AJ’s ‘Best of 2015’ – Best game I said I would write about

Best of 2015

There was a good running for this category; I started and ultimately failed to write about a whole number of games this past year. Everblue 2, Hand of Fate, Lords of the Fallen, Lifeless Planet and Submerged were all games I planned to write about, on top of a number of articles that ended up being destroyed due to a combination of my laptop dying on me and my failing to get a new one (I have been living on a tablet for the last 6 months and it has been oddly refreshing).

The worst thing for the winning game was that this review was pretty much written but I had connectivity issues with the docs back up.

So, a game that I dearly loved, and the best game I totally said I would write about:

Zombie Army Trilogy

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Zombie Army Trilogy is a spin-off from Rebellion’s long running Sniper Elite series. It started its life on the PC as two distinct episodes about shooting Nazi zombies in the face. This bundle also includes a third episode.

As is popular, this game presents an alternative history in which Hitler resorts to ‘Plan B’ (I reckon it should have been called ‘Plan Z’; just saying) by turning everyone into zombies. Tongue is firmly in cheek from the outset. The soundtrack is heavy slabs of John Carpenter-inspired synth and the colour palette is neon green, yellow and bright red that harkens to the trashy 70s horror flicks that Rob Zombie is in love with.

With that in mind, any fans of Sniper Elite need to reset their expectations. The main series focuses on setting up perfect shots and moving stealthily through the level. Although there are still slow motion sniper porn moments, the pacing of the Zombie Army Trilogy eschews long range stealth for an emphasis on crowd control.

Rebellion has a knack for making games and iterations on their earlier products that introduce genuine changes which are good because I didn’t realise I actually wanted them before I got them.

In the Sniper Elite series many of the gadgets at the player’s disposal (landmines, dynamite etc) felt like fun but largely unnecessary add-ons in anything but very specific circumstances. Similarly, all the close and mid range weapons felt as if using them meant you had failed at what made Sniper Elite good – if enemies were close enough to warrant use then you should probably start the scenario again.

Not so in ZAT, where every pitched shoot-out is a race to whittle down the numbers of enemies approaching. Switching to shotgun or machinegun is an inevitability rather than a faux-pas. The first chapter sets the mood as you hold off hundreds of slathering ghouls from inside a demolished two-storey building. You start off laying mines and trip-wires and sniping from as far away as possible but slowly they will push you back until you are fighting pitched battles in a dining room using every trick at your disposal. What’s a grenade between friends?

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This approach helps to set Zombie Army Trilogy apart from its engine buddy and I would say that there is more in common in with Left 4 Dead than Sniper Elite.

This also holds true for how the game should be digested. Although the game is divided into episodes it is more of a jump-in-play-one-chapter experience, and it is always better played with friends. The fits and bursts are drilled in more so because in online co-op mid-level progress is not saved.

That bit of griping aside the pure enjoyment is there. The feedback from a well executed shot is just as gratifying as ever. Once the game gets going, the set-pieces are fantastic; having to run between different rooms in a factory to find enough petrol to fuel your escape vehicle and then hold out against the encroaching hordes is exhilarating. The distinct feel of each of the episodes also helps. Episode 1 is a very no-nonsense setup with levels ripped almost directly from Sniper Elite V2, but Episode 2 has some notable setups with creepier moments set in the Fuhrer’s bunker, and Episode 3 ramps everything up by offering better level design, NPC interactions and a better thread through the chapters. For me the standout is Forest of Chaos which culminates in a chalet scenario which needs to be played as if it is a section in The Club; you literally perform laps of the level hoping to thin the herd but also not get killed by the chainsaw nutter who chases you everywhere.

Sadly, due to the episodic nature of the game there are problems in its overall pacing. The first level in the game is also one of the hardest as it introduces the Super Elite – a bullet sponge that has to be hit in the head multiple times. This introduction doesn’t do enough to prepare you as the game then almost immediately throws them at you in smaller arenas where one Super Elite can take you out very quickly and remorselessly. The other big spike in the challenge is a level called ‘The Terminal’ where you will find yourself trapped on a bridge with enemies coming from both sides. It means that escape is impossible and then the game throws a combination of enemies at you that will grind you into the dust. I would love to see someone demonstrate how you finish this level in solo play as I have yet to beat it.

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Fortunately, you can select any level you want and enjoyment comes from reattempting your favourites and escalating the difficulty and the numbers of enemies that will spawn (these two sliders are independent of each other, so you can make the enemies easy but make them spawn as if there were 4 people playing even if there are not).

The horde modes hark back to Rebellion’s original conception of these in Rogue Trooper and they play as well here as, again, the player needs to focus on laying traps and setting up enough breathing space between themselves and the unrelenting hordes.

Zombie Army ends up being a delight when played with friends and in the spirit that it was conceived – a blast of skull explosions, poorly laid plans turning into frantic scrabbling for safe ground and ad-libbed heroics with the ‘Preacher’, a double barrelled shotgun that turns the undead into giblets.

As always I look forward to whatever Sniper Elite IV brings, but I am now also eager to see what the next version of this spin-off brings with it.

[ A review copy was kindly supplied by Rebellion; many thanks to Ilya and Robbie Cooke for taking the time to sort that out. 

Addendum: One thing that isn’t typically covered unless the game in question omits it concerns the range of playable characters. Zombie Army Trilogy offers a selection of 8 playable characters, 4 men and 4 women. The differences between each is purely cosmetic, which is perfect. Thanks for doing that Rebellion, you didn’t have to but it is appreciated by one player nonetheless. ]