Interview: How Zombie Army 4: Dead War is turning it up to 11

I have painful memories from the end of Zombie Army Trilogy. I’d enjoyed battling my way through the game, often playing with match-made buddies, but come to the final battle against Zombie Hitler on top of a skyscraper, and they failed me, huddling in a corner with downed allies just a few feet away and not reviving us.

Thankfully my time playing Zombie Army 4 a few weeks ago was back to the usual shenanigans and more, with the game now sporting new character and loadout customisation options, wacky new weapons, and more hammy B-movie horror references than you can shake a dismembered hand at. Make sure to check out our preview.

We sat down with Lead Designer Ryan Baker and Level Designer Matt Hughes to find out how Zombie Army 4: Dead War is turning it up to 11.

TSA: So, have you solved the problem of playing with randoms when you’re dead near to the final Zombie Hitler boss of the game and they’re just hiding and the hordes of adds are going to get them but they won’t come and get you?

Ryan Baker: There is always going to be the problem of people being rubbish co-op partners, but we have found ways to hopefully make that better for you!

You’ve now got ways of bringing yourself back to life this time, so if you’ve got the right perk you can get a second chance if you get knocked down and kill an enemy to get back up, or if you’ve got the right modification for your medkit, you can use it when you’re downed and it sends out an electric shockwave that stuns enemies. So if you save those up for when you’re playing with rubbish people…

TSA: So, actual questions, it does feel like you’ve basically taken Zombie Army Trilogy and really fleshed it out with a bunch of ideas, just thrown stuff at it to see what sticks, I guess?

Ryan: It was a big thing, where we just said, “Right, what can we do? How can we push things forward?” We really want to push the player progression side of things, so that’s a big part of the game now where you can level up to rank 100 and each of those ranks will unlock something, whether it’s a perk a weapon upgrade kit, cosmetics, special melee attacks, and just a ton of stuff in there that really tries to push as many areas as we can forward.

It is one of those things where, a lot of the time it’s like, what more ridiculous ways can we kill zombies?

Matt Hughes: I think that’s generally the whole thing while we’ve been developing it. We’ve wanted to turn it up to 11 the whole time, just pack it with as much as we can.[…]

It’s nice to have the freedom of being set in a post-WW2 timeline in this alternate universe with zombies, so we can do pretty much anything. Yeah, bullets can be made electric, that’s fine! Zombie sharks? Yeah, that can be a thing.

TSA: I was wondering what came first: Zombie Shark or Baby Shark?

Matt: To be honest, some of us aren’t cool enough to know the song, so someone had to point it out to us!

Ryan: I think you mean luck enough not to have tiny children?

The zombie shark came out completely on its own, but it did lead to a lot of repetition of “zombie shark, do do do” in my head.

Matt: I didn’t know what it was, but then I found it up on YouTube and have had it in my head ever since! But we had the zombie shark first.

TSA: This might not be a question for you, but are there marketing discussion to license the song for adverts?

PR: All I know is that my manager cannot stop singing it, so… [laughs]

TSA: Well, I look forward to seeing “Zombie Shark, doo, doo” on the side of a London bus next to a Zombie Army 4 logo or something! [laughs]

TSA: I’m wondering, because you have done other co-op games quite recently at Rebellion. I believe it was a different studio within Rebellion, but have you been able to take anything from Strange Brigade and feed that back into Zombie Army 4?

Matt: There was quite a lot actually, and I mean you’re always learning when you’re developing games, and on every single project you spend a lot of time on forums and listening to your community. One of the things I think I enjoyed the most is the score ticking away in the top right corner; you’re helping your friends, but you kind of want to be the one getting all the headshots and racking up massive combos.

When you get to the safe rooms and ends of levels, you can throw them a sly remark like, “Oh! Look at my accuracy. 98% accuracy!”

TSA: Or “Jake, you are just garbage.”

Matt: Or that! I think it really adds to it.

