So many massively multiplayer games are all about what you make them. A wide-open atmosphere can make online experiences incredibly rewarding, adding a sense of freedom and community that isn't possible when playing solo. In the case of The War Z, however, freedom and community have been allowed to run wild to such a point that the game is almost unplayable. Hammerpoint Interactive's look at life after the zombie apocalypse is a complete disaster. It's ridiculous that this game is being sold, with unfinished features, loads of bugs, wildly out-of-control player killing, and a system of micropayments that couldn't steal more money from players if you gave it a mask and a gun.
The concept behind The War Z is straightforward. It is also remarkably similar to Dean Hall's extremely impressive ARMA II: Combined Ops mod DayZ, a vastly superior and free take on the same themes seen here. If you've viewed any post-Romero fright flicks where the dead come back to life with a craving to gnaw on cerebellums, you know what to expect. The setting is the wilderness of a postapocalyptic Colorado, where you have been unceremoniously dumped with nothing more than a flashlight (one of those big Maglite things that does double duty as a club),a soft drink, a granola bar, and bandages. There are no goals, no quests, and no storyline of any sort. All you have for motivation is the imperative to stay alive, which you do by avoiding being brutally murdered by either the other players or the zombies, and by keeping enough food and drink in your system to avoid starving to death.
If you're one of the millions of people who have gotten hooked on the Walking Dead comic or TV show, let alone the countless zombie movies that have followed in the 45-year wake of Night of the Living Dead, you can't help but be intrigued by the concept. But that's all the game is--a concept; there is virtually nothing behind it. While The War Z sounds nifty, it is close to a blank slate, with an open sandbox world that is nigh impossible to enjoy. The absence of any structure and any viable reasons to go after the zombies has unbalanced the game, resulting in a frustrating free-for-all where you murder one another so often and so efficiently that the undead are no worry at all by comparison.
It's hard to imagine how any game could be more unforgiving than The War Z. You can't settle in long enough to figure out the gameplay basics before you find yourself the recipient of a shotgun blast to the face from some guy looking to loot a corpse. There are no breaks anywhere on the map. Three settlements are supposed to serve as no-weapon safe zones and places where you can access your global inventory, but they function better as ambush spots where bandits (generally with spectacularly inventive offensive names) camp out waiting to kill other players. Opportunists constantly haunt the roads into such sanctuaries, ready to gun down anyone trying to enter or leave.
A great addendum to all of this frenzied murder is the inability to spawn back in after being slain, and this is when playing on normal difficulty, not the hardcore setting where death is permanent. Get killed, and you have to wait a full hour to send your character back into the fray. You can go right back in by creating a new survivalist in one of the five available character slots or by replacing an existing character with new cannon fodder, but the delay is still absurdly punitive given how often you can get killed.
Oddly enough, zombies are an afterthought. It soon becomes clear why you are mainly killing each other: there isn't any point bothering with the undead. The biggest problem is that zombies are found mostly in and around the scarce towns and various points of interest on the map, which are thoroughly watched by player-killing campers. Playing as a zombie-murdering machine like The Walking Dead fan-fave Michonne is out of the question. Wander toward a town with a hankering to cut off zombie heads, and you set yourself up to be shot in the head by a human player waiting for newbies to wander into firing range.
Undead also offer more risk than reward. Zombie-populated towns are scattered with goodies like bottles of water and food and medical supplies, but little is worth risking life and limb over, especially given the need to run those gauntlets set up by other players. You can also be quickly overwhelmed by gangs of zombies who pop up out of nowhere and move more quickly than you might expect.
Combat isn't particularly difficult; you can generally button-mash the undead goons to death. But it is dull, with each zombie taking a dozen or more whacks before going down. It's possible to take down a group of four or five zombies, but the process is so boring that you soon wish they would just eat you. Sneaking around them is more interesting: meters show how visible you are and how much noise you're making, so you can avoid combat much of the time.
Slain zombies can at least occasionally be looted for in-game money. Kill a zombie, and you might be able to go through his pockets for 80 to 100 dollars. Still, this is not a good deal. Sure, it saves you from having to rely on killing other players to obtain gear. It even saves you real-world cash, since the only other alternative to acquire gear is to purchase it via micropayments (more on this later).