The most important thing to know about Zombie Army Trilogy is that it only really tries to do one thing, and it does it well. It takes two of the most eminently shootable enemies in video games – Nazis and zombies – has Hitler combine them in unholy matrimony and then sends you and your mates out to go and try to shoot them all in the head.
With the first two games in the trilogy originally called Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army – back when they were digital only PC releases and Rebellion didn’t really have to worry about getting the games sold in supermarkets – these were quite clear offshoots from Sniper Elite V2. It took the sniping mechanics of that game and quite simply gave you a different and much more numerous, shambling enemy to shoot at.
Their jerkier motions provide a very different type of target to hit, compared to the upright soldiers of the main Sniper Elite games, and especially so if you play on the hardest difficulty, which takes heart-rate, wind, bullet drop and stance into account for long distance sniping. Thankfully, the default difficulty sees you just take some minor bullet drop into account, while the easiest has next to no scope wobble and no bullet drop to contend with. Either way, it’s still going to be tricky to land a headshot, but there’s a quite unique satisfaction to finding yourself in the zone and rattling off a series of rapid shots with pinpoint accuracy.
There’s a quite unique style to the game itself as well, which borrows heavily from classic films of the genre and the so called ‘video nasties’ of the 70s and 80s. The world is often shrouded in thick fog of varying shades, with the masses of slow zombies shuffling their way towards you, glowing eyes the sole disruption to their silhouetted shapes against the coloured background.
It’s wonderfully atmospheric, especially when playing on your own, and it’s only made more oppressive and otherworldly by the guttural roar of the zombies that march your way. It’s all consuming, but there are enough breaks in the overwhelming cacophony to let you hear the brilliant pastiche of an 80’s horror film soundtrack that accompanies the game, full of simplistic synthesised delight.
Some of that atmosphere – not to mention the often quite gruesome slow motion X-Ray Kill Cam – is sadly lost when you play with others in the 2-4 player, drop-in, drop-out co-op. Yet, that’s also when the game is at its best, whether you play in matchmaking or in a private lobby. It scales the challenge and the number of zombies it throws your way up and down depending on the number of players, and really forces you to try to work together to take them all out and watch each other’s backs, as the deceptively slow zombies can come to overwhelm you surprisingly quickly.
Having said that, the trilogy adds two new elements which quite fundamentally alter the way you play the game. The first is a kick and stomp ability, letting you dispatch plain zombies and skeletons quickly without wasting ammo – though it can sometime feel like you’re playing something more akin to Kicking Elite – while the other is a combo meter and arcade-like scoring. It adds a tantalising risk and reward system, where you either waste ammo shooting the torso to preserve your combo or risk aiming for the already difficult to hit heads to secure the kills. It’s only made trickier when there is more than one player aiming for the same target.
It’s with this solidity of gameplay as the backdrop that the third campaign comes to the fore. Though story is hardly the point of this head-popping experience, this sees you head back into Berlin and out the other side as you try to take out a zombified Hitler and put an end to the scourge which he is unleashing on the world.
There’s a general feeling of fun and silliness to what Rebellion have created, as they fully embrace the kitschy world they’ve created and you find small details like a leg sticking out of an air vent, shipping crates stuffed with intestines and more. The set pieces become more varied, as you fight through a logging yard or battle through a zombie infested train. There are even some minor interactions with other survivors, which you occasionally meet.
In comparison, the first two campaigns simply feel weaker and less interesting. Both feature five chapters to battle through – bringing the total to fifteen levels in the game each lasting at least 45 minutes, if not over an hour – but for those that have played Sniper Elite V2, it will be quite painfully obvious to see that levels from that game have been reused almost wholesale, simply redressed with occult symbols, certain paths have been blocked off and you’ll probably be playing through the level in reverse, or something like that.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and especially not for newcomers, but the level design as a whole feels like a step down from the third episode. There’s too much time spent in the heart of Berlin, moving from one blood spattered shelled out building to another, and it can often feel too much like the shooting gallery that it really is.
You can also see that progression and evolution through the three episodes manifest itself in the kinds of enemies that you face. The first game predominantly features your bog standard zombie soldiers and skeletons, with the machine gun toting Elites brought out for good measure and the occasional sniper zombie who can leap from building to building. As you continue, skeletons gain armour, Elites might come with chainsaws that they whirl around themselves in balletic fashion, and Fire Demons, Summoners and Occult Generals all appear to summon even greater hordes that can quickly overwhelm you.
While you can turn to shotguns and submachine guns, these have the same unsatisfying feel as in Sniper Elite 3, even if they can clear your immediate vicinity. The one theme that runs throughout the game is that you need to land those headshots. Killed by other means, your enemies have a propensity to resurrect and get back up, while blowing a zombie’s legs off will simply see them doing a butterfly stroke to drag themselves along the floor and bite at your ankles. Saying that, there’s still a chance that you’ll experience the momentary shock of shooting a head off only to see a zombie continue to stagger towards you regardless.
Armoured skeletons and zombies need you to land a series of accurate hits to dispatch them, while the Elites, Fire Demons and some others can take dozens of hits with little to no indication that you’re dealing damage. These implacable foes are often at the heart of a very inconsistent level of difficulty, with certain battles and set pieces feeling near impossible to deal with and sending you back to the last checkpoint should you all die.
Sadly, missions are segmented by reaching successive safe rooms, and it’s generally these which are the game’s checkpoints. While they let you stock up on ammo and change weaponry, it feels unnecessarily punitive and can easily wipe out ten minutes of progress, a problem which persists across all three campaigns to varying degrees. Ultimately, it can sap a lot of the fun out of the game to have to repeat a lengthy section time and again because a difficulty spike is giving you problems, especially given that sniping is an inherently slow paced activity.
Checkpointing naturally isn’t a sticking point in the game’s Horde mode, which follows the standard formula of sending different waves of enemies your way. Each of the five maps feels pleasingly different and features tailor-made waves of enemies, whether it’s the seaside bunker, the half destroyed church or the delightfully simplistic alleyway that though simple is a particularly cathartic exercise in sniping. It might not revolutionise the game mode, but certainly gives a slightly different style of play and adds another layer of longevity beyond the fifteen or more hours of play time in the three campaigns.
Zombie Army Trilogy knows what it wants to be, a straightforward zombie sniping game that lacks any real pretensions or delusions of grandeur. Parts of the trilogy are showing their age and difficulty spikes can sap away the fun, but steel yourself for a challenge, get some mates together and there’s plenty to like about it.
Version tested: PlayStation 4