On the face of it, there isn't a unique bone in the skeletal body of Zombie Army 4: Dead War. Historical shooters set in the WW2-era are ten-a-penny, zombies are infecting games left, right, and centre, and co-op survival against waves of bilious enemies is a trick that has been pulled before. Yet none of that stops Rebellion's new shooter from being a lot of fun, and the British studio has once again crafted a game that packs a lot of punch despite wearing a well-worn blood-soaked Nazi uniform.
The theme is stronger than the story, which is largely redundant beyond the immediate objectives that you have to contend with. You could skip every cutscene and talk over every line of dialogue and you'd still have a jolly old time blasting away at the craniums of the living dead. More often than not, you're simply pointed in the right direction and must kill anything and everything in your way until you reach your next objective. There are variations on that, such as specific locations to defend or simple fetch quests, however, the point stands that Dead War isn't a story-driven adventure.
But we're totally fine with that because Zombie Army 4 isn't about poignant moments on the road to redemption, nor is it about the nuanced connection between comrades-in-arms; Rebellion's third-person shooter is about silly guns, gruesome X-ray kill-cams, and frantic gun battles in the face of seemingly endless waves of Nazi zombies. Over a nine-mission campaign, players are taken on a tour of 1940s Europe where they must battle over the bridges of Venice, claw their way through a Croatian zoo, dodge streams of lava on Mount Vesuvius, and take the fight all the way to Rome itself.
The constantly changing scenery is brought to gruesome life by a growing cast of undead enemies, with new threats thrown in regularly to keep you on your toes. Rank and file zombies soon make way for 'Creepers' that scurry around on the floor, huge 'Metal Giants' with bulletproof helmets that can take oodles of pain, and 'Generals' that summon exploding suicide bombers and re-resurrect the dead. There are even zombie sharks. All told, it's a really good blend of enemy types and that variety requires constant adaptation from the player. It's not just a case of keeping the horde at bay either as there are a handful of ranged enemies too, with bullets, grenades, toxic sludge, and flaming skulls all sent your way.
The missions are fairly linear, but the levels are big enough for Rebellion to hide things off the beaten track and it's advisable to keep your eyes peeled while you play because there are plenty of worthwhile weapon mods and upgrades to find, plus a bunch of collectibles if you're the sort of person who loves to search every nook and cranny for treasure. What's more, the levels themselves look great, and while Dead War isn't the most impressive game we've ever seen when it comes graphical fidelity, there's tons of environmental storytelling everywhere you look and the overall visual design is strong.
One of our favourite aspects of the game is the weapons. Given how the series was born of Sniper Elite, and the ongoing reliance on the gory X-ray kill-cam, it's hardly surprising that your main gun is a rifle, but you can supplement that with a secondary weapon (we alternated between the Thompson and the Trench-Gun) and a pistol. Each weapon has three upgrade slots, and as you play and explore, you'll be able to improve damage, stability, and magazine size. More fun are the weapon mods that give you things like explosive ammo and electrically-charged shotgun shells, with both temporary boosts and permanent unlocks available.
Your arsenal is supplemented by a range of mission-specific heavy weapons and a collection of explosives that you can stock up on when visiting the game's many safe rooms. There are a number of grenades and traps on hand to help you thin the horde as it shuffles relentlessly onward. Rebellion has been steadily expanding its toolbox of tricks over the years, and Zombie Army 4 is perhaps the studio's best offering in this regard - the zombie theme has really allowed the devs to have some fun and its shows when compared to the more sombre offering made available to Sniper Elite main man Karl Fairburne in his other adventures.
Speaking of our old buddy Karl, he's one of four playable characters available at launch. The elite sniper is joined by old ally Boris, plus newcomers Jun and Shola, the latter of which we played as for the majority of the campaign. Like their weapons, these characters can be improved with new passive bonuses that are unlocked at certain milestones, although it's not the most impactful progression system that we've ever encountered. It does enough, though, and between matches, you can tinker with your build as well as change your loadout with a reasonable degree of autonomy.
Regardless of whose boots you fill one thing is certain: you'll be killing a lot of zombies. The aforementioned sniper rifle is the go-to ranged weapon, but you'll routinely have to swap that out for something suited to closer encounters. When the undead eventually get near enough to take a swipe at you - which can happen all too often if you spend too long staring down the scope of your rifle - there are a couple of things you can do. First, there's a rather no-nonsense melee attack (we had an electric punch equipped for the majority of the time), but players are also encouraged to get stuck in with health rewarded for performing gruesome melee takedowns.
When they're not marching on Rome, our heroic zombie-killers can busy themselves in the wave-based Horde mode. Therein, you can battle the undead across more focused maps that expand with new areas that unlock over time. With each wave completed, new, more deadly enemies are introduced, with the challenge growing in severity the longer you stay alive. Once again, this isn't revolutionary, but it does fill out the offering and give players another reason to return to duty once the credits have rolled on the campaign.
Despite being the evolution of a familiar concept, Zombie Army 4: Dead War is a quality game with high production values. The gunplay is great, even away from the scope (an area that Rebellion has steadily improved upon over the years), and we particularly enjoyed the crazy weapon mods. We also liked the enemy variety, which is diverse enough to facilitate interesting gameplay possibilities and make an otherwise straightforward exercise in Nazi-blasting a touch more tactical. The fact that you can share all this with up to three co-op buddies is just the icing on the cake.