Let me come clean first: I’ve never read World War Z the book, or watched World War Z the film. Mainly because I feel that in that genre everything you could possibly say has been said, from thinly veiled social criticism at government ineptitude or anti-vaccine movements to variations of the message included in each piece of disaster media – we won’t be prepared for the apocalypse.
As someone who regularly plays games for a living I will naturally be completely prepared, given that the streets are absolutely strewn with ready to use medkits and different calibre weaponry. All I have to do is apply my skills to a thoroughly familiar concept. Incidentally, this is exactly what World War Z wants you to do. It cuts out all the narrative finger wagging and simply unleashes you at hundreds and hundreds of zombies.
In each of the four different locations you lead a group of survivors to safety, though judging by their skill at handling themselves in a zombie pandemic they would probably be fine if just left where they are. The 11 missions in the campaign feature roughly the same gameplay. Generally there will always be an opportunity to take down a giant tower of zombies climbing up a wall or a wave of zombies that eventually comes up against and spills over a rickety fence, or even the polite zombie queue that waits to have their go at you in narrow hallways.
Each level’s layout provides enough variety to stave off immediate boredom; the hallways of a museum in Russia make for slightly different play than a harbour in Tokyo, for example. Levels also have several missions where simply hold your ground while the zombies advance, granting you additional defences such as electric fences and auto turrets during such bouts.
Most normal zombies are no match for you, but there are some special zombies: Gas Bags are zombies in HAZMAT suits that release a poisonous gas when shot, Bulls charge at you and smash you into the ground until someone takes them out, while Screamers are hardwired to a megaphone (!) and will attract fellow shamblers until you shut them up. My favourite zombie to hate is the creeper, who jumps at the first person who enters a room, most commonly from some dark unseen corner. As much fun as it is to watch Ian Higton jump a foot into the air whenever that happens, the fact that AI-controller team members will constantly remark on a creeper nearby but never be the first to enter a room is simply annoying when you’re playing by yourself.
Each campaign contains at least one mission with an objective other than ‘shoot things’ – in New York’s subway tunnels you have to find a key on a dead body while you’re wading through poisonous gas, in Russia you have to find a set of switches to unlock your escape route. None of it is groundbreaking stuff, but it’s fun in a simple, rather, er, braindead way. The maps don’t look half bad. Assets are generously reused, but to be fair this is a criticism you could lob at any zombie game. There’s your abandoned tunnel with scaffolding and debris, the abandoned house with scaffolding and debris, the narrow street with scaffolding and debris. The giant hordes of zombies do look grand, though, and World War Z is able to handle them without framerate stutters unless you’re standing in the middle of a particularly large group.
The clear focus here is on co-op gameplay. The whole setting and gameplay bring to mind Left 4 Dead, and purposefully so. Nearly a decade has passed since the last instalment of Valve’s zombie shooter, and fans have been growling and gnashing their teeth for a new version for a long time. World War Z neatly fills this gap, even though for a shooter released in 2019 it has too much of that 2008 aesthetic for my taste – really bad voice acting (although Stevie the British train driver is a hammy marvel in his own right), weird fumbly animations especially with equipment and health items, tacka tacka tacka gun noises. The AI does a decent job at providing assistance, but they tend to cluster together in one spot and not move an inch from their location, which more often than not means they’re in the way. They also frequently seem to see things that wait in the next room, eagerly shooting walls and doors in anticipation. With friends, of course, it’s much more enticing proposition.
None of which is to say World War Z is a bad game in the slightest. It’s very aware of what it is – that one game you play with friends for a few rounds each evening when you have no energy left for anything else. The chaos is entertaining, especially when you’re trying to unearth a fellow player on the map somewhere or make a concentrated effort at some sort of strategy. Defeating large groups of zombies is continuously satisfying, too. It’s designed to be played for a good long while, as every weapon you pick up levels up with use, allowing you to unlock and buy even more guns of a certain type.
There’s variety, too, in the five character classes: Gunslinger, Exterminator, Slasher, Fixer and Medic. With use, each of these classes unlock new skills you can buy on a skill tree that’s surprisingly large. At first all classes roughly play the same except for their starting equipment, but investing in different skills opens up more nuanced gameplay options, which is absolutely necessary on higher difficulty levels.
A few hours of fun is all you’re going to have at this point, though; it took me 6 hours to finish the entire campaign. The potential that comes with unlockable skills feels underutilised and a little wasted right now due to limited settings, but developer Sabre Interactive has already teased a roadmap for future content. Both more maps and a zombie horde survival mode seem to be on the way. – as it is right now it simply won’t be able to sustain interest for very long. This is a game, though, that is so explicitly geared towards mayhem it awards you a trophy for getting through a mission without accidentally shooting a team member in the butt. World War Z doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I appreciate that.