I wish Dan O’Bannon were here today to see Zombie Army 4

, | Game reviews

Heavy Metal was a 1981 anthology of very R-rated short animated films based on the sci-fi/fantasy magazine.  It was infused with enough nudity, gore, and profanity — albeit animated — to keep a 15-year-old boy riveted.  But after the titillation wore off, the part of Heavy Metal that stuck with me the most was a segment called B-17, about the ill-fated crew of a World War II bomber.  I was really into B-17s.  I had built models of them.  Sure, I was partial to the B-25 (remind me to tell you about a solitaire boardgame called Enemy Coast Ahead), but the B-17 was a legend.  It was an icon of American resolve and fortitude.

So there I was, fifteen years old, watching all this weird science fiction with nekkid ladies and bloody decapitations, when a B-17 zooms across the screen.  Its crew is violently shredded in graphic detail by enemy gunfire.  The captain and co-pilot are the only survivors. The co-pilot unbuckles from his seat in the cockpit and explores the quiet ruin and carnage in the rest of the plane.  Every last man in the crew, dead.  An eerie wind whistles through the holes torn in the fuselage.  He notices a mysterious green object tailing the plane.  It hits the belly of the bomber and turns all the dead crew members into zombies.  They kill the co-pilot and converge on the horrified pilot in the cockpit.  He barely escapes with a parachute and discovers himself stranded on a remote Pacific island full of crashed airplanes…and zombie pilots!  The end.

Wait, my kid-brain thinks, back up.  The dead crew turned into zombies?  What?  Why?  How?  The mysterious green object was Heavy Metal’s framing device, loosely connecting its animated shorts.  But that’s not how zombies happen!  I had seen the two movies about zombies, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.  I knew the science.  Zombies are caused by radiation on a probe returning from Venus, but that won’t happen until the 60s.  So why are there zombies in my animated short about a B-17 bomber?  Why would there ever even be zombies in World War II?  Is this dumb, or is this cool?  My kid brain eventually determined it’s cool, but probably not canon. 

As an adult blissfully free of kid-brain objections to non-canon, I’m delighted by these obscure subgenres.  Weird West, for instance, juxtaposes two different genres.  The American Frontier as the nexus of black hat/white hat morality and cosmic nihilism, possibility and horror, cowboys and dinosaurs.  Simultaneously dumb and cool!  But World War II and horror?  In a way, World War II is already horror, so adding zombies is just doubling down.  Twice the horror, one part real, one part fantastical.  It’s not enough that Hitler engineered the Holocaust.  Now he’s meddling in the occult!  Is this dumb, or is it cool?  My adult brain eventually determines new words are needed.  It’s grotesque and absurd.  It might even be funny.

For the latest in World War II horror, look no further than Rebellion’s Zombie Army series.  It began as an add-on to one of their Sniper Elite games, apparently designed to cash in on the popularity of Left 4 Dead.  But over the course of three games, Zombie Army never quite broke free from the Sniper Elite model: stand way back and shoot stuff.  But then Rebellion made Strange Brigade, their jovial homage to the serial pulp of the 1930s (read the review here).  Strange Brigade is a straight-up shooter, sniping optional, full of merry challenges, score chases, character progression, and replayability, all very toe-to-toe with its monsters.  And now that Zombie Army 4 is supercharged with Strange Brigade’s DNA, the series has hit its stride.  This isn’t just Rebellion’s best game so far, drawing from the best of Sniper Elite, Zombie Army, and Strange Brigade.  This is their grotesque, absurd, and undeniably comedic contribution to zombie videogames.

When I was fifteen, I don’t think I realized that zombies are absurd.  It’s there to see in Dawn of the Dead in 1978 as they bumble around the mall while the muzak plays.  George Romero knew.  But it wasn’t until 1985 when Dan O’Bannon wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead that the cards were laid on the table.  Most people know O’Bannon’s as the writer of Alien, which introduced science fiction’s most famous biological life cycle.  He also wrote several minor (i.e. not very good) horror movies throughout the 80s.  He wrote and directed The Resurrected, a rare Lovecraft movie that’s actually Lovecraftian, as opposed to some pervy Stuart Gordon version of Lovecraftian.  In the 80s, everyone fascinated by horror knew the names Craven, Cronenberg, Hooper, Dante, Raimi, Carpenter.  But the cool kids knew names like Coscarelli, Cohen, and O’Bannon.  The cool kids had seen O’Bannon in Dark Star, which he made with another student from USC named John Carpenter.  Here’s O’Bannon, in the foreground, trying his hand as an actor in Dark Star as Sergeant Pinback:

In 1985, O’Bannon took what was supposed to be a sequel to Night of the Living Dead and turned it into a screwball deconstruction.  Not to say Return of the Living Dead was just a comedy.  The mythology was still too young for parody.  As a zombie movie, Return of the Living Dead was as grim and serious as it needed to be.  Despite the goofing around, there’s plenty of blood, horror, mayhem, and even as dire an ending as you’ll ever see in a zombie movie.  Look closely and you’ll even see a Nazi.

