While I was initially bewildered by the idea of a modern video game trying to cash in on the aging World War Z film license — especially as the odds of a sequel to the film circled the drain — I have to admit it was a pretty good call. But let’s start with the basics.
World War Z, based on the 2013 film (as opposed to the 2006 novel by Max Brooks, the inspiration for the film), has players tour four global territories, struggling to survive against an impressively vast zombie horde. Including New York, Jerusalem, Moscow, and Tokyo, these four unrelated chapters individually feature a group of four unique survivors who are attempting to either escape, rescue others, or find information. The story itself is vague and uninspired, and the characters range from being one note to straight up stereotypes (voiced by a menagerie of cringe-inducing attempts at accents from across the globe despite a rather diverse cast), but honestly if you’re playing with friends you’ll barely be able to even pay attention to it. Suffice it to say, outside of the familiar designs of the New York and Jerusalem locations, the game has nothing to do with the film’s plot, so don’t worry about that either. Brad Pitt, nor the Tenth Man, are here. The real draw is the gameplay — and even more so, the zombies themselves.
The co-op campaign, without trying to make this sound like a negative, is quite literally just Left 4 Dead in third-person, on an almost problematic level. Your four survivors have three weapon slots — Primary (ranging from shotguns and rifles) and Sidearms (like pistols and short stock shotguns), with the third for Heavy weapons (from rocket launchers to chainsaws). You can hold one med-kit and a grenade type, as well as a deployable item, including explosive rounds that the other players can pick up. See what I mean?
This absurdly sincere flattery becomes even more obvious as you get into the special zombie types: the Creepers (leap on players like L4D‘s Hunters), Bulls (charge and slam players against the floor repeatedly like L4D‘s Charger), and Hazmat (explodes into a cloud of toxic fumes upon death, like L4D‘s Smokers). The other special infected type, the Screamer, is at least not a direct Left 4 Dead clone but serves the same purpose as a Boomer — to alert the horde to your location. Again, this level of… inspiration… isn’t really a negative. Left 4 Dead is ten years old next year, and Valve clearly has no interest whatsoever in reviving the series, so why not copy it? Copying it so 1:1 might be a little creatively bankrupt, but eh.
These special infected aren’t the real highlight, though — that honor belongs to the standard zombies, or as marketing called them, the Swarm.
Lots of games have lots of zombies — from the sprinting and slapping dozens of Left 4 Dead to the shambling thousands of Dead Rising, the idea of having a game with giant masses of zombies isn’t new — but World War Z has one of the most fun and visually impressive takes on the zombie horde I’ve ever seen in a game. The film itself had a truly unique take on zombies, upgrading the sprinter types that had become common after the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead to a truly terrifyingly ravenous flow of undead.
This swarm moved through city streets like liquid – a mad flurry of corpses that piled on top of each other to mount a giant wall. It was easily the best aspect of the film. This behavior is recreated almost perfectly in this game, and it never failed to excite me. Hundreds of zombies pouring in from everywhere they could get to, piling up to reach us when we were on higher levels or to get over a fence in their way — it was so freaking cool that I’d argue the game is worth playing just for the spectacle of it. Watching these massive waves pour in from a distance over bridges, flowing over the tops of barricades, flinging themselves off buildings to pile up and charge towards you like a wall of death is intimidating, to say the least. The instant pumped feeling I felt as I set up my defenses in anticipation was engaging in a way no zombie shooter has ever really managed before. Especially with friends, the sort of “Hold the line!” vibe is plain awesome.
