You might be forgiven if you blinked while playing Left 4 Dead back in 2008 and woke up to find yourself sitting in front of the new World War Z game thinking that not much has changed. Both titles are four player cooperative shooters involving thousands of zombies, and both titles allow you to play by yourself with computer-controlled bots or up to three other real people. Both also are incredibly fun to play.
World War Z the game is based on the excellent book by Max Brooks and the not so excellent movie staring Brad Pitt. It pulls somewhat from the book, in that the stories of individual survivors unlock if you complete a level while playing them. The game also draws a few things directly from the movie, especially having the swarming zombies climb over one another to make ladders, which allows them to attack you even if you are on an upper floor. You can of course shoot into the base of the pyramid to keep it from growing too tall, or toss a grenade into them for a really nice effect where the zombies, and parts of them, fly in all directions.
In fact, the zombies and how they are rendered is one of the key features in World War Z. Developer Saber Interactive created a special Swarm Engine to handle all of that. While many zombies are pre-placed in levels or spawn as needed, there are times when you will encounter a full swarm. Each swarm is different and might be compromised of 50 or so zombies all the way up to several hundred, maybe even 1,000 in some cases, especially in Japan where they are especially thick. Each of those zombies is a real, individual enemy. They have their own AI and pathfinding, and each can be targeted and put down. They almost look like a wave coming at you, and it’s quite scary to experience.
Currently the game has four main settings in the cities of New York, Jerusalem, Moscow and Tokyo. Each of those cities has three levels other than Tokyo, which has two. Each city features a complete story for a group of four survivors, though they don’t actually have to be played sequentially. You get to play a different group of people in each city. In the single player game, you take the role of one of the four, and the computer will work the others, or you can join real people in an online matchmaking, which was never a problem as the game is quite popular. More content is supposed to be added, and Saber has already released its first content map.
The artificial intelligence of the computer players is adequate, though they don’t know how to perform any special abilities and wont help with quests by, for example, carrying supplies. They do get stuck at times too, but the game cheats and respawns them if that happens, so it’s not a detriment to the game. Kudos to Saber for not going the way of some other recent games and requiring multiplayer. You can have a perfectly good time playing alone with the bots if you really hate playing with others, though unless the human players are really bad, they will probably be better than the bots. I do wish that Sable would have included split-screen local co-op, though with the swarms of zombies that might have been tough on the console’s processor.
The levels themselves are fairly linear in nature, very much like Left 4 Dead actually, where you need to travel from your starting point to end of the level. Most of the time, stealth gameplay is rewarded. Everyone gets a silenced pistol to start a new map, and using it will keep hoards from swarming. There were some levels where using a stealthy approach makes it almost too easy, compared to going through with guns blazing and having every zombie in the city show up to see what’s going on. But the choice is yours, and your AI companions will thankfully follow your lead in terms of loud or quiet killing.
Levels are populated with activities that must be done from time to time to keep things interesting. The most exciting of the tasks are the defend an area variety, which happens when an alarm goes off or you get temporarily stuck in a location. A hoard will of course spawn and come after you, and you need to defend yourselves for a certain amount of time or until all the zombies are dead. The game normally gives you a small window to prepare defenses, and things like electrical traps, barbed wire, heavy machine guns and automatic-firing turrets can be placed to even the odds if you can find them in defensive kits, and if you are quick enough to get them placed before the attack.
Other activities involve things like finding a certain number of supplies, or car parts or other resources and bringing them back to a central area, while being attacked by zombies the entire time. Here I really wish the AI would be a little smarter. If you are playing by yourself and come to a room with two of the items you need, you can scoop one up, but your AI companions wont lift a finger to grab the other one, meaning you will have to run all the way back to get it later. Thankfully, every time we worked with real humans, they were much less brain dead.
Your characters look cool but are actually only window dressing, with no advantage from one to another. On the backend however, players can rank up in a specialty skill like a team medic or a gunslinger, with special skills to buy as you earn experience. Whatever character you play, you bring your earned skills along with you. The skills are pretty helpful, with fixers providing extra ammo to the whole team and exterminators doing extra fire damage, things like that. You earn XP by simply playing the game, but can choose to spend it however you want. So you might play as a medic and then apply that XP to unlock your gunslinger’s skills. The choice is yours. My guess would be that most people will specialize in one or two classes that they most enjoy after trying them all out.
Guns and other weapons also level up, which is a pretty cool concept. The more you use a certain weapon, the more XP that weapon gains. This allows you to spend in-game currency to level your favorite gun up, but you have to unlock the higher tier versions first through using it. Once you buy a higher version of a weapon, that is what will spawn in the game for your character from that point onward. I leveled up a scout rifle into an amazing killing machine that was far better (for the way that I play) than even the assault-class weapons. There is also a good mix of assault, close range and sniper weapons, which is good because each level presents a different environment.
In addition to the normal zombies, there are several special ones that can cause trouble. The stalker hides in dark areas or around corners, and springs at you when you get close. If you get grabbed by him, there is nothing you can do other than wait for your companions to shoot or chop him off, otherwise he will eventually kill you. Your characters will mention when one is around, so you at least know to be careful. Then there is the bull, which is a cop in heavy riot gear turned zombie. You have to kill him with explosives or a few shots to the back and sides where he has less armor, or dump a ton of bullets into his frontside. The screamer is a zombie with a megaphone who makes noise and calls more of his kin until silenced. And the gas bag is a zombie with a hazmat suit on that releases poison gas when killed unless eliminated with a clean headshot. According to the roadmap for the game, a new special zombie will be added soon. Perhaps they will be like the witch in Left 4 Dead or something.
The single player game is a lot of fun, and thankfully there is a difficulty setting so you can learn all the mechanics before making things harder. The AI is okay for playing alone, though humans will probably be more efficient. In addition to the core game, there is a player versus player mode where you fight another group of survivors. The catch is that zombies are on the lose in the battleground, so you end up fighting them and the opposing team at the same time, which is a nice twist for experienced PvPers.
It’s been a while since we had a good cooperative zombie shooter, and World War Z fills that need nicely. It’s not quite a AAA game, but it’s also being offered for a discounted price, currently around $40, which is more than fair. Honestly, games like this are not normally my thing, but I really fell in love with the action and environments in World War Z. If you are into these kinds of titles, then you will be in zombie-blasting heaven in these hellish cities. World War Z earns 4.5 GiN Gems out of 5, and is cruising towards becoming a bonafide classic, especially if the developers continue to support and add to the already exciting core game.