Besides, O’Bannon was a true believer.  Being a fan of horror is like being into cosplay or tabletop RPGs.  You have to keep a straight face, to a certain degree.  You have to understand that, yes, it’s absurd, but it only works if you also accept it’s somehow meaningful.  Otherwise, it’s just parody.  Once you plop a traffic cone on a zombie’s head, start playing the silly music, and whack away at it with a weed whacker, you’re just goofing around.  Dead Rising is the guy at the table cutting up and making fun of everything.  Sure, he’s entertaining.  And he’s not wrong.  But Keiji Inafune’s contribution to zombie games comes with no small amount of smirking.  There might even be some pointing and laughing.  When you’re literally slapping things with sticks, it’s a good indicator of slapstick.

But Zombie Army 4 is also a true believer.  It is not a parody.  It leans hard into the “World War II meets horror” subgenre, with a full appreciation for how absurd it is, but without just laughing at it.  Like a grindhouse movie, it’s self-aware and it embraces the absurdity.  Is it dumb?  Yep.  Over the top?  You bet.  But above all else, it’s committed to the concept.  It’s grey, it’s consistent, it’s grim, it’s relentless, it’s as serious as it needs to be.

For instance, consider the splatter factor.  You would be hard-pressed to find a shooter with this much explicit gunshot gore.  But keep in mind an important distinction that sets Zombie Army 4 apart is that it’s a shooter in which you’re the only one doing the shooting.  Things aren’t shooting back at you.  Zombies don’t have guns, and the few that do tend to just fire indiscriminately because they’re zombies.  This isn’t Doom, Call of Duty, Gears of War, or The Division, in which you’re participating in a shootout.  This is asymmetrical warfare in which they have the numbers and you have the firepower.  And oh boy, do you have the firepower.  In addition to your guns, Zombie Army 4 freely doles out explosives, mines, tripwires, special attacks, special damage types, flamethrowers, anti-aircraft cannons, mounted machine guns, and traps built into the environment.

This is one of the points of zombie mythology.  In Vietnam, we learned a painful lesson about fighting asymmetrical warfare and the limitations of superior firepower.  That’s partly what zombie movies express when the well-armed defenders are overwhelmed in the end.  But since Zombie Army 4 is a videogame, it’s an American power fantasy about superior firepower.  All the slaughter is righteous and guilt-free.  There’s no collateral damage and no questionable morality, so the gore is a cause for celebration.  The grotesque X-ray slo-mo view of a critical kill, applied to something already dead and insensate, is a moment of glory.  The bullet enters through the eye socket and exits through the back of the head, shattering the skull.  Shards of bone expand like shrapnel.  The brain matter explodes into a jellied mass.  The zombie’s body jerks backwards.  The swastika’ed helmet goes flying.  Gameplay pauses so you can admire it all in slow motion, with the clinical intimacy of an X-ray view.  It’s seriously grotesque stuff, but also absolutely absurd.  

Now consider one of the collectibles.  Hidden among the levels are dismembered zombie hands, skittering around on their fingertips like spiders.  This obviously recalls the slapstick from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies.  Zombie Army gives each hand a cute name.  MacReady, Grimes, Edgar, George A.  They’re tiny and hard to see, but if you find them and shoot them, you check them off the list and eventually get a reward.

I was replaying a level in an underground laboratory to get a higher score.  I’d gotten a flamethrower and I was looking for a good defensive spot to stash it before triggering the final siege.  Along a hallway, I heard a weird high-pitched scratching sound which I figured was just part of the soundscape.  Irritating, but I suppose effective.  I ducked into a room that was supposed to be a classroom.  Rows of desks and a chalkboard on the wall.  Movement along the chalkboard caught my eye.  A zombie hand was moving back and forth, making the irritating noise I could hear from the hallway.  Fingernails on a chalkboard.  Zombie fingernails.  Okay, Rebellion, good one.  And one more collectible zombie hand for me.  Its name was Renn.

The absurd deadly earnest of the splattergore on one hand.  The sly nod of the zombie fingernails on a chalkboard on the other hand.  Seriousness and silliness, side by side, but not just a comedy.  Despite the goofing around, there’s plenty of blood, horror, mayhem, dismemberment, incineration, and electrocution.  And, of course, Nazis.  The Hitler stuff is too silly to be offensive, but it’s still Hitler.  And believe it or not, Rebellion still manages to come up with a clever Hitler boss battle at the end.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all…

As a shooter, Zombie Army 4 gets so much right.  Rebellion has learned a lot over the years and this feels like the work of a veteran developer who knows exactly what they’re doing.  One unfortunate exception is the difficulty level, where Rebellion fails to offer any incentive to play the harder difficulty levels.  If you want to level up your character and your weapons, you slow yourself down playing the harder difficulty levels.  You get the same amount of experience points on the easiest difficulty, and you get them faster.  Rebellion gets so many things right here, but like so many other developers, they fail to appreciate how to use difficulty levels as a challenge instead of a pointless obstacle.  If you’re going to use experience points for progression, why not add a multiplier for harder difficulty levels?

