Saber Interactive’s recently released ‘World War Z’ game has drawn almost universal comparison to the Left4Dead games that for many epitomised the zombie game invasion of about a decade ago. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with a new game being similar to an older one, or in the case of Fortnite:BR copying almost feature for feature, but when I first watched the trailer I immediately identified each of the characters from the opening ‘World War Z’ as their Left4Dead counterparts. In short there is a suspicious amount of similarity here which somehow surpasses mere bandwagon jumping, especially as Left4Dead 2 had its heyday around its release in 2009. For my wife and I, this all came as a big draw; we’re L4D fans (to the point that we still have the movie style posters from the original game hanging in our lounge) and invested some long playtimes in to those first two games. My wife isn’t hugely in to competitive gaming, so many of the big FPS hits with us have been of the PvE variety where tight teams work together against AI in some predefined mission. With the comparison firmly planted in our minds, having watched the trailer, and having a pretty idle weekend to spare we decided to treat ourselves and give ‘World War Z’ a shot.
… and at this point I’d like to address the mammoth in the theatre by discussing the controversial use of the ‘World War Z’ name. Max Brooks’ novel ‘World War Z’ is a superb piece of fiction that takes the reader on a journey through the zombie apocalypse with intimate human guidance via the use of interview extracts (almost a collection of vignettes) from survivors in different situations, times, and locations that come together to give the reader a macroscopic view of the horror of the scenario. It is well worth a read if you haven’t. In contrast the movie ‘World War Z’, on which the tone and settings of the game seem to be based, is really a dramatisation of Brooks’ work in name only. Whilst the action does jump around the globe, much of the subtlety and multi-threaded storytelling of the book is lost in the screen adaptation which focuses on a single plot line. That’s not to say that the movie wasn’t an enjoyable action/zombie movie with some memorable set pieces – it just wasn’t a good adaptation of the novel. It’s easiest to just separate the two as unrelated works in your mind.
We spent our gaming time last weekend in the cooperative mode (these ramblings serve as first impressions of that only) so thus far I can’t comment on, what is labelled as, ‘multiplayer’ which I’m assuming is code for PVP. ‘World War Z’ drops a team of four characters, rich in stereotypes and poor in memorable personality, in to one of four chapters from around the globe (New York, Jerusalem, Moscow, and Tokyo). Each of these chapters is split in to three acts and each has their own plot arc that the players must work through. Gameplay is mostly linear with players working their way through the levels (stealth being an option here) between various horde moments which display the much advertised vast numbers of zeek on screen at once and tend to include areas where the undead can pile up to form ‘pyramids’ and scale walls; a visual lifted directly from the movie that adds to the tower defence feel of many moments in the game.
Overall we’ve been enjoying the experience, but that could be due to our fondness for the L4D games (henceforth just known as L4D), so instead of giving a traditional first impressions style review of WWZ, I’ve decided to compare several of the game elements directly to L4D and see how similar the two are and where they differ:
L4D was revolutionary for its horde events; moments where crowds of zombies would charge players, either at random moments, or prompted by some alert signal. The amount of zombies on screen at any one time was impressive, but I think in sheer numbers WWZ has it bested due to some insanely large crowds. Numbers aren’t everything however and, setting the visual spectacle aside, WWZ does tend to self-limit the amount of zombies that actually reach the player via the aforementioned pyramid mechanic or some other ‘barrier’ allowing the player to thin the crows before it reaches them. Both games feature specific horde defence moments, but outside of these the smaller groups of zeek that descend on players who don’t do sneaky-sneaky are roughly the same in intensity for both games. Within those big ‘tower-defense’ style horde events the undead waves in WWZ approach mechanically along pre-set ingress routes and if you can look beyond the souls chomping ravenously in your face then you’ll notice the weird robotic ‘sliding’ animation that the approaching zombies have. By contrast the smaller L4D crowds only ever seemed to organically pathfind.
WWZ also features ‘special’ infected; zombies that have some extra ability or attack type. The lurker hides around corner and pounces on players in a manner almost identically to L4D’s hunter. The bull is a large riot gear clad zombie that charged and smashes players making it a cross between L4D’s charger and tank. The screamer stands at a distance and summons crowds of zombies to the player’s location which isn’t a direct copy of a L4D enemy but has summoning elements similar to Boomer Bile. Finally the gasbag releases a cloud of noxious gas when shot making it similar to the original concept to the smoker and the spitter. All these act competently in enforcing teamwork and providing some variety to the standard guns blazing combat. Sadly the bull doesn’t provide the same level of threat or spectacle as L4D’s tank which would soak up bullets and flip cars at players.
Chapters in WWZ each have an overarching plot and unlike L4D the individual acts don’t directly follow on from each other. This allows WWZ the freedom to tell some more elaborate stories rather then L4D’s simplistic “We need to get to a place and escape”. Unfortunately in the zombie shooting chaos I tend to miss much of the dialogue explaining the reasoning behind a course of action and games boil down to either head towards the next mission marker or defend current position with some very brief escort missions or fetch quests thrown in for variety.
