Whether you loved it or hated it, World War Z, based on the novel by Max Brooks, was one of the biggest box office hits of 2013. A sequel, to be directed by David Fincher, has been languishing in development limbo for a stint but is expected to finally begin shooting in 2019. In the meantime, Saber Interactive is deep in development on a video game adaptation of the franchise. I got a chance to sit down and take an extended look at the E3 demo, and I came away feeling incredibly optimistic.
Saber Interactive cut their teeth on some cult favorite shooters, including Inversion and – one of my personal all-time favorites – TimeShift. Their pedigree shows with World War Z, a high-octane co-op shooter with gravitas, atmosphere, and some truly incredible visuals. Game designer Oliver Hollis supervised the demo and would serve as my guide through the bombed-out streets of New York City.
For the purposes of the demo, all four characters felt similar, but Hollis promises that the final game will include multiple classes, each with their own unique skill trees on which to spend hard-earned XP. Surprisingly, he also stresses the importance of storytelling to the Saber team, suggesting that the game will have moments for players to learn about their characters' backstories and motivations. Still, the story of WWZ remains a big question mark at this point. All we know is that the game unfolds over three episodes, each consisting of three chapters. Each episode is set in a distinct metropolitan setting – New York, Jerusalem, and Moscow – and features a unique cast, though upgrades will be tied to the player, not their avatar.
While Hollis intimates that story context would be key in making this version of the zombie apocalypse believable for players, he also clearly takes pride in selling World War Z as a straightforward arcade-style shooter. Based on my impressions of the game thus far, Hollis and the Saber crew are well on their way towards succeeding. Fast, frantic gunplay permeates my demo, and weapons deliver a satisfying impact; a stream of automatic rifle fire or a close-range shotgun blast would send zombies flying across the room, often in multiple pieces. Unlike the film, which had a surprisingly tame PG-13 rating, the game is definitely shooting for a hard M for Mature.
The demo begins in an office building. My group fights our way through the corridors, mowing down the undead with ruthless efficiency. The zombies behave like their motion picture counterparts, running and jumping like rabid animals, a far cry from the slow shamblers of most zombie media. This creative decision pays off when the party goes to an elevator which takes us to the lobby of the massive building. As fun as the corridor shooting has been, it's far from the main draw of WWZ.
As we emerge into the second floor of a wide open foyer, we can see the ground level, covered with what looks to be hundreds of zombies. According to Oliver Hollis, WWZ can feature up to five hundred enemies on screen at once. Our objective made clear, I can't help but flash a wicked grin as I read the words, "Kill all the zombies in the atrium." My team and I happily oblige.
One of the biggest "wow" moments of the demo came when the zombie horde reacted to our peppering of their numbers with large caliber potshots. Just like in the movie, they scramble across each other, building insect-like walls out of their own bodies. A giant mass of flesh rapidly makes its way up the wall, creating a visual sight unlike anything I'd ever seen, especially as gunfire knocks individual zombies from the pile and tumbling to the ground below. I toss my entire cache of grenades at the base of the 'zombie pyramid,' and the whole horde collapses, though some stragglers make it up to the second floor. Instead of shooting them, I dispatch them with quick melee swings, triggered with the right bumper on the Xbox controller. Fast, powerful, and satisfying, the melee combat nonetheless remains simple and easy to implement. It takes but a single hit to defeat a zombie, and follow-up swings are nigh-instantaneous. The sheer number of enemies keeps it from being a viable tactic, but it's certainly a useful tool at players' disposal.
After killing off every single zombie in the area, we tasked with shoring up defenses for a looming undead counterattack, so we start placing turret guns and barbed wire fences. According to Hollis, these defensive tools are generated based on our performance in the level; if players steamroll the opposition, they get fewer defenses, but if they're barely holding on, survivors receive more destructive tools to wreak havoc and scrape back a measure of control. We also have access to ammo caches which provide a free refill on supplies, as well as the opportunity to switch guns and even pick up some limited-use power weapons. These all-powerful harbingers of bloody death include rocket launchers, automatic shotguns with massive destructive potential, and sniper rifles which fire explosive bullets.
The demo continues on for a bit, bringing the action out onto the street and then into a New York City subway station, which looks decently authentic, if more spacious than the real thing. The next segment tasks us with a bit of exploration, recovering items for a survivor who has taken over a subway car. After some more corridor shooting and teamwork, we must defend the subway car from a zombie attack. Huddling together in the middle of the train, shooting through the windows at the horde has a distinctly claustrophobic feel, different from corridor shooting or the comparatively wide open atrium. After surviving a set amount of time, the train departs and the demo ends. Hopefully, the other levels will maintain the demo's full-tilt momentum and constant variety.
Comparisons to Left 4 Dead are inevitable, but such a reductive comparison downplays the sense of power, satisfying action, and unmatched animation work present in the zombie hordes created by Saber Interactive. While WWZ should scratch the itch of anyone who has been waiting for a third chapter in Valve's zombie shooter series, it definitely feels like a whole other beast from L4D.
The build we played ran on PC hardware at a smooth 60 FPS. Console players will only receive a 30 FPS experience, but hopefully that's the only compromise in bringing this game to Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Overall, World War Z is shaping up be the next truly great co-op shooting experience, and it was easily one of the best games I played at E3. It may lack the survival mechanics which are all the rage these days, but WWZ more than makes up for it with non-stop kinetic action, atmospheric locales, and finely-tuned pacing thanks to its linear level design.
World War Z is a passion project for Saber. According to Oliver Hollis, Paramount Pictures did not approach Saber with the World War Z brand; the developer wanted to make a WWZ game, so they asked for the rights, and got permission to use the license. WWZ is self-published, and therefore a product of Saber's vision, unadulterated by external publisher demands and the type of executive meddling which so often sinks licensed games. We'll know for sure if World War Z becomes the next smash hit movie tie-in video game when it releases sometime in 2019 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!