Aiming For The Head: Hands On With Zombie Army Trilogy

Zombies. Sometimes it feels like they make an appearance in every game out there, whether it’s a little bonus hidden away or as the out and out main enemy. Zombie Army Trilogy is somewhere in the middle ground, with the first two Zombie Army games (then called Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army) coming as bitesized offshoots in the wake of Sniper Elite V2. This trilogy bundles the first two Zombie Army games with a new campaign and more – and with a healthy discount for previous owners on Steam – but also marks the first time that they have made an appearance on console.

Though oft maligned for their prevalence within video games, the combination of Nazis and zombies is one that makes almost perfect sense, and especially so in a sniper game. On the one hand, Nazis are a near universally accepted evil, and on the other, the best way to kill a zombie is to remove the head or destroy the brain. What better foe for a team of four snipers to tackle?

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“There are no two more accepted targets for shooting at, in terms of bad guys,” said Tim Jones, Head of Creative at Rebellion. “One’s the undead and one everybody – almost everybody – accepts that the Nazis were completely unacceptable as a philosophical and political concept. So there is always an audience of people that are happy and get some catharsis from shooting at those targets. Combine the two? I mean, it’s gold!”

The slow, shambling hordes are really quite difficult to kill, though. Compared to the regimented motions of a living human soldier, the zombies in this game have much jerkier and less predictable motions. Their heads weave as they drag broken limbs or stagger along the floor, making getting those headshots much trickier than you might expect (and perhaps especially so on a gamepad), and Rebellion have taken to throwing dozens of these at you at a time.

It’s a good thing, then, that there are up to four of you taking on this challenge, rather than the pairs that could tackle the main Sniper Elite games. On top of that, there’s now four female snipers to choose from alongside the men of the first two games – “The backstory we’ve got the Russian female sniper is there to represent that some of the most important and effective Russian snipers in WW2 were women,” Tim noted. With such a team, you might think that these would be a simple enemy to take down, but on the contrary, they can overwhelm you with surprising ease.

That’s especially true when the more unique zombies come at you. Armoured enemies need you to land several headshots, brutish chainsaw wielding foes soak up even more damage, others can throw fireballs or reanimate skeletons, and then there are the sniper zombies who leap from one vantage point to another.

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And when they attack, there’s a unnerving roar from the zombies that overwhelms your senses, a cacophony of noise that threatens to drown out even the sharp report of your gunfire and the ominous and heavily synthesised background music. It adds a huge weight to the atmosphere of a game that has a similarly strong art style.

With the third Sniper Elite having switched setting to the deserts of North Africa, you might have expected that the third campaign of the trilogy might have trodden similarly fresh ground. However, the new campaign, Beyond Berlin, acts instead as a conclusion to the first two Zombie Army campaigns, with bigger levels, more varied objectives and, of course, the chance to shoot Zombie Hitler in the head (or the nads). So it’s 15 missions in a relatively familiar setting.

“It was a deliberate choice,” explained Tim. “I think that would have had a very different aesthetic to it and, I mean, it was one that I would be more than happy to explore, but to finish off the trilogy, the third part is the climactic part where you get deal with Hitler himself. It felt right and natural that it should all happen in and around Berlin. That’s where it was all going on, we maintain the general aesthetic and within the narrative of the story it makes sense.

“Hitler is, the story starts, in his bunker under Berlin, and whereas history tells us he met his end, in our particular twist on history here, he didn’t… well, he kind of did, but he turned into a zombie!”

However, it still makes a great change of pace compared to the war torn ruins that you’re likely very familiar with. This isn’t just dropping zombies into the ruins of Germany, though. Thick fog shrouds many locations, while deep colour treatments shift towards greens and blues, and the pervasive night time sees zombies even in the middle distance silhouetted against the background, their eyes glowing in the darkness.

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It’s a look which has taken inspiration from numerous classic horror sources, as Tim explained, “There’s a particular flavour of atmosphere and style in zombie horror games that I don’t feel is represented as much as I’d like it to be. Zombie Army Trilogy takes its influences in a lot of places from old euro horror films like those of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, and the soundtracks of that period, from people like John Carpenter.

“There’s an air of exploitation and video nasties, as they were branded at the time, and there’s just a crazy feel to that kind of horror that doesn’t exist so much anymore. There’s the idea that the zombies have glowing eyes, and that was an important point for me, because nothing looks better than a glowing eyed zombie coming out of the mist.”

With newer technology added into the Asura engine for Sniper Elite 3, there’s some gameplay changes for the better. Bullet hits are tracked more dynamically, and there’s the possibility for dismemberment, so that kneecapping a zombie might see it continue to crawl along the floor at you. That’s also where the new kicking and stomping moves come in particularly handy, so that you’re not wasting potentially precious ammo on the lesser zombies.

These changes are all retroactive, as Tim revealed, “All the gameplay changes that we’ve made, all of the improvements and upgrades to it, they run through the whole game. So the two previous campaigns from Nazi Zombie Army 1 and 2, all of the gameplay updates and graphical updates are all embedded firmly in those as well.

“So there’s all the dismemberment that we’ve added that wasn’t previously there – you could blow up heads, but now you can take off arms and legs and the zombies react accordingly. They tend to be pretty oblivious if you blow an arm off, but blow a leg off and they’ll keep coming at you, but crawling and hauling their way on the floor towards you.

“There’s new enemy types we’ve got in there, the new motion capture data and animations and things, but it goes down to the new scoring system. We’ve given it an overhaul where we wanted to get a really compelling and, yes, arcade-y combo multiplier scoring system, so if you keep shooting the zombies and don’t miss, then your combo multiplier will go up with each kill.”

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You’ll need every weapon at your disposal too, because when the zombies get close, a sniper rifle is unwieldy at best. Clicking the right stick, you can aim over the shoulder rather than down sights, but sometimes it’s better to have a shotgun or submachine gun as a secondary weapon for more rapid fire damage, and some special fictional weapons you can pick up along the way. Better yet are the trip mines, land mines and grenades which can take out entire hordes in one go.

Speaking of which, once you’re done with the campaign missions, there’s a new horde mode which sends wave after wave of enemy your way. Extra weapons and ammo are dotted around each map, which will be good to learn the positions of, but this is really all about sticking together and working to take out whatever comes your way.

Unfortunately, we butted against a brick wall of difficulty at the third wave, as LMG toting Super Elites marched in at us, and we were unable to land enough headshots to take them down quickly enough. Nobody said this was meant to be easy, but it brought back memories of the first Zombie Army game, where my team of four found itself stuck at a particular point in one mission, facing waves of enemies that invariably defeated us, to the point that it was no longer any fun and we stopped playing.

That’s a line that Zombie Army Trilogy should toe quite carefully, especially with the skills required to land successive headshots under pressure. It’s for that reason that Sniper Elite 3 will likely be a much better entry point for newcomers, even as Rebellion aim for this trilogy to exist on its own merits, but for those looking for something beyond that, with a wider co-op focus and a distinctive style of its own, Zombie Army Trilogy might just do the trick.

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