Talk about context. The War Z is a forgettable experience, easy enough to dismiss with a few nasty words and the faintest of praise. But it is impossible to ignore the game's damned developers, who since its release have revealed themselves to be either incompetent buffoons or crooked shysters. The amazing details make it impossible to review this in a bubble - not least because The War Z clearly wasn't made in one.
Most zombie fans will be aware of the Arma 2 mod DayZ, currently being worked up into a full release by its developer, which layers stealth and survival horror quite brilliantly atop the mechanics of a serious battle simulator. Most of DayZ's ideas are found in The War Z, to the extent that 'brazen' doesn't really do this justice. It's a crappy rip-off. So The War Z has terrible developers and is totally unoriginal, but it does have one surprise: it's sometimes almost fun.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for hopeless cases, because there's no doubt that The War Z is a barrel-scraping production. The idea is an open-world zombie massively multiplayer game on a map of Colorado, where up to 100 players move around the various towns and encampments snaffling supplies and weapons. The reality is a game that wouldn't have been cutting-edge on PlayStation 2. Its rudimentary architecture is almost comical; the buildings are crude cuboids, either solid or hollow, jammed together in little lines. Outside of the buildings things get even worse, with perhaps the defining image being your character's ridiculous three-frame melee attack. You want to know about the audio? The last game I played with worse sound effects was Two Worlds - and you can quote me on that.
Putting the cherry on top of this chocolate log is the fact that The War Z chucks you in without any explanation of what to do. Here's what happened in my very first game: I spawned at night, turned a torch on, and was immediately blasted by two nearby players with handguns. My first thought was that light must attract the zombies and so I'd put the group in danger. In fact, this was a first taste of The War Z's constant spawn-killing. The enemies here aren't the zombies, but other players.
You learn this quickly. The first few times I saw other players, approaching them got me promptly gunned down. After that you start treading extremely carefully around potentially populated areas; the loose scatterings of zombies are relatively simple to sneak around, but snipers can be anywhere. You almost never see the person who kills you until they're looting your corpse on the death screen.
"The War Z's payments system is one of the most egregious examples of chicanery you'll ever see."
There are other souls who aren't instantly out for blood, and team-ups are much more common among poorly equipped survivors. But here's another story. I met a guy en route to a military base. We'd both figured it was a good bet for finding guns and teamed up. On arrival we split up and I soon found a hammer. A few minutes later, I found a gun. I called my buddy over and gave him the hammer, then resumed searching. He bludgeoned me in the back of the head, looted my corpse, and typed 'sorry'.
Now this guy is clearly scum. But casual brutality towards naive players is rarely allowed expression in such a straightforward manner, and it makes The War Z's world a scary place to be. The best zombie stories are about how people behave when faced with monsters, and it's only fair to acknowledge that The War Z's world, because of its unstructured nature, kind of reflects this. After a few hours you come to regard the zombies as more or less background noise, but any kind of human movement as code red.
If this is the one thing The War Z gets right, it gets almost everything else wrong. For a start, even interesting experiences are rare - it's far more common to spawn on a new server and be killed immediately by a group of waiting bandits, or to hump it to the nearest town and meet the same end. The zombie AI is predictable but the game isn't stable - so you can be hiding from a nearby threat when the game teleports it to a different location, where it immediately spots you. At other times they'll clip through obstructions, or the surround sound will indicate them approaching from the wrong direction, or they'll 'see' you through a wall.
This problem is compounded by the game's lack of substantial structure, with the idea being that you initially hoard supplies and weapons before becoming either a bandit hunting other players or a good guy hunting the bandits. The first objective is ludicrously laborious, requiring you to return to designated safe zones to drop off any goodies. There isn't much point to this, either, because whenever you're killed your entire inventory is usually instantly looted.
This all ties in with The War Z's payments system, which is one of the most egregious examples of chicanery you'll ever see. You pay upfront for the game, but a huge amount of basic functionality (such as inviting players to a clan) is tied to a currency that can't be earned in-game. So pay your £20 or whatever (don't), and then be prepared to spend more if you actually enjoy what you've bought. The currency can also be used to buy items and weapons, but when the likelihood is that you'll permanently lose them, what's the point?
Despite the MMO tag, what The War Z utterly lacks is persistence. Your characters level up, slowly, but the 'skills' this should result in aren't yet in the game. You can play for four or five hours, get shot by some camper, and there goes everything. The intended endgame of bandits and hunters fighting to kill and protect new survivors is a great idea, but it's given the loosest leaderboard-based structure and barely referenced. Without the usual treadmill of objectives and quests, The War Z could justifiably claim to be offering its players freedom, but all it feels like is emptiness.
What really finishes the game off is that, even if you do reach the top of the food chain, it's no fun. In one game I managed to find a sniper rifle, an assault rifle and plenty of supplies. I took up residence in a nearby town with a beautiful view of the long approach and then, over the next hour, I killed anyone who walked up. I don't think one was armed, and because none of them knew I was there every shot was a headshot. Maybe it's just me, but I don't find that fun. How can you get any satisfaction from just camping around, blowing away players that don't even know you're there? Well, that's the long-term goal of The War Z - and I think it's lame.
It's unfortunate that the controversy surrounding The War Z has given it such a high profile, because inevitably more poor saps will buy it to see for themselves. If you're even slightly tempted, just remember that at the maelstrom's core is a very basic and ugly game made by a company that is both dishonest and incompetent. Combining disgraceful ethics with endemic failures of design, The War Z is a real disaster.
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