The other thing I saw in our horde mode that made me laugh was that some of our traps, the way we’ve set them up they’re obviously really powerful against zombies, but if your mate happens to be standing right on one or next to one, and you happen to accidentally shoot it that can cause them a bit of bother too…

We got to the end of a wave of Horde, and I got Rob to go over and look at something that just happened to be near some spinning propellers… which I then may have “accidentally” shot and activated!

Ryan: With Strange Brigade, we played that a lot obviously, we looked at it because it’s one of our games and we want to see what we can learn from it, but we do that with all games. We’re gamers anyway, so we want to play as many games as we can and if there’s a good idea, how we can twist that into something we can use?

TSA: I guess with Strange Brigade you’ve got more analytics to help.

Ryan: So, that’s the thing. With Strange Brigade there’s more analytics we can look at and see people were doing this thing a lot, so we can build on it. Things like their traps were fantastic, so that’s one of the things that fed into Zombie Army 4.

TSA: I think this is the first time in the series that you’re battling zombies outside of Germany?

Ryan: Yeah, I think all of them were just in Germany before…

TSA: Well, the first two were basically just in Berlin because you were leaning on maps that you already had…

Ryan: It was, yeah, we were leaning quite a bit on V2 back then, mostly ruins of Germany. This has actually been one of the most exciting things for the visual designers. We’ve still got that whole dark, foggy and brooding look, but…

Matt: I mean, the two levels that you were playing today, the Meat Locker one was very dark, foggy and forested, but the second one in the sewer systems has lava everywhere… we’ve been able to really mix up our environments and have a lot of fun.

TSA: There was a definite Aliens vibe when you get into the bunker with the Creepers, and two of us had picked up the miniguns from the Gunners…

Ryan: That’s one of those bits that, if you play it solo, it’s actually quite terrifying. You’ve just got a torch and it’s dark, and even with a big heavy gun, you’re constantly looking up at the ceilings, down at the ground. It’s a great section of the game.

TSA: Yeah, I liked it. Is it one of those things where you can throw a lot more horror references and tropes into this game?

Ryan: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of those references to movies, both on the horror side, but also the sci-fi side with monster stuff. We’ve got a lot of references there, mostly to 80s horror, but there’s references to other movies as well as everyone tries to squeeze in little bits here and there. One of my favourite things is the zombie hand collectable that we have, and you’ll find them in the maps doing different things, and if you shoot them, they all have names that are a reference to some zombie movie or horror movie of some sort.

TSA: There’s plenty more variety in the campaign, definitely, but also in the Horde mode, where it feels a bit more structured than your previous horde modes?

Ryan: Yeah, one of the key things was how to make it feel a bit different to the campaign, because the campaign is ultimately made up of big horde siege moments. That’s strung through a story on a big map, obviously, but how do we make Horde feel different?

The key thing was that you’ve still got all the options with playing with perks and special weapons that you take in, but you can’t take your upgraded weapons in with you. You start with a random pistol and then you scavenge for items and other weapons. By unlocking areas, we then give you new weapons and new stuff.

Matt: It’s about slowly cranking up the pressure and opening up new areas to players, so they can run around there, but then there’s zombies coming from there and from where you were!

Ryan: A good thing about Horde is that you can reach a later wave and have the option where you can escape, or you can carry on and keep fighting wave after wave after wave until you eventually die…

TSA: And then become a zombie yourself and watch your zombified form try to eat your friends!

TSA: Finally, I’m sure you saw the memes and jokes on Twitter of what’s something you can say during sex and something else… So what’s something you can say during sex and Zombie Army 4? [laughs]

Ryan: Sorry, what is it? Something you can say…

PR: It’s something you can say during sex and Star Wars, for example. So like, “use the Force” or whatever.

Matt: Right… OK!

TSA: So I’m not sure if there’s any lines of dialogue you think can fit that? We were joking around while playing earlier…

Ryan: Oh, I’m sure we’ve got a lot in there… um…

Matt: I’ll leave this one to you, Ryan! I’m just like…

PR: How about “They just keep coming”?

Thanks to Matt and Ryan for answering our dumb questions as best they could. Zombie Army 4 is out for PS4, Xbox One and PC on 4th February. Make sure to check out our hands on preview here.

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