The War Z is an upcoming massive multiplayer game from Hammerpoint Interactive, which gives us the opportunity to experience the joys of surviving a zombie apocalypse: shambling corpses, dehydration, starvation, psychopathic bandits and, if we somehow survive all of the above, getting infected and becoming zombies ourselves. Ignoring the fun of gnawing on people and their brains for a moment, how is the game shaping up?
The game is set in 2019, five years after an outbreak of an incredibly virulent disease that kills humans and transforms them into zombies. Ninety five percent of population worldwide has died as a result of the infection, with the remaining five percent fighting daily for survival, scrounging food, water and essential supplies just to live to fight another day. Players step into the shoes of ordinary survivors, trying to make it to the end of the day without losing their life.
Currently in closed beta testing, The War Z has not yet reached maturity, with several features (most notably drivable vehicles and friendly non-player characters) still awaiting implementation, and just a single map, Colorado, available for playing at this time. However, that is enough to get a taste of what the gameplay’s going to be like in the finished product. The map is very large, with several distinct locales available for looting, zombie hordes for killing and a lot of open space to cover. The War Z puts emphasis on the survival aspect of the apocalypse, forcing the player to watch out for his character’s needs: nourishment and hydration. That means exploring abandoned settlements is not optional – it’s absolutely necessary to survive. Even then, supplies are scarce and require thoroughness in scavenging. It adds a much appreciated element of tension to the game, amplified by the fact that needs rise deceptively slow. So slow, that you may forget about them, right until you realize you’re in the middle of nowhere, with no drinkable water available. It’s moments like these that really add to the survival experience.
Another element that contributes to it is the danger. The War Z universe is a place lethal in many ways. The most commonly encountered threat are (unsurprisingly) zombies. Numerous, aggressive and strong, the undead make looting trips dangerous, particularly to a survivor not privy to tricks of the trade (such as jumping on cars or other elevated areas, so that you can attack them without fear of retaliation). However, at present, it isn’t zombies that survivors have to worry about. It’s other survivors. Living humans rate as the number one threat to life and property in The War Z. There are currently no restrictions on player vs. player combat, nor any kind of policing on the servers. As expected, there are a number of players who treat the game not as a zombie survival simulator, but as a generic deathmatch, shooting everyone they see. Although bandits can be expected to appear after the apocalypse, dying repeatedly at the hands of aggressive players leads to frustration, rather than appreciation of the dog-eat-dog atmosphere.
These factors make The War Z a difficult game to get into at the present. New characters start off with just a flashlight for defense. It’s not even a viable weapon – it takes literally five minutes to defeat a single zombie with it. And with the scarcity of resources, weapons are hard to come by, more so, if one is looking for firearms. New players are looking at a few hours of wandering through the map defenseless, running from zombies and scrounging supplies to get by until they can find something, anything to defend with. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, as some will appreciate the genuine survival feel of the game, having to constantly watch their backs and look out for zombies or, worse, fellow survivors. This also makes the occasional cooperation with another living human, looting locales and killing zombies together, then parting amicably, all the more satisfying. In a world filled with monsters out to get you (both living and undead), you learn to appreciate courtesy and friendly people.
Regardless of whether you’re alone, dodging bullets or working together to loot a military camp, one thing will be obvious: The War Z sounds good. Really good. Music takes a backseat to ambience and it pays off. Life continues on in the densely forested wilderness. The woodpecker hunts for food, the crickets chirp, while the wind blows through the leaves. This almost idyllic environment changes the closer one is to a populated area. Eerie silence dominates when exploring settlements and camps, reinforcing the feeling of loneliness and devastation. It also makes interruptions all the more powerful. When the gurgling sound of a startled zombie or the loud report of a rifle break the silence, the absence of music magnifies the interruption several times over. It helps that they are of high quality too.
In addition to sounding good, the game is well done visually. Running on the Eclipse Engine that also powers the free-to-play multiplayer shooter War, Inc.: Battlezone, The War Z offers good, detailed models and well done textures, combining them with the ability to render large areas, both natural and man made, without a noticeable drop in performance. However, technical quality is only one side of the coin.
The other is design and so far, The War Z does not disappoint. Its high point and a personal favourite of this author is the layout and look of survivor camps and safe settlements. Learning from mistakes made by surviving humans in zombie fiction, they present a no-nonsense, rational approach to a zombie apocalypse, using the disadvantages of the undead against them. For example, zombies can’t climb, so living quarters are built on elevated platforms with retractable ramps for access. Zombies are dumb, piling against walls in their attempt to nob some brains, so walkways extend beyond the perimeter wall to allow picking them off and cleaning up. In short, survivor fortresses are actually built like fortresses. Other locations scattered throughout the world are designed just as well, with distinct visual identities and atmosphere. An abandoned military camp feels like an abandoned military camp, a large, deserted city feels like a large deserted city and so on and so forth. If the developers manage to maintain this level of quality, The War Z will be a good looking game with a solid art direction.
Taking into account that the game is still in development and several features could not be tested (such as the aforementioned vehicles or performing missions), the game is good. Features that are implemented are sound, the netcode works well, without much lag, the atmosphere is superb and the quality of visuals and audio is likewise good. The biggest issue is the aforementioned excessive player vs. player gameplay, which may lead to frustration on the part of less experienced players.
Overall, The War Z is definitely a title to follow, if one likes multiplayer games with a strong emphasis on survival or is a fan of the zombie genre in general.