I’m in downtown New York, I’ve just fought my way through a packed office block and my crew and I have now fought our way to a balcony which overlooks an expansive lobby some floors below. From this distance, it’s hard to make out much but suddenly we all become aware of the fact that the floor appears to be moving. That’s when we realize that that shifting; winding, the amorphous floor beneath us is comprised almost entirely of zombies.
Experiences like this define the minute-to-minute gameplay of Saber Interactive’s World War Z, a title which seems to have narrowly missed the release of its feature-length brother by around almost six years. This isn’t to say that the game should be overlooked, however. At its heart, World War Z can best be described as a third-person spiritual successor to the Left 4 Dead franchise. It has the four-player co-operative action that you’d expect, it has the violent gunplay, it has moments of pure unbridle chaos and it also has four separate campaigns spread across multiple locations. What then does World War Z do to distinguish itself in a market saturated by the living dead? The answer: it has a metric shitload of zombies.
I’m not being glib here, World War Z is one of those rare games that comes along every once in a while and just stuns you with the pure spectacle that it can produce on screen. The zombies are the real stars of the show here and it really can’t be overstated just how impressive it is to see the raw bodies sprinting at you at any one time is. According to developer, Saber Interactive, World War Z’s engine is capable of putting out up to five hundred zombies (or Zeke’s as the game constantly attempts to reframe them) at any one time.
It’s fearsomely impressive stuff and the feeling of dread as you realize that a group of zeke’s are falling off of buildings to get at you, whilst another quickly create a human pyramid to embarrass even the most committed workplace team-building exercise is something that simply isn’t represented in other games.
To be fair though, it’s clear that lessons have been learned from Valve’s critically acclaimed zombie shooter, even down to the use of an AI Director, but more glaringly, special infected which have been taken almost wholesale from Left 4 Dead. There’s the Bull, or should that be Charger. Then there’s the Hazmat Suit zombie which releases a cloud of noxious gas when shot, pretty similar to the Smoker if you ask me, and then there’s the creeper zombie type that literally leaps onto the player and pins them to the floor until either a fellow player or an AI companion can assist.
Potential lawsuits aside, these ‘special’ infected are employed far more liberally than Left 4 Dead which does make it seem especially ridiculous when you round a corner once killing a bull only to see another hurtling towards you. The only one I enjoyed seeing regularly was the Screamer as it’s perpetual wailing calls out to another horde for you to fight.
This is perhaps where it would be best to talk about the overall gameplay of World War Z and I was actually quite surprised by how well World War Z feels to play. It’s quick and easy to settle into the sway of gunplay, meaning that it doesn’t take much time at all to start dispatching hordes from the off. None of the game’s weapons are gated and are useable as you find them and thanks to some nifty design, you’re actually rewarded for trying out each and every one of them. If you focus on using all of the weapons, eventually you can swap them in for better models, meaning that you’re rewarded for the time that you sink into the game.
Additionally, there’s also a class system in play which lets you pick the skills that your character will take into each unpredictable arena. You can choose to level a class in which you’ll be equipped with impact grenades or conversely one in which you can heal your friends more efficiently. Both of these systems lend permanency to your actions and rewards players of all styles.
It’s worth noting that World War Z can be played offline with bots, who are actually quite competent at assisting you – but grossly negligent when it comes to helping their artificially intelligent brethren – and will run through hell and back to assist you should be knocked on your ass by a special infected. However, World War Z is best played with friends as the game offers you so many minor ways to complement each other’s play-styles. When you’re playing with friends and working as a single well-oiled machine, the game really shines and it’s doubtless that you’ll have the most fun when playing in this way.
Unfortunately, this is where World War Z begins to stumble a bit. Most notably, during my playtime, I did encounter occasional missteps in performance, not so much during demanding scenes but, oddly, during downtime. At some points when I could sense that the game was trying to load the next area, the game would pause for a second or two and I’d be left compromised.
Additionally, there are also substantial audio bugs in the game, with the speech of player characters being the most offensive, at one moment they’d sound like they’d been recorded in a professional studio environment, whilst at others on their friend’s phone in the middle of a hurricane. It’s powerfully disorienting and immersion shattering in a game in which you’d like to maintain both.
World War Z does also come with another multiplayer mode which pits one team as the Zombies and the other as the human survivors akin to Left 4 Dead, only here, it feels like something of an afterthought. It’s very hard to even get a game of this mode going and the gameplay is best suited when you simply have to plow through a swarm of computer-controlled bots rather than in a player-versus-player arena but the option is there for anyone who should want to dip their toes into it.
As well as this, after having played several hours of the title, I’m not sure how long World War Z can hold the attention of players as to some the upgrade paths may be either too easy to breeze through or the differences therein so inconsequential that they simply won’t matter. Once you’ve played through the four campaigns and the three levels in each, there really isn’t a huge incentive to jump back in so immediately. Without the introduction of some DLC down the line, I’m not sure whether the content on show will be enough to keep people coming back.
World War Z is a game wrapped up in its spectacle. It is overwhelming in the best way, forcing the player to deal with multiple incoming threats in the midst of a highly stressful environment. However, it often feels like its overpowering content is trying to obfuscate an occasional lack of polish and a lack of content once you’ve played through its fairly meager campaign and a complimentary multiplayer suite.