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Can a zombie be a Nazi? Are we to treat such a mingling as a double helping of malice, or does one cancel out the other? Is death sufficient to drain the soul of political drive, or is it doomed to march mindlessly on? This illuminating line of philosophical inquiry is launched in Zombie Army 4: Dead War, in which the freshly resurrected hordes of Hitler’s forces are fouling up the European theatre, specifically Italy. The answer—stoically offered up not only by Karl Fairburne, the returning hero of the Sniper Elite series, but by new comrades Boris, Shola, and Jun—is simple: why bother wondering, when a bullet, preferably to the cranium, cures both ills?
This being the fourth entry in a series that started as DLC for Sniper Elite V2, it should come as no surprise that the meeting of bullet and head is held in high esteem. Shoot a foe from great distance and you will trigger the series’ much-celebrated kill cam: in which black bars clamp the screen in a cinematic frame, slow motion descends like anaesthetic, muzzle flashes unfurl like sped-up flowers, and bodies are illumined with X-ray vision before being blown apart. It’s a vicious ritual, with roots in the anatomical demolition of 2011’s Mortal Kombat and the sniper rifle from Max Payne, which garnished each kill shot by mounting a camera above the fated bullet as it soared home—the way Kubrick plunged after Major Kong as he bestraddled the plummeting bomb, in Dr. Strangelove. It drips with humour that’s less black and bitter than Kubrick’s; it feels earnest and irony-free—a grinning celebration of the kind of violence that only video games, with their knack for mechanical cruelty, can dish up.
Where Zombie Army 4 has the edge over the Sniper Elite series is in the way it keeps back its crowning party trick for more occasional appearances; you spend most of the time dealing with mobs at medium range. I found myself falling back on the MP44 (a sort of proto-assault rifle), sweeping across the tops of the crowd, surfing a sea of headshots—which have the same peeling crunch as a pistachio shell—and charging the combo meter. Frequency and excess take precedent over iron-sighted skill, in other words, and the campaign proceeds on the notion that an arena brimming with bloodshed and carnage isn’t as good as four of them back to back. The game is geared for co-op play, in which up to four people join battle to thin the ranks of the Reich, and, though the game scales to accommodate solo play, you’re still in for a long, at times repetitive, ride. My advice for the lone operative would be to do as the dead do: bite off chunks and chew through at your own ambling pace.
To the game’s credit, the meat of the action is trimmed with upgrades: weapons are souped up in ramshackle style—gas canisters and blades duct-taped to barrels—and perks are plugged into unlockable slots to supercharge your character’s abilities. The entire thing rumbles along with pleasing grit, which is no surprise, given that the developer is Rebellion: a studio that considers a polished product something to recoil from, the way a vampire shrinks at the searing touch of holy water. Games like this, Sniper Elite, and 2018’s Strange Brigade all have a rough-hewn quality, courtesy of the Asura engine, as though they bore the stamp of a grindhouse film studio. (Indeed, the posters that bracket each of the main missions are stamped with exploitation-film style, with titles like Zombie Zoo and Rotten Coast.)
You could consider the game’s numerous glitches as a kind of meta-contribution to this aesthetic, but, having laboured through a number of instances where my HUD was obscured by the lingering letterbox format of the kill cam, or where I have been inexplicably insta-killed, I have come to the conclusion that I would prefer a patch. Aside from anything else, the bugs—which aren’t a deal-breaker—puncture the thickly laid atmosphere. The recipient of the nastiest treatment in Zombie Army 4 is neither the allies, the axis, nor the legions of hell but the land of Italy. Consider it comeuppance for its sun-baked treatment in Sniper Elite 4. Here is your chance to see the lemony zest of Venice and Rome spoiled and browned, or how about a half-drowned Naples, with flows of gulping lava below and skies that have broken out in a fireswept rash? The Italian tourist board may consider litigation.
What you hear is as potent as what you see; the soundtrack throbs with synth, evoking the apocalyptic twangs of The Warriors, and there’s nothing like having the eerie quiet of a new area smothered by a rising, rotting chorus of moans. The mood wafts above it all, overpowering any laughable suggestions of plot or character—neither of which fuels Zombie Army 4. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for the bloodied and bandaged visage of Karl Fairburne, who hails from the same hard-knocking school as Gabe Logan, from the Syphon Filter series: heroes who are impossible to uncage from context, who are vested and invigorated only with the grim purpose of their days—and who we couldn’t imagine, say, labouring over a gauntlet of choux pastry to impress a party of dinner guests, or slipping into a long, Radox-brewed soak with the new Hilary Mantel. Nor would we want to, and nor would Karl. He awaits the zombie apocalypse with the zeal of someone who just got a new lease of life.
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, and PC
Release Date: February 4, 2020
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