Sometimes, timing works out in the most interesting of ways—such as today, as my review for World War Z goes up a day after my colleague Josh published his thoughts on another zombie-focused game, Days Gone.
What makes that timing amusing is the contrast between the two releases. Days Gone was an absolutely mammoth project, put together by a team of hundreds with the intent to bring a triple-A level of polish and production to as many elements of surviving an undead-infested wasteland as possible. And then, unfortunately, we saw what happens when such an ambitious creation crushes itself under its own weight. World War Z certainly isn’t perfect, and it’s no competitor for that latest PlayStation 4 exclusive, but it does show us why keeping your ambitions small and your gameplan reasonable is a development direction that needs to become more of a norm again.
The smaller scope of World War Z is instantly evident once the game boots up, as there’s only two options to choose from: a co-op campaign where you team up with human or AI partners as you make your way through survival scenarios, or a competitive multiplayer mode featuring a smattering of team-based game types.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard that World War Z is incredibly reminiscent of the Left 4 Dead series, and there definitely are obvious similarities in the various special enemy types, equipment offerings, and overall structure of the campaign. That said, I do feel the need to point out that Left 4 Dead and its sequel never owned the idea of linear survival stories based around teams of four distinct characters, and Valve and Turtle Rock Studios’ ideas on gameplay and unique foes certainly weren’t original. Much like “Overwatch is just Team Fortress 2 reskinned” and other similar arguments, I think it’s a bit reductive to treat World War Z as little more than a third-person Left 4 Dead clone without looking at it deeper.
And if we do? Then we—or at least I—find that, clone or not, World War Z has what matters most: fun. Flawed fun, sure, but fun nonetheless. With the recent mess that was Overkill’s The Walking Dead still fresh in my mind, I can’t say I was holding out hope for another licensed zombie game—especially when the license was a middling Hollywood movie and not a beloved, award-winning comic/TV franchise. And yet, World War Z legitimately surprised me on numerous occasions, offering up situations and scenarios that were as enjoyable as they were varied. The story spans four locations around the globe—New York, Jerusalem, Moscow, and Tokyo—with each having its own distinct atmosphere, team of survivors, and challenges to overcome.
World War Z’s roster of weapons and equipment provide a nice variety of team possibilities, but the standout star is gameplay here are the zombie hordes. If you’ve seen anything about the game up until this point, no doubt you’ve seen a trailer or two showcases the immense number of zombies that can come flooding in as threats at any given moment. (Again, I can’t help but think of Days Gone, which itself promised huge swarms of undead as one of its calling cards.) World War Z’s hordes are absolutely a gimmick—but they’re a gimmick that works. At first, you’ll be in awe at the impact of seeing hundreds of zombies flooding into an area as if they were one gigantic, flowing lifeform, and a sense of panic will set in that’s been rarely seen in other similar games. Then, the hordes will lose some of their luster, as taking out clusters of ravenous undead becomes just another rote task along the way. Step away from the game for a bit—or be brave enough to crank up the difficulty—and the uneasiness returns. If Saber Interactive’s latest will forever be known strictly by this one gameplay element, then it’s a respectable point of infamy.
I do wish, though, that we could have seen similar creativity in other areas of the game as well. As an overall experience, World War Z’s co-op campaign is completely competent, but never truly great. This is where building upon Left 4 Dead as inspiration crops up as a true fault, as not enough was done from there to grow out unique ideas to make gameplay stronger. One big example of this is in the available classes. While each offers a diverse skill tree to unlock the more you play (similar to weapons), there’s a sense that a lot of that just doesn’t matter. As someone who always plays the healer, I found little tangible value to the Medic class. In theory, teammates should leave health packs for me to grab, as my healing others provides more benefits than someone healing themselves; in practice, I’ve yet to run into a single player online who didn’t just snatch up the items whenever they showed up to keep for themselves. At that point, calling me a “Medic” meant little and felt almost no different from every other class beyond my loadout of firearms.
Numerous other annoyances cropped up during my playtime, things that soured the experience to various degrees but which are all fixable in the future (if the devs so desire). There’s currently no way to make a room private, meaning that if you want AI partners to join you and your friend(s) rather than human ones, or simply don’t want random weirdos taking up slots, it’s a race to get a game started before another player finds their way into your room. Speaking of the AI, they’re thankfully competent when it comes to killing zombies, but with no way to give them more complicated commands (other than “follow me” or “go here”), any busywork you’ll need to do to complete tasks—such as picking up supply crates or flipping switches—will fall entirely on your shoulders. Also, while I really appreciate that each city is givens its own cast of locals to play as, I’ve always hated having to fight with other players over which character I get to use. Normally I stay away from DLC, but I’d actually pay to have an expanded roster here.
Ah, but let’s remember that there are two parts to World War Z, as the game does then also feature its competitive multiplayer mode—something I’ve seen get little mention elsewhere. Even though it at first seemed like a totally tacked-on, “we just need something” option, I fell in love with The Last of Us’ multiplayer, and I get some very similar vibes here. World War Z’s multiplayer probably exists because it had to in order to justify it being even a $40 title, but it’s a surprisingly great alternative when you don’t want to commit to going through an entire campaign chapter. The objectives will all be very familiar at this point—my favorite being Scavenger Hunt, where you need to collect more supplies than the opposing team—but matches have that “good enough” feeling that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years. World War Z certainly isn’t going to replace Fortnite, or Apex Legends, or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or even The Last of Us, but I’ve found myself still booting it up every now and then to get in a few games.
When I think to all of the mid-tier games that I’ve enjoyed over the years, I think of experiences that could definitely have been better, but which always found ways to still be fun and interesting despite their weaknesses or lower-budget limitations—and World War Z belongs to that group. Yes, it’s flawed, and sometimes frustrating, and unashamedly unoriginal. As long as you still give me a game that’s worth playing, and which grabs me enough to keep me coming back, I can be okay with that.
While it’s an unabashed Left 4 Dead clone that never extends beyond the conservative concepts and budgets that obviously constrained its development, World War Z offers up an enjoyable adventure that at times does a lot with the little it attempts. No matter whether playing the co-op campaign or competitive multiplayer, there’s enough good to the game to make the bad not feel as bad.
Focus Home Interactive
M - Mature
|World War Z is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Product was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.