Inspired by Max Brooks’ book and the Brad Pitt film that bore little resemblance to the source material, Sabre Interactive brings us World War Z, which feels more in keeping with what the author was originally trying to convey – short, distinct stories of survivors making it through impossible odds to safety. It’s a premise that’s suited to video game narrative, yet one that’s been rehashed time and again over the years, so there needs to be a different hook. The developers think they’ve got that, and the game gets straight to the point so we should too… is there enough in the 12 missions available to keep you coming back to stop the undead in their tracks?
World War Z is a co-op zombie shooter with complete emphasis on gunning down the hordes in front of you and making it to your next checkpoint alive. Set across 4 different countries and involving a quite impressive array of characters with different abilities to choose from, there’s a story that ties in with each location, but none of them are linked outside the apocalypse that’s in progress. It doesn’t sound particularly original until you see what you’re facing off against – hundreds and hundreds of hungry ex-humans. “Yes,” I can hear you say, “but we’ve seen that before in Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising“, and you wouldn’t be wrong. What’s new here is the way they come at the players. Fast, savage and determined as individuals, and almost unstoppable when they begin to work together. The point of difference is the sheer scale of the ferocious attacks and the way they flow together and break apart, all controlled by the aptly named Swarm Engine. You’ll never forget the first moment that a tidal wave of bodies seemingly rises up out of nowhere and engulfs everything in its path.
The Z’s are like a living, breathing organism in the way they assault the team of players, relying on the volume of them to overrun the smaller but well armed force. High ground would usually be a safe haven, yet one of the key features is that the zombies naturally create pyramids of each other to clamber up and get to their prey (a tactic that can be satisfyingly foiled by taking out the base). They also don’t simply attack from one direction, they flank and use special types to disrupt defenders and allow the main force to get a foothold. It’s breathtaking stuff at times and means the advantage can pivot from one side to the other quite quickly. Lack of attention to other ingress points in the area (to the side, above and below) will mean seeing you and your cohorts being separated and left to deal with multiple enemies at once, and that’s when things will definitely go south. Saying that this is a co-op shooter doesn’t just mean that there are multiple people on the same side, there’s a real need to stay within reach of each other for doling out special ammo, medication and straight up saving each others lives.
The standard horde fodder are reasonably easy to deal with (at the lower difficulties at least), and it tends to be special zombie types that need a lot of attention. Shriekers, Bulls, Lurkers and Hazmat suited ones all have different effects that need to be countered fast. Whether they’re calling in extra numbers, charging through clouds of bullets, or pinning a player to the ground, they need to be prioritised above anything else that’s happening otherwise it’ll be game over. Fortunately, even though there are only ever 4 survivors together, the arsenal on hand is nicely varied and suitable for a few different scenarios. Everyone gets a primary and secondary weapon with the specifics depending on the class and loadout of the player, and powerful special weapons are dotted around the levels to provide the oomph when it’s needed. Because there’s a fair amount of defensive play, traps and mounted guns make appearances at predefined points and help thin the herd, or at the very least slow an advance. However, not getting their attention in the first place is a pretty decent way of making progress.
Noise has an impact and will mean the difference between hitting the set piece swarm moments with full ammo and health packs, and barely scraping through the “quiet” sections alive. Most operatives have a silenced firearm on hand, and if not they can usually get one easily enough in the level, or if they buy some upgrades. Keeping things low key and taking out the oblivious zombies in the way will get the team a whole lot further without chaos ensuing. World War Z isn’t a stealth game at heart, yet it does offer up benefits if you can stay undetected for a while. Of course, using these tactics means having co-operative players in the squad and if it’s filled with AI then things are likely to be alright for a while. It’s free choice on whether to play online or off, and AI will be available online if the spaces in the team aren’t filled straightaway. Matchmaking is smooth and the slots get filled fairly quickly, and even if they’re not, it won’t be long into a level before someone joins, and then it all descends into the worst horror movie cliches you can think of… and that’s a lot of fun.
With the way the game is structured, the lack of tutorials and guidance isn’t really a problem, it’s all pretty intuitive. However, the purpose of being a team and staying close together seems to be lost on a number of people you encounter online, so for the most harmonious exploits make sure to squad up with friends, and communicate with them. There are some in-game options to let your team know basic things you’re thinking, and they don’t work all that well, so nothing beats having a headset and telling people what’s coming, where you’re going, and that they need to get within the objective marker or everyone will die. With the temptation to just keep mowing down the seemingly never ending hordes, it’s easy to get lost in the moment and lose track of what the purpose is – staying alive and not getting hit by friendly fire. Not every scenario is about defeating all the zombies, and sometimes running away is exactly the right thing to do. Just make sure it’s done together or there’s bound to be backtracking to find the one slow coach that’s been grabbed and pummelled by something foul lurking in the dark.
Clearing each level awards XP and cash to spend, and ranks up the class of character used, as well as also increasing proficiency with weapons. Failing a level also awards these things too, but at a much reduced rate. If the game kicks you out or crashes from the server then you get nothing. Par for the course in an online game though mildly annoying if it’s happened after some hard fought battles. The levelling and cash awards are arguably the point which will split opinion on the game because after completing all the scenarios, and some of them twice, the extra abilities and weapon upgrades available can be pretty meagre. This is mainly due to the cash requirements because whilst the class levelled up quite nicely and gave access to new skills, the income rewards at about a third of the same rate, so it’s very difficult to buy what you want without grinding at lower levels, or heading for the higher difficulties and hoping that it’s a successful mission. With six classes to level up as well, and each starting from scratch, there’s a feeling that fatigue may creep in quite early. That said, the game does adapt to the way you play and procedurally generates the enemies and items so there’s a different experience each time. On top of the replayability of the main campaign there’s a PVP mode if you want to go down that route.
I had some reservations about World War Z from what I’d seen during the development, and despite the impressive looking swarms, I wasn’t sure if I’d get on with it. It looked like it might be a one trick pony that had all other gameplay elements suffer because of a lack of focus. That’s not the case. With friends this is one of the better co-op shooters available, and I’d liken it to Strange Brigade in the way it makes you feel after a particularly intense fight. It’s not as polished as that game and there are a few janky moments in the online stability; it could also do with a couple more countries to massacre crowds of zombies in; and the grind will get people down if they want to see everything there is to offer. Yet, there’s a lot of fun in here and getting the right team together to stand up to the swarm is thrilling. Pairing up with random partners who think they’re able to take on the anything and everything can end up being enjoyable too… especially if it’s shutting a door on them and leaving them to be ravaged because they’re not paying attention to the objective. Anyone who’s a fan of co-op games should really have this on their wish list.
A PS4 review copy of World War Z was provided by Koch Media’s PR team and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £35.