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).
The items that can be bought with in-game moola are sold on a separate tier from the goods that can be bought with real-world money, meaning that you're stuck using in-game funds solely for such things as $6,500 knives and $5,000 bottles of antibiotics. You have to slay an absurd number of zombies to earn enough cash to afford, well, anything. Zombies are also worth experience points, but these seem completely useless at present since the character skill tree system is nonfunctional and grayed out on the main menu. Well, you can use them to buy character skins. Theoretically. It costs 150,000 XP to buy a single ex-cage fighter skin, and you get 5 XP for killing a run-of-the-mill zombie. The math does not work out in your favor.
The pay-to-play structure is a huge problem with The War Z across the board. The game can be bought three different ways solely from the official website. (It was pulled from Steam in December after buyer complaints.) You can spend $15 for the base game, which includes not a single shekel of in-game marketplace gold credits (GC), or you can go for either a $25 or a $50 package that includes the base game plus in-game bucks. Virtually no half-decent items come with the default character loadout, and there isn't much worthwhile gear to be found on the map. Another game currency earned by looting dead zombies can be used only on the aforementioned menu of spectacularly expensive stuff, so you soon find yourself all but forced to buy weapons and survival gear with real money to stay even slightly competitive.
The overall pricing scheme doesn't look too bad at first and seems somewhat balanced, since you can't buy things like guns. Five bucks gets you 625 GC, which sounds reasonable since you can pick up basic gear like a spiked baseball bat for 142 GC and binoculars for 89 GC. Even skins that are as pricey as the Hope Diamond when bought with XP come down to an affordable 376 GC.
But this micropayment system will bleed you dry in the long run. You rarely get to keep what you buy. Getting killed almost always results in your corpse being looted. You can easily spend $10 in the store kitting out your player with a weapon, binoculars, food, and drink--and then lose it all mere seconds into the game after a hidden bandit headshots you and swipes everything. This makes player killing an even more attractive strategy for anyone who doesn't want to spend real money, which further feeds into the vicious circle that is The War Z.
Technical problems cause more frustration. Hacking remains so common that the in-game chat thread is always packed with warnings of cheaters occupying sections of the map. A number of promised features don't exist. Bugs regularly boot you from servers, which can cause you to lose gear that you've just scavenged. Technical problems have also caused the servers to go down for lengthy stretches.
Zombies often freeze in place during combat, causing a crash. Even when the undead are shambling around, they have a weird inability to hit you when you've ascended to even the shortest of platforms: climb onto a crate, and you're invincible. Odd graphical artifacts are common, like your hat remaining suspended in midair long after a zombie has eaten you. Day-night cycles plunge you into pitch darkness for long stretches with only a flashlight and a dim moon to light your way. This ramps up the overall difficulty, especially if you spawn in at night for your first experience with the game. Nothing is quite so frustrating as appearing in complete darkness, flipping on a flashlight, and getting clubbed to death by a camping player lurching out of the shadows.
The look of the game is as backward as the rest of the production. Most of the map consists of generic wilderness with jaggy trees and grass, fairly realistic water, and blocky buildings that you generally can't enter. Animations are choppy, flicker is common, and the frame rate constantly dips into the teens on computers that more than meet the recommended system requirements. Zombies come at you with a weird, shoulders-locked shuffle frighteningly reminiscent of how that kid in the orange shirt danced in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
There is a small variety of character faces and bodies, so the game is populated with about a half-dozen models that you meet over and over again, living and living dead alike. Sound effects are nonexistent aside from zombie growls, atmospheric noises in the woods, and combat thunks. Music is limited mostly to the title screen, but that tune is a creepy number with an ominous bass line and jarring techno effects. Unfortunately, this song is also a barefaced rip-off of the title track from American Horror Story, just slowed down a bit and very slightly altered to ward off lawyers.
This interesting idea of combining zombie-themed survival horror with a massively multiplayer online game sandbox has been left unfinished and unfocused. The whole thing is tied up in the neat bow of a punitive payment system that all but forces you to shell out real-world cash for equipment that will likely be looted from your corpse mere minutes after the cash register has rung. The only way to draw even the tiniest bit of entertainment from the game is by playing on nearly empty servers to avoid the player-killing cheaters and focus on the undead. Even then, you soon get fed up with the dreary zombie combat, or some hacker shows up and puts you out of your misery. Fighting zombie hordes in an apocalyptic wasteland has never been so depressing.