Is it still a cynical cash-in if a game is released 6 years after a movie? With World War Z, we’re about to find out.
“How long is it, roughly?” I ask the PR person, trying to plan my schedule for the next few days.
“Not 100% sure,” they reply, “but it shouldn’t be overly long if you play with the right group of people.”
With hindsight, that should have been my first warning. Later, when I had downloaded World War Z to my Xbox One and it required me to re-subscribe to Xbox Live Gold, that was warning number two.
The third warning was on the loading screen to my first session of World War Z, playing a pick-up co-op game with randos found via matchmaking. It was a small, innocuous tooltip, that read: “When you are grabbed by zombies, only your teammates can help you.”
I should explain. World War Z is a co-op action game filled with – much like World War Z, the movie – fast zombies that have a tendency to swarm. That’s a cool mechanic (more on that later) but in order to offer some variety in enemy types, there are also some ‘special’ zombies.
There’s the ‘screamer’, who shrieks endlessly, attracting more zombies until you kill them. There’s also the ‘hazmat’ or ‘gasbag’, who has turned into a member of the undead while wearing a hazard protection suit. When you puncture the suit to kill them, they let off a cloud of noxious gas.
The issue – when playing with randos – comes with the ‘bull’ and ‘lurker’ zombie types.
The ‘bull’ is a classic brute, an enormous bullet sponge who’s hard to stop. They also grab a player and bash them into the ground, like Hulk with Loki in Avengers: Assemble, either until the player dies, or a teammate kills the ‘bull’. The ‘lurker’ hides in dark corners, gasping breathily, for a classic jump scare. When they pounce, they pin the player down and, like the ‘bull’, the attack doesn’t stop until either the player or the ‘lurker’ dies.
There are no QTEs. There are no buttons to be mashed. There’s no counterattack. You can’t get away. And if your teammates are off being morons you’ll die within moments, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
After a few games with actual human beings who, inexplicably, were somehow less focused and slower-witted than our zombie opponents, I gave up and – for the sake of the review – played through with three NPCs, instead.
It’s a shame I couldn’t have gotten to the stage of playing World War Z solo without first subscribing to Xbox Live Gold. When other humans were removed from the mix, I actually started having fun! It’s even more of a shame I couldn’t play split-screen with Mrs B, but that’s a common complaint in our household.
The elevator pitch for World War Z is really simple: What if Left 4 Dead’s structure was mashed up with Gears of War’s third-person perspective, with the swarming, towering zombies from the movie? In fact, it feels like the entire game has been built around that one aspect of the movie. You know, where the feral, former humans form writhing towers of flesh and teeth to scale walls and bring down helicopters?
It sounds stupid, but there have been worse bases for video games over the years.
Distilled to this particular element, where the zombies swarm like ants, that Gears of War comparison is particularly apt. Like the Locust in Gears, World War Z’s zombies come in waves and in large numbers, often in tower defence sequences with limited time to place fortifications. There can be as many as 500 on the screen at any one time, but it’s their behaviour – the swarming, the climbing, the towers, the heedless plummeting – that makes them interesting.
Most enemies (the ‘bull’ aside) go down in a few hits, which means you can cut through massive swathes of them in seconds. In turn, this means the game can keep back-filling the endless conveyor of zombies towards your position. It’s dumb as a brick, sure, but very satisfying. In open play, it’s fun enough, but in tower defence sequences – as you mow zombies down with turrets, mortars, and other serious hardware – World War Z can be an absolute blast.
It’s also visually impressive, if a little inconsistent and janky. With so much going on at once on the screen, that’s no surprise.
There are some vague nods towards depth, including character classes and weapon progression that, in truth, don’t make much difference. If you spread your classes among the team – one class gets a boost to healing items, another suffers no accuracy penalty shooting while moving, and so on – you’ll find it easier. But in reality? It’s all just relentless plugging away at scrambling hordes, however you slice it.
One less common feature of World War Z, one that shouldn’t be underestimated, is the ability to play any scenario from the start. As in the book – less so, the movie – the game is a series of vignettes. We jump around the world, from New York to Jerusalem, to Moscow, to Tokyo, with different bands of survivors in each location. There are stories, of sorts, but really it’s just some on-screen barks to direct you where to go cut down swathes of zombies next.
Trying to arrange an online game with three friends in this day and age is hard work. When you’re trying to play through scenarios – each one might take a couple of hours, with three scenarios per locale – doing them in order, with everyone tracking progression, is even more difficult. World War Z’s option to pile into any scenario in any order is a real blessing, and one that more games should make use of.
It’s a great metaphor for World War Z itself. This is a game, disjointed and frenetic, ostensibly built around one element of an average action movie from six years ago. The movie feels like an editing cut and shut job, with a different ending swapped in at the last second, but it’s still an enjoyable watch. That spirit has carried through into the game, years later, for better or worse.
But at the core of World War Z is that one single, visual spectacle, that – when it works – translates incredibly well into set pieces in a video game.