Zombie Army Trilogy began life as Sniper Elite: Zombie Army - a standalone expansion for Rebellion's popular third person stealth games.
As a console gaming fan of Sniper Elite and zombie games in general, I was hyped to hear Rebellion were bringing Zombie Army 1, 2 and the previously unreleased third installment to Xbox One, PC and PS4 in a single gory bundle.
Rebellion are an independent developer based in the UK, and enjoy a rich history spanning over 20 years. The company has worked as a third party developer on major IPs, such as Call of Duty and Alien, but are perhaps most notable for the aforementioned in-house sniper sims. As a mod of Sniper Elite, Zombie Army Trilogy bares striking similarities. Weaponry, gameplay controls and the iconic x-ray kill cam make their way from Sniper Elite, but also the bugs, v-sync issues and b-movie-style lack of polish all serve to prevent the game from achieving its full potential. Issues aside, there's only one question that really matters: "Is Zombie Army Trilogy fun?"
Execute Plan Z!
Zombie Army Trilogy takes place towards the end of World War 2. Hitler is bunkered down beneath a Berlin in flames, surrounded by panicking lieutenants. In a final act of desperation, Hitler unleashes Plan Z - the unholy summoning of Germany's vanquished armies from the pits of Hell, doomed to roam the earth as violent undead husks. Beyond that, the game offers little context. There are 8 playable characters, the 4 female characters arrived as part of the bundle - and whilst each mission and character backstory is narrated in the style of a 1940s radio drama, it's barely enough to register in terms of flavour.
There's little in terms of plot (not necessarily a problem, more on that in a bit), but Rebellion DOES deliver big on atmosphere. The smoldering ruins of the Nazi Reich are a feast for the eyes. Dynamic shadows and impeccable detail make up for the games past-gen poly count and Rebellion creates a lot of variation within each environment. Throughout the game you'll travel through zombie infested subways, ghostly countryside villages and the ruinous 1940's Berlin herself, painted red with the blood of festering Nazi corpses.
Occult symbolism and the aftermath of violent incidents litter the game's winding maps, impressing the thoughtful approach Rebellion have taken to the Zombie Army Trilogy's 80s horror leanings. The production values (and grotesque horror) ramp up demonstrably by the game's third chapter, detail and variety become ever more impressive, and there are lots of unique scenes and vistas to discover throughout the game.
On the topic of 80s horror, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rebellion's art direction can be found in the game's sound track. Sharp 80s keys and reverberating base riffs conjure nostalgic feelings of George A. Romero's pantheon of zombie movie classics. There's a lot of Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead in Zombie Army Trilogy's OST. Rebellion honour various other horror classics throughout the bundle with minor references.
Although the music is grand, I have some issues with the game's sound effects when it comes to the engine. Surround sound could be better, it's often hard to tell where (if at all) the zombie moans are coming from. Zombie groans based on location seem to penetrate walls to an unrealistic degree at times, and surround the player irrespective of where the zombies are coming from. Considering zombies often spawn behind you, it'd be nice if the game's approach to surround sound reflected that - but its a pretty minor gripe.
There are also issues with Rebellion's engine when it comes to presentation. Screen tearing v-sync problems prevalent in Sniper Elite 3 make a prolific return in Zombie Army Trilogy, as well as SE3's quirky animations and floaty physics. Again though, these are largely minor issues. Rebellion games lack some of the polish some may have become accustomed to from the heavy hitting triple A publishers, but the tenacious UK dev wins big on several key aspects when it comes to the game's setting.
Buckets of blood, bones, bullets
Zombie Army Trilogy leads as a co-op experience, and is similar to games like Killing Floor and Left 4 Dead minus the first person aspect. You and your buddies will traverse hordes of undead from safe room to safe room, swarmed by a pre-determined amount of zombie spawns of various types along the way. Each segment is gated, similar to Destiny's dinklebot door hacking. Once you've achieved the objective (which is often, but not always, kill all the zombies) the mist will lift, or the Devil May Cry-esque glyph blocked door will open, leading you to the next killing sequence.
