When we first caught wind that there would be a video game loosely based on 2013’s zombie action film World War Z, it seemed somewhat out of place. Announced at 2017’s Game Awards ceremony, World War Z is a third-person action game that is not only derived from the film, but set in the same universe as the 2006 novel of the same name.
Typically, video games based on movies leave a lot to be desired. This may skew your expectations for World War Z right from the start. As a game based on a film, it’s surprisingly fun. When evaluating it for what it is, without thinking about the fact that it’s based on a film, it’s still not bad. But summing up an entire game with “not bad” is a bit reductive.
World War Z Review: Familiar Territory
Before getting into things, it’s at least worth mentioning that World War Z is a budget title and debuted at $39.99. Now, this won’t excuse its shortcomings, but it at least makes the purchase a tad more enticing. Along with that, it’s very easy to make comparisons to Left 4 Dead, which even the developers themselves have alluded to. World War Z wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and you can definitely see a lot of Valve’s popular cooperative zombie series ingrained within. However, when comparing to Left 4 Dead, you might be left disappointed in nearly every way, as Saber Interactive just doesn’t have the chops or budget that Valve had.
With that in mind, you’ll likely feel right at home when playing World War Z: It has four campaigns, multiple characters to choose from, procedurally generated zombie placement, an emphasis on cooperative multiplayer, and even a variety of special zombies to fend off. Instead of Hunters, they’re called Lurkers, and instead of Boomers, you’ll find Gasbag zombies decked out in hazmat gear. It’s almost too similar to Left 4 Dead in many ways, causing it to lack personality at times. Gone is the need to work closely with teammates and the humorous tone, leaving you with an almost bland experience.
You’ll also be disappointed if you’re seeking an adventure with a robust narrative, as World War Z is mostly focused on gameplay. There are bits of dialogue between sections that give you some context for your motivations. But ultimately, these moments feel obligatory and shoehorned in. If you’re just here to kill zombies, you might not mind the absent story.
What it does have that differentiates itself is a robust upgrade and class system that you can experiment with. As you play, you earn XP that can be spent on upgrades, which is sort of the hook that’ll keep you coming back. Ideally, this will encourage you to play a lot, giving you more opportunities to improve your classes and weapons.
The classes are quite different too. You can choose from Gunslinger, Hellraiser, Medic, Fixer, Slasher, and Exterminator, all of which feel distinct enough to warrant giving a try. As you play with each, you’ll gain XP that can be spent on various boosts or upgrades. The upgrades are set up in such a way that even the preliminary ones are still quite useful, so you always feel like you’re making progress. These are things like damage boosts for the entire team, the ability to kill lots of enemies with explosives, massively increased reload speed, and more. If you’re strategic enough, you can coordinate with your group, to have an optimized team to face off against hordes and hordes of zombies.
World War Z Review: Is Co-op Really Necessary?
But therein lies one of World War Z’s most glaring issues. It seems to emphasize cooperative play. However, as you make your way through the campaigns, you’ll realize that the game always tells you exactly what to do. This means communication and coordination feel useless most of the time. As mentioned above, you can come up with an optimized setup for each of the members of the squad, but it will ultimately feel only slightly better from my experience. There is always a marker on the screen or text telling you what your next objective is, leaving out the element of strategy and discovery.
Sometimes, it is nice to get to play without having to worry about getting lost or knowing what to do, but this feature seems to be at odds with the mantra of playing with friends. There isn’t a need to work together with real players to figure out what to do, since World War Z always guides you. Surprisingly, the AI is actually quite competent, so you aren’t ever at a disadvantage for playing solo. Once I realized that the game felt virtually the same when playing with AI and when playing with real-world players, it sort of lost traction. That isn’t to say it’s not fun, but since the levels all feel quite similar in structure and there’s no real need to work with a team in a strategic way, it takes the wind out of the game’s sails.