Partly because the grey is so unrelenting, the level design can get repetitive as the game goes on.  At least Rebellion knows to front-load the most exciting stuff.  By the time you’re bored of all the grey villages and tunnels, you’re hooked on the actual gameplay.  And they know how to stage exciting set pieces with clever gimmicks and twists.  They also know how to add tons of replayability to the levels, with challenges, collectibles, and even hidden puzzles similar to Strange Brigade.  By the time you’ve played the final boss battle, there’s still plenty to do, including a ton of post-release content for sale.  There’s about $50 of stuff for sale, prominently featured in the game menus, asking you to spend more money.  It’s pretty crass, as far as business models go.  

The paid DLC levels mostly feel like remixes, but with just a touch of unique content.  The real paid DLC you’ll want are the weapons.  These weapons are appealing not just because they’re some of the better guns.  They’re appealing for how they use a completely different leveling system.  You upgrade the basic guns, the ones that come with the game, by finding tokens hidden in the levels.  You’ll probably find most of them after a single playthrough, and there aren’t that many available.  Hopefully, you’re happy with the guns you’ve upgraded, because it’s going to be a real slog to improve any other weapons.  But the paid DLC weapons don’t use upgrade tokens.  Instead, each stage of their upgrades has a prerequisite, like getting a certain number of headshots, or killing a certain type of zombie, or getting kills from beyond a certain range.  Pile these onto the heaps of other achievements, quests, and goals in Zombie Army 4, all pushing gameplay progression forward.  One of the problems with Strange Brigade was its glacial progression system, but that’s not an issue here.  On the contrary, it’s a powerful draw for how it gives Zombie Army 4 so much of its replayability.

And then there’s the scoring system, taken straight from Strange Brigade, inspired by games like Bulletstorm.  As far as I can tell, it all goes back to The Club, by a developer called Bizarre Creations who took the scoring system from their Project Gotham racing games and applied it to a shooter.  The Club was such a strange but compelling concept.  Imagine playing a shooter and being judged as if it were an Olympic event or scored as if it were a pinball machine.  The idea first is that you care about your score.  Do you?  Because in Zombie Army 4, it’s going to determine how many experience points you get at the end of the level, which is the fundamental track for advancing in the game.  So let’s assume that, yes, you care about your score.  

Each kill scores points, and consecutive kills apply a multiplier to those points.  The multiplier is on a cooldown timer that resets unless you keep shooting zombies.  Once you’ve got the multiplier going, you’ve introduced a risk/reward dynamic.  Do you take the time to line up a headshot for extra points, risking a miss that will run down the multiplier clock?  Or do you just take the safe shot for fewer points to safely keep the multiplier going?  This is the basic dilemma of score-based shooters, and it’s fully fleshed out in Zombie Army 4.  The risk/reward calculus takes into account headshots, environmental kills, multi-kills, traps, your character’s perks, critical hits, melee attacks, focus attacks, damage types, and so forth.  Once you accept the score chase, the zombies are a resource.  You’ll hear pinball machine sound effects when your score is tallied after a mission.  It’s the perfect expression of how Zombie Army 4 is an ebullient package of challenges, goals, risks, rewards, and reasons to play, replay, and play over again to beat your replay.  All this grim horror about Hitler’s occult army of the undead, played as if it were a virtual pinball machine.  Did you beat your previous high score?

The latest Dooms are an interesting contrast for how they apply a risk/reward structure to give the shooting its own rhythm.  Doom Eternal has a gameplay beat you can dance to: health, ammo, chainsaw kill, reprise!  Doom Eternal is a never-ending rave.  But Zombie Army 4 is a series of building crescendos based on goals, objectives, and scores, more like a symphony than a dance party.  The progression system in Doom Eternal is baked in and in-your-face.  It feels like it’s compensating for something.  Zombie Army 4 has all the progression of Doom Eternal, except not in your face.  Instead, it’s in the saferooms between levels where you get to take a break to look over your guns, what you’ve unlocked, what upgrades you can use, whether you want to change characters.  These safe rooms aren’t some pointless space castles.  You don’t get a space castle.  You wouldn’t want one.  You’re just passing through on your way to saving the world from zombie Hitler.  

After all these years, Doom is trying to come to terms with its own seriousness and still isn’t sure how to do it.  It’s still trying to find its place in the world of modern shooters.  But with Zombie Army 4, Rebellion shows them how it’s done.  This is how you build a shooter, and furthermore, this is how you express the inherent silliness of it all.  Underneath the dim grey and the grim gore, there’s an indelible sense of playfulness to Zombie Army 4.  It’s not just horror, it’s horror laced with comedy.  It is what Dan O’Bannon did for George Romero with Return of the Living Dead.  He embraced, unreservedly, the horror of zombies, but also acknowledged, unabashedly, the absurdity of zombies.

Incidentally, the B-17 segment in Heavy Metal was written by Dan O’Bannon.  I bet he would have loved Zombie Army 4.

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  • Zombie Army 4

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Infused with the jovial DNA of Strange Brigade, Rebellion's canny combination of horror and absurdity is their best game yet and a grand example of how to add progression and scoring to a modern shooter.