As we approach the six year anniversary of World War Z (the movie) it seems strange that anyone would spend the money to license the aging title to make a video game, especially when it was already confirmed that the movie’s sequel had been scrapped over budget concerns. Even so, Saber Interactive has released yet another zombie game to an audience that should be quite tired of all the undead carnage by now, yet somehow managed to twist my expectations of what I assumed was going to be another licensed cash grab.
Aside from the title, World War Z borrows little else from the movie with the singular exception of recreating those infamous swarms of zombies made famous in those epic wide shots in the film, right down to their ant-like ability to climb over themselves to scale vertical obstacles. If that was your only takeaway from the movie then you are going to feel right at home in the game. Obviously, Brad Pitt is out and replaced with a cast of four stereotypical heroes – actually sixteen since there are four new characters in each of the four cities represented in the game’s campaign. Characters are uniquely equipped and balanced, offering something that will hopefully appeal to all players’ gaming styles. You have the Gunslinger, Hellraiser, Medic, Fixer, Slasher, and Exterminator; all of which determine your basic function within the group, your starting loadout and the contents of resupply crates, but the way you choose to play is still up to you.
World War Z is a 4-person multiplayer team game borrowing heavily on the inspirations of the Left 4 Dead franchise and is best played with as many human players as possible, but I was particularly impressed with just how good the AI was for any characters left to computer control. Admittedly, they will only perform the most basic of combat and self-preservation actions, leaving all the heavy lifting like setting up defenses and performing specific mission tasks to the human players. An early example of this is in the NYC subway level where you are tasked with retrieving five weapons crates. If you are playing alone with three AI teammates then you are going to have to make five separate trips to get those crates, whereas a full human squad could complete this in half the time.
World War Z has the basic framework of what could have been a much larger game. Rather than some huge overarching narrative you have four disconnected campaigns set in New York, Jerusalem, Moscow, and Tokyo, and each of these only have a few missions, plus each city offers you a fresh cast of characters you’ll need to learn and evolve as you bounce around the globe. The story is minimal at best with most of the character-driven cutscenes reserved for special unlocks and viewing outside the game.
There is no mistaking the Left 4 Dead influence that inspires the frantic combat and those tension filled moments before an invasion, as you scurry about setting up turrets, electric fences, and barbed wire perimeter defense to slow the impending horde. The game does a great job of balances both styles of gameplay with some surprisingly good controls and third-person combat that truly makes you feel like part of a team of badass heroes. Despite the random zombie who runs right by you, the enemy AI is equally impressive as is the swarm technology. The first time I saw a flood of thousands of zombies washing down the NYC streets I was stunned. Zombies were flinging themselves from the tops of buildings to add to the carnage – it was literally raining undead. It gets even more terrifying when those zombies are coming for you.
The level design in World War Z makes expert use of chokepoints to keep the enemy hordes manageable while keeping the encounters challenging and realistically satisfying. There are numerous instances where you will see those signature zombie pyramids as the undead scale vertical surfaces in their mindless quest to reach you, and these offer the guiltiest of pleasures when you toss a grenade or launch an RPG into the writhing horde and watch the bodies fly like popcorn. The ragdoll physics in this game are spectacular.
World War Z is arguably rather light in content and short on completion time with a design that seems more suited for arcade play. The designers are expecting you to replay the provided content over and over, and to that end there is a fantastic system in place for progression that rewards class loyalty and weapon preference. Everything you do in the game fuels your progression, so it is best to find a class that works for you and stick with it, at least for each campaign. I did appreciate that any character can be any class, so if you are working to unlock those backstory animations you can still keep your class progression going. The more you play the more you unlock boosts and abilities, which incentivizes sticking with a particular class, but also discourages you from experimenting with others. Similarly, weapons also level up individually, so the more you use a certain weapon the more powerful it becomes, and there is a great selection of weapons spanning three tiers of firearms and assorted melee weapons like a machete and shovel. Weapons have specs for power, accuracy, handling, fire rate, max penetration, and magazine size.
All of this progression is designed to encourage you to replay the game on any of its five difficulty levels ranging from easy, normal, hard, very hard, and insane. Outside the campaign mode there is also an 8-player competitive mode for two teams to battle it out amongst the zombie hordes, but during the two weeks I was playing World War Z I couldn’t join or even get one of these matches going to test. I’m not sure if this was due to simply nobody wanting to play competitively or a side effect of the Epic Game Store exclusivity blowback for the PC. This lack of community also concerns me for the campaign mode as well, so unless you have a group of friends who also have the game, you might have trouble assembling a team of human players.
World War Z is quite spectacular to behold with a polish to the graphics you wouldn’t expect from a movie license game. This is one of the first games to use the new Vulkan API and my RTX2080ti card was able to smoothly run this game at 4K resolution at 60fps with all the video options cranked to max settings. Textures were fantastic and there was some great lighting and shadows all combining to create a stylized and almost photo-real environment at times. The UI and HUD was minimal and never distracted, but there was this annoying debug text at the bottom of the screen showing connection and server data that never went away. The audio was exciting and made great use of positional surround sound to hint at the direction of approaching zombies. The weapons all had satisfying effects and the impact sounds of melee weapons were appropriately disgusting.
Despite getting very little interaction or cooperation with other humans I still managed to have a good time with World War Z thanks to its surprisingly good team AI. Perhaps the console community is thriving, but the PC audience is severely lacking, and hopefully there will be a resurgence if this game ever makes it to Steam. This is as close to a Left 4 Dead game that I’ve seen in years and with a strong focus on progression and replayability there is a lot of gameplay potential to be had. Sadly, with no local co-op or split-screen options a lot of that enjoyment may depend on how many friends you can talk into getting the game. At least the $35 price tag might make this an easier discussion.