Several years ago I read an article which put forth the notion that zombie media tends to do better when Republicans are in office, while vampires fare better when Democrats control the White House. That’s the only reason I can think of why anyone would choose 2019 to release a game based on the six-year-old World War Z movie, itself based loosely on the 13-year-old novel of the same name.
If you’ve heard about World War Z at all, you’ve probably noticed some of the distinct similarities to Valve’s Left 4 Dead franchise. World War Z is at the very least an homage to Valve’s zombie shooter, though there are enough differences that it doesn’t feel identical when you’re playing. It’s true WWZ is derivative, but it’s always been the case that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Besides, it’s been nearly ten years since Valve has done anything with the idea, so why not let someone else take a crack at it?
World War Z (PC, Epic Store exclusive [reviewed], Xbox One, PS4)
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive, Mad Dog Games
Released: April 16, 2019
MSRP: $34.99 (PC), $39.99 (Console)
It’s impossible to discuss World War Z without mentioning Left 4 Dead, so I’m not even going to try. Let’s be perfectly clear: World War Z borrows its concept and mechanics heavily from Left 4 Dead and its sequel. Left 4 Dead 2 was one of my favorite games of the last generation though, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my mind.
WWZ‘s main campaign mode puts you in the shoes of one of four survivors who can carry a long gun, a sidearm, and a heavy weapon as they move from point to point, doing their best to avoid being damaged by the swarms of undead blocking their passage. The guns chew through their ammunition fairly quickly, so you’ll need to keep them topped off at convenient ammo boxes along your route. If your main weapon runs dry before you can reload, you may be able to find a replacement slightly off the main path.
The majority of the zombies don’t pose much of a threat, only dangerous through sheer force of numbers. A few types of special zombies will make your progression more difficult, capable of incapacitating you or one of your teammates until a friendly player intervenes. Fortunately, you can always see where your teammates are since their outline glows through walls, and changes color when they’re attacked. Waypoints and other important features of the environment are outlined the same way, making it easy to figure out where you should be headed next.
Players can help one another up and share healing items, and voice communications are encouraged to better share information about weapons and other items scattered throughout the environment. So far this all sounds familiar, right? Well, WWZ does add a few of its own innovations to the L4D formula and manages to feel a little more modern than its predecessor.
The most obvious difference is the change from a first to a third-person perspective, with aiming handled through an over-the-shoulder view. This doesn’t actually affect the gameplay all that much, but it does help keep zombies from sneaking up on you. Every character always has access to a melee weapon as well, so it’s not tough to slice your way out of a bad situation.
Before a match begins, players can choose to play as one of a variety of different classes, each with slight variations to their gear and playstyle. The Medic, for example, starts with a “Stim pistol” which can be used on friendly players to give them a temporary health bonus, or at higher levels can even revive them from a distance. This takes up the slot in which other classes hold throwable items however, meaning the Medic doesn’t have access to grenades like most other classes.
Each class gains levels individually as you play, unlocking perks which can be accessed in the multiplayer modes as well as the campaign. These range from carrying more of your preferred throwable item to some really useful abilities such as being able to stand up if all four team members have been knocked down. Weapons also gain experience as they’re used, and you can choose to spend the in-game currency you earn to either unlock class perks or mod your preferred weapons with greater damage, shorter reload time, and so on. I particularly enjoyed the Crossbow weapon which fires explosive sticky bombs, and the Combat Shotgun, great for taking down special zombies.
Just like L4D you’ll choose which character you want to play as, with each player controlling a different survivor. Every character can be any class, so you don’t need to worry about playing against type or being locked out of your favorite class. Completing a chapter of the story mode with one of these characters unlocks a short video explaining who they were before the crisis, and what their motivations are now that they’re living through the apocalypse. It’s a minor detail, but I did find myself wanting to change characters frequently to learn more about them. Unfortunately, none show any of the wit and personality of L4D‘s survivors, instead relying on brusque grumpiness or general military competence as they move from one deathtrap to another.
One of the main selling points of World War Z is the zombie swarm’s behavior. Hundreds of individual ghouls will rush your position at certain points, and your team will sometimes be able to find defensive gear such as razor wire, automatic turrets, and electrified floor traps. The swarm behaves without regard for self-preservation, which can lead to some disturbing scenes where zombies fall like rain from the top of an open shaft, or form themselves into enormous human pyramids to reach the survivors. Thanks to the physics engine these pyramids collapse if you take out the lower tiers, so it’s always entertaining to fire a rocket or toss grenades into the base.
The campaign’s scenarios are well-put-together and nicely varied. The New York campaign is the most familiar, tasking the survivors with escaping from the rooftops into the subway and through the sewers. By contrast, the Jerusalem story plays more like a military shooter, and you have to protect a scientist as he activates a secret weapon. The Moscow mission has minor religious undertones, and the final Tokyo scenario sees players protecting the last load of survivors on their way to an ocean liner. (As a side note, it was a little odd to see so many Caucasian zombies in the streets of Tokyo.) There’s a fair bit of tension as you wait for a generator to come online or try to fend off a swarm before opening the way forward.
Unfortunately, WWZ isn’t nearly as polished as Left 4 Dead 2, though it does look and sound a bit nicer thanks to technological upgrades over the last decade. 4K support is in place for those with the hardware to take advantage, and the game is well optimized for those without access to higher-end tech. There are some issues that make it hard to recommend over the older game, though.
Cooperative multiplayer works pretty well, with AI bots taking over for any open slots on the team. The drop-in, drop-out feature found in L4D isn’t available here though, and once a player disconnects they can’t rejoin the game, even if invited. (I only tested this on the PC version; I’m not sure if the console editions have the same problem.) It also doesn’t seem possible to play online without opening your group to any random players who want to join in. Further, it seems as though voice communications only work while players are actively in a game, cutting out during load screens and in between matches. It’s possible these are teething problems tied to the Epic storefront, which doesn’t yet have the social features in place Steam users are used to.
The special zombies are much harder to pick out of a crowd, and there isn’t nearly the variety shown in Valve’s zombie shooter. WWZ‘s version of a Hunter is called a Creeper, and basically boils down to a skinny guy in red track pants. The Bull is a zombie in riot gear which acts a lot like the Charger from L4D2, running up to a survivor and pounding them into the ground until dispatched. “Gasbag” zombies in Hazmat suits leave a damaging cloud behind when killed, and “Screamers” attract the swarm. There aren’t any other special infected, so there’s a lot fewer decisions to be made while moving from one point to another.
Competitive multiplayer has some interesting modes, but suffers from what I think may be a fatal flaw. Perks earned in the single-player modes seem to carry over to PVP, giving higher-level players a huge advantage. Two days after release I tried playing a game and had no chance keeping up with players 30 and 50 levels higher than I was. It’s a shame, because adding hordes of deadites to King of the Hill and Domination games gives them an interesting hook. I’m hopeful a “no perks” toggle can be added here because there really is the germ of an interesting idea in these modes. Sadly, it’s not nearly as entertaining as taking command of L4D‘s playable special zombies.
Yes, it’s all been done before, but it still works, and I was surprised at how much I was enjoying myself while playing through the story mode. I suspect World War Z will perform best on the PlayStation 4 platform, where players don’t have the option to play L4D through backward compatibility. On the other hand, PS4 players might just hold out until next week’s Days Gone for their zombie-slaying fix.
Is World War Z as good as Left 4 Dead? No. Is it fun despite that? Yes. There’s few pleasures in gaming that can compare to swinging a thrumming chainsaw blade through a horde of ravenous undead, and World War Z delivers. And really, it’s not like Valve makes games anymore.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]