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19 March 2015

Cooperative gaming – like shooting Nazi zombies with a friend – comes to the fore in Zombie Army Trilogy

From Borderlands to Payday 2, by way of Left 4 Dead and Destiny, the world is full of games that just don’t quite work when played solo.

By Phil Hartup

Zombie Army Trilogy is a game about shooting thousands of Nazi zombies. It is the follow-up to two prior games, Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army and Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army 2, which are games about shooting hundreds of Nazi zombies. Zombie Army Trilogy includes the first two games within it, and adds a third story of roughly equal size. As such, Zombie Army Trilogy is the only game that you will ever need on the subject of shooting Nazi zombies.

This series is a spinoff from the Sniper Elite games, which are a trio of third-person stealthy sniper games set in World War Two. The games are most notable for their kill camera, which shows you a slow-motion, X-ray cut-scene of the bullets ploughing through the men that you’re shooting. The kill camera returns for the Zombie Army games, but since you’re just popping corpse skulls it’s a lot less graphic and a lot less, well, whatever the appeal of the kill camera was in the first place.

The story for Zombie Army Trilogy is pretty simple. Somebody saw the zombie horde mode from Call of Duty: World at War and thought, “Hey, we could do that!” and they did. As such the plot of the game is the usual “Hitler makes a deal with supernatural forces” malarkey, with our hero or heroes being tasked to stop him via the aforementioned shooting of thousands of Nazi zombies. On a creative level, Zombie Army Trilogy is deader than its subject matter. Happily, though, it seems to be quite aware of this and doesn’t try to force a narrative – cut scenes are brief and plot exposition is almost non-existent. You follow markers and you shoot zombies and every so often there’s a boss to kill. The one at the end is that prick with the moustache off the History Channel.

As an exercise in creating a by-the-numbers third-person shooter, the game is surprisingly solid. The game is raised far above its artistic lethargy by a workmanlike but reliable set of core game mechanics that are both challenging and fun. This might sound like a very low aspiration for any video game but it is important. Plenty of games in their pursuit of artistic kudos or a cinematic experience let the business of playing the game – of pressing buttons and making things happen for reasons of entertainment – fall down the list of priorities. Zombie Army Trilogy demands precise shooting and careful movement, and the management of ammunition and explosives gives it a level of challenge that most games either don’t have or, worse, don’t even aspire to have.

That said, the game can be a somewhat tiresome experience when played alone. Those same workmanlike mechanics that drive the game can very easily start to feel a lot like actual work when drawn out for too long. The lack of immersion makes it difficult to lose yourself to the game, and the action isn’t always heavy enough to distract from the fact that all the game has is action. The lulls between set pieces are very much needed for games with a heavier narrative focus – you need time to digest the story, to let the characters express themselves and to soak up the atmosphere, but if your game is basically a funfair shooting gallery then the bits with no ducks are just a waste of everybody’s time. This isn’t a problem unique to Zombie Army Trilogy, of course, but from Borderlands to Payday 2, by way of Left 4 Dead and Destiny, the world is full of games that just don’t quite work when played solo.

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As such the true highlight of the game lies in its cooperative mode. Now of course this is something of a platitude, with a few exceptions almost every game is improved when played as a team. However Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t just become tolerable when played in this manner it positively shines.

There are two big reasons for this. Firstly, the game really suits multiple players. The sniper emphasis encourages players to narrow their focus to what’s in front of them, reducing their situational awareness, which in turn encourages players to watch out for each other. Meanwhile there’s no reward, experience points or unlocks attached to a high score, so you don’t have any incentive to play selfishly. As the game gets tougher it becomes more about keeping each other protected, because (due to the primacy of powerful long range weaponry) it’s actually easier to protect your friends than protect yourself. This creates a situation not unlike the allegory of the long spoons, which is no bad thing.

The systems of the game encourage genuine cooperation as opposed to it just dumping a bunch of players into the same fight and letting them have at it. The lack of a role or class system helps here too, with players just doing whatever needs to be done rather than being pushed into a specific task. Weapons are plentiful too, so you’re not going to fall out over who had dibs on what.

Secondly, the scoring system has enough of a competitive element inherent to it that even the drab bits of the game are fun when played in a group. The level playing field of the game encourages competition and, because it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, the competition is only ever friendly. The little buzz of doing a thing and trying to do it better than somebody else – even something as trifling as popping the dome off a shambling fascist at a hundred yards – is good. It’s part of what games are all about. When the game ramps up the difficulty (and it can go very high if you choose) competition is swiftly forgotten and the teamwork returns.

Zombie Army Trilogy is a reminder that in the weird world of game design a game can still work, can still be entertaining and fun, even if it seems to have neither style nor substance. Worth a look if you’ve got friends to play it with and worth making some friends for if you don’t.