It’s still a bit of surprise – especially if you haven’t been paying attention to stuff and things – that the Zombie Army series is as successful as it is. Seems people can’t get enough of the thrill of teaming with up to three other players and battling their way through increasingly difficult waves of zombies. Who are also Nazis.
So, a horde mode, but with more questionable application of real-world history.
And yet here we are: what began as a bit of a throwaway add-on to Sniper Elite V2 developed into its own series, became really very successful, and has a full, proper fourth game coming in 2020 with extra bells and whistles to boot. It’s the great British indie success story, except the indie in question is a relatively massive one, and the story concerns zombies. Who are also Nazis.
Jordan Woodward, lead level designer on Zombie Army 4, explains the rationale behind going back to the well once again: “Fans were basically asking for more, so we went bigger and better in every way. We added options for players, much bigger levels than any Zombie Army game we’ve seen before, a lot more depth, and a lot more storyline with things to discover throughout.”
Part of the new newness comes in the form of perks and upgrades, with this offering players a broader sense of customisation as they make progress, allowing them to make a character very much their own.
Naturally, this brings up questions of balance – is it something Rebellion has had to focus a lot of effort on? Well, yes and no. “We focus heavily on balance throughout development, we playtest a lot internally, and we balance for one-to-four-player games specifically,” Woodward explains.
“With the perk system, though, it’s more about offering options for the game rather than trying to balance for every single combination – that would have been a gigantic challenge to do. So rather than trying to balance for every single combination, we focused on allowing people to specialise and have fun with the perks system, trying to maximise their gameplay with it.”
Another pivot for Zombie Army 4 is a focus more on the storyline aspect. You’re not going to be sat in front of Kojima-level cutscenes taking up eight hours of your time apiece, but there is more of a narrative thread running through the previously mindless slaughter of the hordes. Again, balance is key.
“The story’s always there running in the background, so if you’re interested in it there’s a lot of depth to pick up,” Woodward explains. “Or you can focus on the game as just a zombie-killing shooter. It’s not something you have to pay attention to, but there’s a lot of depth there if that’s your thing.”
It’s all presented with what could potentially be described as ‘a bit of swagger’. Rebellion is a confident developer at this point, long removed from the days of the grinding output of a work-for-hire schedule, and the ability for the team to draw from recent successes has proven another boon to Zombie Army 4. “We’ve looked at what people liked about Strange Brigade and Sniper Elite, and brought those things across to Zombie Army, like the X-ray kill cams, traps, that sort of thing,” Woodward says.
“There’s also the fact the dev teams from the previous two titles and Zombie Army Trilogy have transitioned across to the Zombie Army 4 team, so a lot of what people learned on Strange Brigade, Sniper Elite 4, and ZAT has trickled down into Zombie Army 4 as well. That experience comes across in the game.”
Powering all of this – and most of Rebellion’s output since around 2000 – is the proprietary Asura engine. Rebellion co-founder Jason Kingsley once said that the studio making its own engine ‘probably wasn’t the best idea at the time’, but decades of upgrades, updates, tweaks, and experience (on the dev side) means the team is now in a position where the burden has become a boon in a big way.
“I love Asura as an engine,” Woodward says. “I’ve used a ton of different engines, and Asura is technically really good, as well as being really intuitive for designers… Well, for anyone really, who’s used industry-standard engines. Having our own independent engine internally allows us to iterate in a way that suits us and develop the technology that plays to the strengths of the games we typically make. It’s massively paid off. It’s competing strongly with a lot of other engines.”
Of course, making your own entire engine isn’t something every indie can actually do – it’s not just the actual creation of the tool, but the ability to survive a further couple of decades and be able to improve things as you go.
Rebellion is in the unique position to be able to use Asura at its best, and as such has focused more on the stuff that really matters to those making the games: how it plays. It was evident with Sniper Elite 4 and Strange Brigade, and – so far – it’s looking like it might be the case with Zombie Army 4, too.
Format: PC / PS4 / XBO
Developer: Rebellion Developments
Publisher: Rebellion Developments