When I was first told that someone was making an (at the time) upcoming World War Z game, my first response was "why?" The decision didn't make much sense to me. The World War Z bandwagon rolled through quite some time ago. In fact I seem to remember it rolling through town with little fanfare; if anything, people were peeking out at it through the gap in the closed upstairs curtains rather than throwing ticker-tape out in the streets. It passed right the way through town, and no-one really knew what became of it. I don't know anyone who was sat eagerly awaiting for it to return - if you need zombies on TV there's The Walking Dead and Black Summer. If you want it in games... well, take your pick. It's not like there's a shortage of them.
The less said about the World War Z movie, the better. When it came out, I'd read the book and was hoping for a more direct port, but as usual... no. The book is awesome. It tells the story of the zombie war as a series of oral histories from around the globe. Each narrator has a voice, and hearing how a zombie apocalypse pans out in different parts of the world - where cultural variations in how death is perceived, or the prevalence of guns, added a dimension to the situation that had never really been covered before. In retrospect, it would have made a great mini-series. But no, instead we got another straight up action movie. This time with Brad Pitt running around trying to solve it all, and the idea of zombies swarming like insects - which I guess was fairly novel. What this means though, is that when it comes to a game developer Saber Interactive at least had options. Would they follow the bombast of the movie, or the smaller more intimate settings of the vignettes of the novel?
The answer is actually both. Sort of.
World War Z divides its campaign across four different locations, each made up of several chapters. You start off in New York, then tour the crumbling world via Jerusalem, Moscow, and Tokyo. In all four locations, guns are everywhere for staving off the zombie hordes (which is kind of funny when you consider that Japan has some of the tightest gun control laws on the face of the planet - but since when did we ever let reality get in the way of our third-person shooter action?). The background changes, but the action remains largely the same. World War Z has a very definite rhythm. You start somewhere, and you need to keep quiet. That lasts as long as it takes someone to fire a shotgun - which usually happens within the first 30 seconds. It's then a frantic push forward through some tight corridors, killing everything that moves. And there are a lot of things that move. Some zombies wear riot gear and charge you. Others leap out of nowhere and pin you down - and you can't escape until one of your teammates shoots it off you. Some wear hazmat suits and spew out a toxic cloud when you start putting holes in them. Heads explode, limbs sever, bodies drop where they fell and stay there. Eventually you'll get to an area where you have to hold off a massive horde. You get some time to prepare your defenses with machine guns, auto turrets, electrified bits of floor, and maybe patching up a couple of windows or doors. And then they come.
The zombies in World War Z are like no zombies I've ever seen in a game before. They come at you like a tsunami in numbers that are... almost unbelievable. When they break into the area you've prepared (and they will, no matter how well prepared you are) they flow in like water. A seething tumbling mass of extinguished humanity.
It's in these moments that World War Z really shines. A lone zombie is almost no threat. Five or six can be dealt with - and a steady stream of dozens that come three or four at a time are no problem either. But when the swarm arrives, it's genuinely nerve-wracking. You can fire grenade after grenade, throw molotov after molotov into the mass - and you can see the effect with bodies and limbs being hurled in every direction. A heavy machine gun can mow down hundreds of them before running out of ammunition - but you'll feel like it barely scratched the surface. Somewhere in that first holdout moment, firing a machine gun with a glowing barrel into a swarm and being sure to aim at head height yet knowing that I'd probably be overrun before I ran out of ammo, I realised I was actually having quite a lot of fun. It was gritted-teeth-sweating-nervously kind of fun, but fun nonetheless. I was quite surprised. The developers clearly knew that these were the most compelling moments in the game - they include several in each level, including a massive end-of-level blowout. In New York, you're waiting for a ferry. In Tokyo, you're defending the last checkpoint out of the city. These moments are absolutely nuts.
I played a bit of Left 4 Dead back in the day, just like everyone else who's played games for as long as I have. While I enjoyed it, I didn't put it up on the pedestal that it seems to have ended up on after all these years. I remember some fun, and I remember some frustration as well. Unlike some, I haven't been crying out for a sequel in the time between Left 4 Dead 2 and now - figuring that Valve will either get around to it at some point or they won't. Playing this reminded me an awful lot of that game. I guess any game that features a squad and zombies is inevitably going to draw the most obvious comparison. There is a bit more to World War Z than the swarming zombies though. Characters and classes can be mixed and matched, with the classes featuring large customisable skill trees. With a bit of time and effort, a regular squad could put together a team with some complementary abilities and loadouts to really start tearing through the levels making a real mess. There are plenty of different guns, each of which can have add-ons opened up through the course of the game (I've become a really big fan of the silenced SMG, because it looks cool and sounds amazing). They all feel a little bit different, but ultimately are all based on the real world so have their feet on the ground. I'll be honest, it's all pretty standard videogame stuff - nothing really stands out as being particularly innovative, or going above and beyond the minimum expected - but it's always nice to see this stuff in place.
The game focuses on squad play to the point that it'll fill out an empty group with bots (playing solo in offline mode populates your whole group with bots). One day, a game with AI partners will come out that features bots that aren't a liability - it's not this day though. I've encountered worse bots than the ones in World War Z, but also better ones. If anything, the biggest criticism of them is that they follow you mindlessly even when a mission objective would be better served by splitting up. However, I didn't see them doing anything nearly as stupid as Sheva in Resident Evil 5 - in one of my playthroughs of that, she emptied countless rare shotgun rounds into a bin. These guys rescued me when I was downed by a lurker, protected one another from bull charges, and could even be relied upon to use the prepared defenses reasonably effectively. Having people in those roles is always better though.
At the moment, World War Z is sitting at about a 7/10 on metacritic. It's got that typical 7/10 thing going on - where the developers are trying out a new mechanic and concentrating on it hard; possibly at the expense of other elements. Technically, there were a couple of issues with framerate stutter and texture pop-in. Playing online I experienced an annoying audio glitch that caused the game sound to stutter along with the framerate in one particularly laggy game. Neither of these were really enough to detract from the experience though, which puts those moments with the zombie swarms front and center at every opportunity.
All in all, World War Z is that most refreshing of games - the ones that you enjoy because they exceed your expectations. I was expecting a pretty pointless movie tie-in, and what I ended up playing was a fairly short and linear third person squad shooter with some tight mechanics and a central focus on a genuinely exciting feature. It's consistently fun, if a little mindless - but sometimes that's exactly what you're after. I'm not done with this game yet - I'm certain that it will be more fun with a group of mates and plan to test that as soon as I can. I'll also admit to still having one campaign mission to finish off before they're all done. Honestly though, if you're looking for something a bit different it's worth checking out. Oh, and if you can play it while listening to metal, I'd highly recommend it. Blasting your way through a swarm is made all the more entertaining if you can listen to Drowning Pool's "Bodies" while you're doing it.