour through rifts in various major cities and must be stopped. In Dead Army 4, the player is focussed on Italy, visiting locations such as Milan and Venice as they attempt to put a stop to whatever is driving the creatures forward.
In what is certainly the norm for this genre, gameplay takes place over four separate campaigns, each of which is split into about four sub-chapters and centred around a particular location. Dead Army 4 is quite creative in terms of level design, with the canals of Venice, a large dock and an abandoned zoo making for interesting places to bring death and carnage to the undead.
And my goodness, Dead Army 4 brings death and carnage on an almost unimaginable scale at times, with literally hundreds of zombies assaulting the players from all directions. Each player will be armed with both a primary weapon (a scoped rifle), a secondary weapon (a shotgun or SMG) and a pistol.
Thanks to its lineage (the Dead Army games use the Sniper Elite engine) Dead Army 4 wants players to use refined methods to dispatch zombies where possible, so it sets up numerous scenarios for long-distance sniping. Rifles come with a decent scope by default, but one of the numerous upgrades available can provide variable zoom that makes very long shots possible, whilst a “hold your breath” mechanic helps with calculating bullet drop at long range.
I like the sniping sections in the game (none of which are mandatory or unfairly taxing) thanks to the visceral and stylish kill cams that carry over from Sniper Elite and because of the superb decapitation and amputation animations that the zombies have, but I’d say that the close-up action is even better.
In some of the large open spaces, with several hordes and special zombies (including armoured giants, grenadiers, suicide bombers and more) approaching the players, Dead Army 4 is absolutely mad. Without even mentioning the hundreds of enemy models, complete lack of frame rate drop and generally stable online play, these encounters are where Dead Army 4 is at its most fun, often because it’s very inventive in terms of objectives and setting.
Going back to some of those earlier examples of where the game takes place, one mission has the players defending a boat in the Venitian canals, and when it inevitably runs out of fuel, the players will be assaulted by ground-based hordes and enemy snipers, whilst attempting to grab several cans of fuel. Later, a zombified tank attacks the players in a bunker whilst they attempt to launch a holy missile at a hell-rift whilst all manner of zombie hordes attempt to flush them out.
All of this is playable either solo (which is not optimal since there are no AI companions) or with up to four players online where it really shines. In addition to the campaign mode, there is a well set up horde mode that works a lot like all horde modes do, but with some of the unique advantages that Dead Army 4 brings — mainly, it’s upgrade system.
I’ve mentioned already that the players can upgrade their rifles to increase scope zoom, but this is barely the tip of the iceberg. Every single weapon has three upgrade slots, with the first usually imbuing the weapon with elemental (fire or electricity) damage, and the other two boosting ammunition and damage respectively. Each of these areas can be iteratively upgraded in at least three levels, with the third and final upgrade usually allowing the player to add some kind of powerful final ability — such as turning a regular shotgun into a slug cannon.
Making these upgrades is dependant on finding upgrade kits throughout the game, which are sometimes awarded when a player ranks up or achieves one of the hundreds of small in-game milestones such as killing a certain number of enemies with a specific weapon. Increasing your level also opens up access to more perks (and more perk slots) as well as more powerful tiers of weapon upgrades, and between these things, the different melee attacks and the item boosters, there are loads to work through.
More so than in any other squad-based shooter, I felt that Dead Army 4 rewarded repeated playthroughs and it felt almost (but not quite) Diablo-esque in creating that addictive loop of completing a level, upgrading, going back out there, finishing the game and then wanting to do it again on a harder difficulty setting.
If there are negatives to Dead Army 4, they probably relate to the slightly clunky nature of the engine when used in a game that often requires fast movement and agility, rather than the more ponderous movement of the Sniper Elite games. There were times when I wanted to get out of the way quicker, or even to play in first person because my own character model was in the way, but these gripes are very, very minor compared to the fun I had with the game overall.
Personally, despite enjoying the likes of World War Z, I don’t think I’ll need another squad-based zombie blaster now that I have Dead Army 4 to jump back into. It may ultimately be the same style of repetitive squad-based action that we’ve seen so many times before, but it adds enough twists and turns into the standard model, and much more of an endgame, and as a result, I really like it. I’ll still have one eye on Left4Dead 3, should it emerge, but at least now there’s likely to be some stiff competition.