When the horde finally meets you, smacking against your meager band of survivors like a tidal wave, panic can set in very fast and overwhelm you in seconds. What at first felt like a walk in the park after easily picking off zombies from a distance evolves into chaos as your plans come apart at the dead’s fingertips. Killing them is exhilarating itself as well. Slashing through the undead with melee attacks when they cluster around you, blowing them apart one by one with your primary guns, and finally the greatest joy, using any kind of explosive on them at all. Especially when they’re piling up to reach a high ledge, tossing in a grenade to see the horde bust apart like a giant living grapefruit, flinging bodies, blood and limbs everywhere, is such a rewarding feeling. Admittedly, before being upgraded grenades feel a little weak, but once you get them beefed up the results frequently elicit lots of “OH MAN, DID YOU SEE THAT?!” moments. It’s damn fun.
While the co-op campaigns are frankly a joy to play through (I eagerly anticipate trying it out on its hardest difficulty setting, as I suspect it will be frankly batshit insane), I can’t say the same for the versus modes. There are several different types of 4v4 modes ranging from deathmatch to supply gathering to capture the hill, flying under the banner of PvPvZ (as marketing has dubbed it). Fighting against other players is frankly a chore, as the dichotomy of leveling and upgrades is a huge barrier between players who have put in the time to earn them. It makes for an obviously unbalanced game, and it’s a huge reason I hate this type of uneven loadout design. Even worse (as far as I can tell), once you have chosen your loadout and class, you are locked in for the rest of the match, meaning that you can’t re-strategize based on the enemy team loadout. Match that with questionably inconsistent hitboxes and you’ve got a recipe for a bad time.
Bizarrely, the worst thing about this is the awful spawning system for grenades and heavy weapons. Grenades, once used, simply grow back over time — but there are bags of grenades littered over the map that (despite saying “refill grenades”) simply shave a few seconds of the grenade respawn timer. This isn’t made especially clear to the player, as I picked up one of these bags and made to throw a grenade, only to find I still didn’t have one in my inventory. This caused quite a few frustrating deaths as my get out of jail card turned out not to even be in my hand. Nothing quite matches the frustration of using Heavy weapons, however. After a set amount of time, your class-based Heavy weapon will become available for use in your inventory, but don’t just whip it out and feel like you’re about to lay into the enemy team with some superior firepower. Once the weapon is actually equipped, you only have five seconds to use it. That’s regardless of whether or not you’ve started using it, as well. I didn’t even realize that the timer was there at first (as I was focused on the action, not the small, semi-transparent bar at the bottom of the screen), and in the middle of lining up what would have absolutely been a kill shot on an enemy player, I simply let go of the gun. Literally, the character just drops it on the ground like Andy not wanting to play with Woody anymore. I couldn’t even process what had happened at first and was almost immediately capped by the player I’d been drawing a bead on. I have no idea why World War Z‘s competitive multiplayer is designed this way, as opposed to simply having a limited ammo supply or any one of a dozen other, less frustrating (and nonsensical) rules for limiting the use of heavy artillery.
I started to have fun once I disentangled my mindset from much of what the game was trying to do to be unique and just played it like it was Gears or some other equivalent shooter. Running and gunning and paying little attention to objectives. It’s just too much of a pain to try and juggle so many things while the game is also throwing all of these weird constrictions at you. I’d say the best time you’ll have here is with the Swarm Deathmatch mode, as it has the least going on. It might not be the highest praise, but similar to the story mode, the game is at its best when it isn’t trying to stand out exactly.
Overall, I was genuinely surprised by what a good time World War Z is. It might not necessarily be the most original game out there, but we’ve had such a tremendous dearth of this kind of zombie action for this entire console generation. What had become an overcrowded and desperate feeling market last gen has all but dried up into the flavorless and uninspired (State of Decay 2) or the unplayable and broken (Overkill’s The Walking Dead). While drama-based, single player zombie games continue to dominate the zombie market, it’s wonderful to get something on the sillier, multiplayer side that’s actually fun again. World War Z might not be the most AAA take you’ll get on zombie co-op games, it’s definitely the one I’ve had the most fun with in a long, long time. I’d play a dozen World War Zs over another insipid Walking Dead shooter any day of the week.
(6.5 / 10)
Epic Games store code was provided by the publisher for review. World War Z is also available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4