Shaggy grindhouse fun in short multiplayer doses, but there's not enough meat on the bone for prolonged solo play.
How many slow motion headshots does it take before the novelty wears off? The answer, as the Sniper Elite series has proved, is "a lot". Zombie Army Trilogy, a compilation of wartime horror spin-offs from the Sniper Elite series, tests that theory to its absolute limit.
There's not much point wasting word count on setting up the premise, since its right there in the title. There's an army of zombies - Nazi Zombies, naturally - and you've got to put them down. The best way to do that is, per movie lore, to shoot them in the head. Luckily, snipers are very good at shooting things in the head, and thus the battle is joined: shambling Reich ghouls versus hundreds of bullets fired at high velocity right into their squishy rotting nationalist skulls.
There is a story of sorts, spanning all three entries in the Zombie Army franchise, presented here as "episodes". The game suggests an alternate history where Hitler's last act from that fateful bunker is to unleash an undead hellstorm, which swiftly sweeps Germany. As such, you're playing not as a beefy American soldier, but Germans, looking to rid the Fatherland of the zombie epidemic.
Over the course of the three episodes, you'll chase down the relics that might put a stop to the menace, but it's as thin as game story gets - really little more than an excuse to get you moving to the next checkpoint. The scenery may go from bombed out Berlin ruins to burning museum to creepy forests, but there's no disguising the fact that you're doing the exact same thing over and over.
As with Sniper Elite, the appeal hinges on that headshot system. That makes sense, since Rebellion's take on sniping is one of the best - and most unsung - gameplay mechanics of recent years. It takes real grace and balance to take something as technically difficult as sniping, and make it both challenging and accessible. The beauty of Sniper Elite's system - and by extension Zombie Army Trilogy's - is that it works gloriously. Anyone can pull off a gruesomely satisfying kill, complete with cinematic splatter, but the trick is to do it consistently.
That's especially true in this game, which by the nature of its antagonists has ditched whatever nuance the Sniper Elite games offered. There's no stealth here, and very little strategy involved as you find the perfect sniping spot and try to pick enemies off without being spotted. Pretty much every encounter involves zombies shambling towards you - either a few or a crowd - and your task becomes one of urgent survival rather than battlefield smarts.
To aid you in this, you have more to play with than just your rifle. You also carry a secondary weapon - a sub-machine gun, a shotgun or a Panzerfaust bazooka - as well as a pistol for absolute emergencies. In terms of gear, you have grenades, land mines, trip mines and bundles of dynamite that can be set off with a well-placed shot. That arsenal gives you some idea of the ebb and flow that Zombie Army Trilogy plays with. Pick them off at range, with explosives and scattershot weapons for crowd control up close.
There's no doubt it's an enjoyable rhythm, but it varies so little across the three episodes that fatigue inevitably sets in. You wade through a crowd of zombies. Then another crowd of zombies. Then another. Then you reach a safehouse, restock, reload, and move out to the next crowd of zombies.
Things are shaken up slightly by different enemy types - fast-moving suicide bombers, leaping sniper zombies, armoured gun-toting heavies - but once you've worked out their weaknesses, their distinctive notes tend to get lost in the noise again. It doesn't help that the only way the game can increase the difficulty is to spam you with more and more enemies, forcing you to fight harder but rarely smarter. Your character can't jump or use cover, and the spots where you can climb up or drop down are rigidly enforced with invisible walls. Gut-splattered hilarity comes as standard with zombies as your enemy, but so too does a certain baseline in terms of how deep and varied the gameplay can be.
The issue is partly that each of the episodes is tethered by design to the Sniper Elite era that produced it. That means that outside of the thrill of the headshot, the first episode is a bit of a linear slog. The second is noticeably better, and the third - the one created afresh for inclusion in this package - the best of the bunch. That's the one with non-player characters, traps and decoys that can be set, and larger, broader maps that reward experimentation and exploration.
Visually too, the game is limited by what was laid in place when the first two Zombie Army games were released in 2013. The same objects and items repeat throughout the levels, and while the zombies boast some clever animations - particularly when trying to keep coming at you despite losing limbs - they're never really scary. The environments do offer some cool cosmetic features, even though the maps are too fond of empty rooms and pointless dead-ends.
I found that playing solo, the game's initial gory appeal quickly wore off. It's really not a game suited to the compressed timeframes that a deadline creates. Playing to the next checkpoint, then going to do something else, coming back for another short blast, seems to be the best way to appreciate its robust but simple charms.
The other way is to play with others. With up to four players thrown into the fray, the game goes from one-note diversion to something much more compelling. Get others involved in the third episode levels, and you're seeing Zombie Army Trilogy at its best - and under those circumstances, it's an absolute blast.
Provided all you want is the chance to shoot decomposing Nazis in the face hundreds of times over, you can't really fault Zombie Army Trilogy for delivering on the crude grindhouse pleasures implicit in its title. It's also hard not to wish the game didn't do more to deviate from its amusing but repetitive blood-soaked trajectory.
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