Release Date: April 16, 2019Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Saber InteractivePublisher: Focus Home InteractiveGenre: Cooperative Third-person Shooter
With explosive, borderline addictive gameplay and zero fatal flaws in its design or execution, World War Z is a frenetically fun four-player co-op zombie shooter that’s hard not to like, even if it doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre. For fans who have long been waiting for Valve to release another Left 4 Dead game, there’s a good chance that Saber Interactive’s take on the formula scratches that years-long itch.
The game is technically based on the 2013 Brad Pitt film of the same name, though that connection is only minimally relevant. At the moment, the campaign is divided into four chapters, with each chapter set in a different city and containing three levels that you can tackle with up to three partners (or you can go at it alone, aided by three bots). Each level sees your team work together and protect each other as you plow through zombie mosh pits, push buttons, find missing keycards on dead bodies (so that you can push more buttons), and safely escort hapless civilians through chambers of death (so that they can push even more buttons).
The mission objectives do get a little repetitive, but I hardly ever minded as I played through the campaign (I’ve played through it several times now) since I was always having a pretty damn good time pancaking dozens of zombies a second with the ridiculously powerful armaments at my disposal, each so satisfyingly destructive that they’re just begging to be (ab)used. Each weapon is capable of taking down at least one zombie with one shot, which is delightfully empowering, especially when you know an approaching horde doesn’t stand a chance against you and your trusty RPG.
Gunplay is fun and simple enough in essence, but there’s a weapon upgrade system that adds a surprising measure of depth to the long-game and extends replayability. There are three tiers of weapon types, and as you use each weapon, you gain experience and level up the specific gun, which allows you to buy souped-up versions using supply credits that you collect at the end of missions.
These credits can also be spent on new skills, which flesh out the game’s class system. There are six classes: Gunslinger, Hellraiser, Medic, Fixer, Slasher, and Exterminator. Each class comes with a unique skill tree, which are laid out in three 3×3 blocks of nine. You unlock these as you level up, and you can have one skill activated per column. The way you customize your skill set affects gameplay in a big way, mostly because each player brings something different to the team, and teams with well-rounded, dynamic combinations of classes and skill sets will have far greater success than teams comprised of, say, four low-level medics. One of the joys of playing online is getting matched up with three random players and seeing how your unique cocktail of classes and skillsets pans out on the battlefield.
Enemy hordes are handled dynamically as you progress through the levels, and one of the main determiners of how and in what number enemies attack is the amount of noise you make. Stealth is a viable approach in WWZ, and if you and your comrades agree to glide slowly through the levels, carefully popping the heads off of baddies with your silenced sidearms, you can get through surprisingly huge chunks of the levels without encountering any large waves of zombies, or if you’re really good, without being noticed at all. I’ve got to say, the stealth approach wasn’t nearly as fun to me as the experience of gleefully spraying hundreds of bullets into bulbous masses of rotting undead, but the fact that stealth is an option adds depth and variety to the fundamentally simple gameplay.
There are a handful of enemy types, from the fast but fragile weaklings, to the screamers (you’ve got to shut them up quickly before they attract a whole mess of their buddies), to the poison gas-emitting hazmats. Some of the enemies, like the pouncing lurkers and the hulking, armored fellows who can relentlessly chokeslam you to death, incapacitate you and can only be taken out by your teammates. This adds a nice strategic element to gameplay and encourages you to stay in close formation with your crew and play defense as thoughtfully as you play offense. Also, friendly fire is always on, which again forces you to work well with others and be more deliberate with your actions.
The campaign isn’t long but doesn’t feel too short either, and the game’s replayability can largely be attributed to the fact that gameplay, while at times gloriously violent and chaotic and ostensibly mindless, actually takes a while to master. There are little things—like learning how to best chop down a tower of zombies crawling on top of one another (just like the movie!), or learning how to take down hazmats properly so that the cloud of gas they leave behind when they go down can be easily avoided by you and your team—that reinforce the fact that there is skill involved here, and that experienced players will do far better than trigger-happy dodos, especially at the higher difficulty levels.
In between the hectic, action-heavy sections of the levels are moments of downtime in which you fortify a makeshift stronghold with autoturrets, barbed wire barricades, mortars, and more in preparation for an impending wave of hundreds and hundreds of zombies. When these swarms hit, it looks like a literal tidal wave of gnarled, grey bodies barreling toward you, and at times it feels like you and your friends legitimately have no chance of survival, which can be a truly exhilarating experience.
The game doesn’t look like anything special visually, but when there are seemingly countless enemies crawling over each other at once onscreen, the game runs surprisingly well and doesn’t stutter nearly as much as you’d expect. The sound design isn’t remarkable either, but again, it’s incredibly functional—when you’re in a dark room and there’s an offscreen zombie stalking after you, you’ll be able to hear exactly where they’re coming from.
The game’s four chapters are set in New York, Jerusalem, Russia, and Japan, and each comes with four characters to choose from who have their own backstories and dialogue to discover. The characters have enough personality that you’ll probably have a preference of who you want to play as for each chapter, and they add a light narrative element to the game that keeps it from feeling like a soulless shoot-em-up.
To say WWZ borrows heavily from L4D would be an understatement, and while Saber has added enough new elements to the formula to avoid accusations of being a store brand ripoff, the game does have a lack of polish that keeps it from being an instant classic in the way Valve’s series was.
For one, matchmaking leaves a lot to be desired. You can’t make a private lobby with friends, so unless you’ve already got a squad of four, you’re forced to play with strangers (I’d have rather filled out the empty slots with bots). Also, there’s PvP available, with the standard team deathmatch, king of the hill, and domination modes, and a set of classes unique from the campaign classes. Zombies can swarm the battlefield at any time, which can cause a beautifully chaotic scene, but on the whole, PVP feels far less compelling than the more nuanced and strategically varied PVE campaign.
World War Z isn’t quite as brilliant as Left 4 Dead, but when compared to the rest of the current gaming landscape, it’s an immensely satisfying and fun co-op shooter that’s hard to complain about, especially if you miss this style of play.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.