Moving through the levels players can pick their way through the unaware shambling bodies quietly using silenced weapons or melee which isn’t really an option in L4D however when things go loud the two games play very similarly. Defence moments tend to resemble the panic events of L4D taking place in an arena-like areas. WWZ ups the tower-defence aspects by proving players with a random selection of defensive items that can be set up in various locations (eg. auto-turrets, mounted guns, barbed wire, traps etc.). This setup phase is usually accompanied by a time limit before the horde arrives however it can be skipped if everyone is ready (or you just happen to get teamed with an impatient random). Whilst the structure of the WWZ defence sections improves upon L4D, I can’t help but lament the loss of some of the immersion. Hordes often descend for little reason in WWZ other than a radio message stating that they’re “heading your way!”. By contrast L4D always provided a (admittedly convenient) reason such as moving through an alarmed door or noisy machinery drawing the undead to your location. It may be a small point, but makes WWZ feel more videogamey by comparison.
Combat & Gameplay:
Putting my own preference for the FPS styling of L4D over the 3rd person viewpoint of WWZ aside it would be an understatement to say that L4D had straightforward gameplay. Valve’s zombie shooter doesn’t even boast the ability to ironsight and, despite my affinity for stripped down gameplay, L4D feels undoubtedly quaint by today’s standards. WWZ equips players with a typical primary & secondary weapon loadout which can be switched out through starting perks or ingame pickups and cover a suitably diverse range of gun options. Player movement and gun handling doesn’t break any moulds but is smooth and fluid enough to let the player get on with the business of shooting zombies although standard movement can feel painfully slow if you’re trying to catch up with your teammates and you’ve drained your sprint stamina. On top of the normal weapons, players can pickup an additional heavy weapon (heavy machine gun, chainsaw, auto-shotgun, grenade launcher etc.) to break out when things get serious and which is discarded once used.
Weapon pickups, health kits, ammo, and defences are all dispensed via conveniently positioned crates and their contents/location varies depending on the AI director’s whims…
… Side gripe: The AI director tweaking the difficulty either way is something that we, as gamers, all know is happening in this type of game. Dropping us an extra health kit when things are going badly or choking our ammo supply if we’re marching on too quickly through a scenario is all part of the game, but WWZ proudly explains this all in the gameplay trailer! C’mon Saber, try to maintain some of the mystery! A well balanced AI director should be unnoticeable to the players but should keep them in the sweet spot of gameplay – there’s no need to clipart-star boxart it all over the trailer.
… this helps to keep repeat playthroughs interesting.
Most of all however, gameplay is governed by the golden rule of squad based co-op shooters; teamwork comes before everything – stray too far from your team and you will suffer. It’s a standard that once again L4D arguably helped set.
WWZ also brings classes with individual skill trees and weapon upgrades in to the mix allowing for a certain degree of gameplay tuning for individual play styles. In contrast L4D doesn’t contain these elements, mainly because they weren’t staples of the genre a decade ago, and for this WWZ certainly has the edge in the now important meta-game elements that ensnare players with that sense of overall progression.
WWZ clearly boasts a grand selection of locations: four different countries, each with its own plot arc and unique character set to accompany it. Unfortunately it just never quite seems to capitalise on these distinctive locations; why do we end up spending so much time in the underground system of New York rather than fighting our way through Manhattan streets? Why does the Tokyo chapter culminate in a showdown in a generic dockyard rather than atop a glass skyscraper surrounded by the neon lighting of Ginza? Why arn’t hordes of ushanka clad zombies charging across red square towards us in the Moscow chapter? Each chapter in WWZ seems to shy away from a grand set piece to more subdued locations for which I can only hold a misplaced sense of realism to blame. The L4D formula dictates that the scenario showdown ought to be a spectacular and thrilling encounter that you just about manage to drag your team through, by contrast I struggled to even recognise that we were drawing towards the climax of a chapter in my first rotation around the WWZ offerings.
I know that much of this is due to the underlying ‘feel’ of the IP involved. L4D dabbled with the over the top tropes of the zombie horror genre, but nailed them superbly: Rushing through a corn field to hole up in an abandoned farmhouse; holding out on the roof of a diner whilst swarms of undead pile in and a storm rages; facing wave after wave of monsters during a pyrotechnic rock show… the list goes on. It’s excessive and ludicrous, but memorable and iconic. By contrast the realism focused WWZ opts to put players in a series of utilitarian settings that may reflect better the imagined reality of the situation, but smear each encounter in to the next as zombies pour in past concrete walls, bland warehouses, and access tunnels.
It’s too early to pass ultimate judgement, but it’s also impossible to deny that this game is designed to cash in on the gap in the market left by Valve’s reluctance to make a third L4D instalment. The similarities are too numerous and in fairness Sabre have done a reasonable job at creating a solid game that updates the experience with modern standards of the genre; my wife and I have enjoyed out playtime with it. Unfortunately it lacks some of the charm of L4D; the variety in levels, that b-movie vibe, memorable characters, all came together to be a big part of what made L4D so popular. If anything WWZ is hampered by its name; plot feels shoehorned in, those vast hordes come across as showy, and all that globetrotting spreads the experience too thin. I’m sure we’ll keep playing, and who knows maybe I’ll even venture in to the multiplayer mode at some point, but I doubt that WWZ hold the same place in my zombie shooting heart as L4D does.