This might seem shallow at first glance, but Zombie Army Trilogy goes to lengths to keep the action fresh. Rifles, sub machine guns and pistols whilst handling well, operate in largely the same way regardless of model. Regardless, combat is delectable with detailed gore systems, glorious explosions and the iconic x-ray sniper kill cam. There are pick-up only weapons scattered around, such as the rocket launching Panzerfaust and the double barreled Preacher, but variety here is on the low end. ZAT's explosives are an incredibly important tool, as well as a zombie exploding source of joy. Well placed mines or dynamite can save you when you're tasked with surviving an onslaught.
Segments often feature choke points and other strategic positions which allow players to co-ordinate and plan, as well as position mines and trip wires. This type of gameplay becomes utterly essential on Zombie Army Trilogy's "Sniper Elite" difficulty, which forces players to use advanced tactics like mob training (tricking zombies to chase a specific player into a trap) and aggro bouncing (forcing Gatling gun wielding heavy zombies to switch attention so players can spread damage). Even on the game's normal difficulty, its very easy to get overwhelmed if you're not paying attention, and those difficult moments tend to be incredibly thrilling when playing with friends.
At times however, Zombie Army Trilogy's campaign can feel like a bit of a grind. Certain sequences feature nothing but wave after wave of shambling undead. For some, it may get stale after a while, even with friends. Later levels throw sniper zombies, heavy weapons zombies, exploding kamikaze zombies and various other horrors into the mix, which serve to keep the action from becoming too repetitive.
Different segments require different strategies. Some are wide open sniper arenas, some may be Horde-mode-like in their defence of a position (in addition to the game's stand-alone Horde mode). The variation improves towards the latter half of the game's sizable campaign, throwing in environmental traps and new unique enemies, but some may be put off by the game's first chapter, which has not aged well.
When the game is played solo, the lack of variety can darken the gameplay. Combat is bloody and satisfying. But when the need for strategizing isn't there (as the amount of zombies scales down against the amount of players involved), the game devolves into a third person shooting gallery.
As I crept alone through the ruins of WW2 Germany, eerily beautiful as they are, the lack of story became really apparent. I would've liked to have seen text files, audio logs or brief cut scenes to add context to the vintage apocalypse. Whether these were absent for budget reasons is unknown, and I can see how they'd negatively impact the pacing in co-operative play, but their absence is a shame in single player. For some, even with the majestic x-ray kill cam in all its cinematic glory may not be enough to keep lonely monotony at bay. The game begs to be played with friends.
As mentioned previously, the game does provide some context, you can read about the 8 characters inconsequential back stories in the selection menu, and the missions are introduced with a couple of lines of narration to explain just what the hell you're doing there - but it leaves you wanting. I feel as though they were willfully avoiding trying to derive a plot from the pretty ridiculous base concept Hitler's unholy zombie army, but hey, I could've gotten into it. Maybe I'm weird.
The last game I played in any depth was similar co-op focused Evolve. In ZAT, I found myself missing the L4D-like banter between characters. I wondered how my character Beth Coleman, had wound up fighting hordes of zombies with an ex-Nazi officer. The situation does improve leaps and bounds by Chapter's 2 and 3 however. Friendly NPCs begin making an appearance as the survivors start establishing a foothold in Berlin, providing missions with further context and flavour - but the earlier missions haven't aged all that well in this regard.
Despite minor gripes, I would rank Zombie Army Trilogy on the co-op fan's list of 'must buy' titles. Surviving massive onslaughts of zombies all filled with juicy virtual blood is an incredibly satisfying and thrilling experience. Rebellion could do more to add a human element to ZAT through characters or story, but the game delivers large quantities of fun factor. The engine may not be as polished as some are accustomed to, but attention to detail, nostalgic 80s style horror and gruesome combat far outshine the game's problems.
Rebellion have captured the essence of the old school zombie flick and turned it into a gruesomely satisfying co-op experience. The campaign is a meaty 15+ hours, features multiple difficulties and enjoys a 5-map Horde mode. The game's earlier chapters will dissuade many gamers (and reviewers), if you decide to pick this up I'd urge patience. The game matures well as you progress to the more recent installments, but some may argue that level of quality should be pervasive throughout.