If you can get past that, it is still a blast to mow down a nearly endless number of zombies, either with AI or with friends. It’s not a game that requires much coordination, but instead is one that you can just turn on to chat with friends. In that regard, it works quite well, but I’m not so sure that was the intention of the developer.
There have also been reports of bugs and glitches, but thankfully, I did not encounter any during my playthrough. Still, be cautious about backing up your progress, as a recent patch could wipe your save.
When getting into the nitty gritty of the levels themselves, they all feel quite similar, at least in terms of pacing and mechanics. Visually, they look different, taking you to New York, Jerusalem, Moscow, and Tokyo. But when you get down to it, it’s a lot of the same gameplay. You kill all the zombies, hit the button, defend the position while you wait for a thing to happen, kill more zombies, then hit another button. There are instances that stray away from this formula. For the most part, its design seems almost outdated and will likely get old fast. Again, if you go into this wanting an in-depth cooperative shooter, you’ll probably be left disappointed, so it’s important to temper your expectations.
World War Z Review: Fun, Even if Flawed
What World War Z does have going for it is its fantastic moment-to-moment gameplay. Shooting feels satisfying, and many of the weapons feel distinct, just like their real world counterparts normally would. There are lots of different weapons to choose from, all with upgrade paths that allow you to deal more damage, add attachments, or increase the rate of fire.
You’ll also find that the game encourages you to try various weapons, as there are many sections throughout each level that contain a weapon station with a wide variety of firearms to choose from. All of which are randomly generated, so you’re constantly getting to try new things. Sometimes, this can backfire. There are certain weapons that are more desirable, depending on the situation, but overall, it’s nice to be encouraged to explore so many options.
Even so, once you’ve found a few weapons that work for you, you’ll likely end up sticking with those. This an halt the excitement when playing the campaign mode.
That’s why it’s great that there are an array of other competitive modes to experiment with, once you’ve gotten bored with the PVE section. This is likely where you’ll spend most of your time, as there is much more room for replayability here. There are five game modes to choose from, which mostly feel unique and distinct. For me, the Vaccine Hunt mode was the most interesting, as it really encouraged team coordination while you defend the player holding the vaccine.
The World War Z competitive modes will not only pit you against other players, but zombies, as well, so you’re always encouraged to stay on your toes. Here, you’ll find a separate XP system that, much like the campaign mode, can be used to unlock different skills and perks as you play. The designs for each these game modes are quite interesting and are part of why it’s so fun to play. We’ve seen Team Deathmatch modes for years, so it’s nice to see something a bit different.
However, you’ll probably find that there are players who have way more time than you do. Depending on their skill level, they can easily make things slow down, in terms of fun. This is the case with most competitive multiplayer modes, so if you’re someone who doesn’t have time to learn the mechanics of the game, you might get frustrated if you’re playing casually.
Contrary to the campaign mode, the competitive multiplayer modes are definitely better with friends. Both strategy and coordination are rewarded quite extensively. If you’re in the market for a game to play with friends, perhaps jumping into the World War Z PVPVE mode will scratch that itch.
Ultimately, World War Z is a game that has many merits, but lacks the polish of a AAA game we’d typically see in 2019. It’s so close to Left 4 Dead that it makes it extremely difficult to play without making comparisons. On one hand, this works in its favor, as the community is desperate for another entry in the L4D series. Conversely, World War Z falls short of Left 4 Dead in nearly every way and it’s noticeable. Still, it does enough right to make it worth a shot, especially when you consider how good the gunplay feels. There’s something oddly satisfying about shooting hundreds of zombies with a variety of weapons, and that’s where World War Z shines the brightest. If you’re competitive enough, the PVPVE mode is substantial and is worth trying with a group of friends.
If you want something you don’t have to think too deeply about or are into competitive multiplayer with friends, then World War Z could be for you. But if you’re expecting an in-depth narrative and a campaign that requires strategy and coordination, then perhaps you should stay away.
World War Z review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.