Hands-on | The War Z

Published on November 8th, 2012

Proof that humanity really is a lost cause…

Let’s get this out of the way right now; The War Z is an awful lot like the cult mod hit for ARMA II, Day Z. They both have zombies, they’re both interactive sandboxes, and they both bring out the absolute worst in gaming kind. In both experiences there’s little to do other than scrounge around a gigantic map for weapons, supplies and equipment, with only meandering moron zombies and sadistic fellow players to provide entertainment.

In MMO terms this formula might seem simple, yet when coupled with unbridled tension and the pressure of losing all that hard earned loot in a few zombie swipes or one bullet to the head, you can’t help but feel compelled to keep playing.

Unlike a lot of zombie games, The War Z is actually quite scary. After creating your avatar which boasts only a handful of different default appearance options, you spawn into the world with only a flashlight, some provisions and whatever else you’ve stowed into your backpack – where you go from there is really up to you. Where the fear factor comes is the unnerving frailty of your character, and the slightly organic contextual soundtrack which kicks in whenever a shambling undead wanders close, as well as that foreboding dread of the unknown; will that fellow survivor you’ve luckily spotted on the horizon be packing heat? Is raiding that house in the distance worth the risk of potentially alerting the horde outside? It’s those moments and decisions which make The War Z and Day Z worthwhile, but between those moments of exciting tension are long periods of commuting tedium and random death at the hands of more well armed players.

ECONOMICAL DESIGN

There’s no needless guff like different skills or XP progression curves, the only factor that’s important is what’s in your backpack and what weapon you have to hand. That kind of commitment to a premise for an online-only game is praise-worthy, although there will be moments when you’ll begin to crave some structure in the guise of some missions, interactions with NPCs or learning more about the outbreak. However HammerPoint are promising more of that sort of story padding in future updates.

Players can leave custom-written notes in key places around the map and set up rescue missions for other players to come and save them, but all in all this near-future existence needs a much thicker fiction wrapper to feel worthwhile.

Currently servers only support 40 players at once, but the single map set in Colorado is getting bigger with every update. The Halloween patch added new vanity items to the in-game store, as well as new locations on the map.

For an experience so loot-orientated it would be easy to imagine that Hammerpoint must have been very tempted to chuck in some of the most sought after items, like transport and projectile weaponry like rifles, pistols and crossbows, as something you can buy for real-world cash, but thankfully the developer has intelligently resisted that urge. Said items can only be found in the world and as long as it stays that way, the sanctity of War Z’s loot shall remain unsullied.

Interestingly players can also stash their loot to an account-wide inventory via ‘Safe Zones’ spread around the world, which means you can bank your items between characters and different servers at will. Your character will lose all loot they’ve collected if they happen to die, transforming into a tasty loot pile for an would-be wanderers, but characters are recoverable after a an hour or so wait.

The thing is created characters are really only blank avatars, they don’t have any value via unlockable skills etc. If anything it’s the items they carry which makes them valuable, so when you have rare commodities like binoculars and scopes on your person you feel compelled to get them to safety or bank them as soon as possible.

No wonder then that the Safe Zones, or more specifically the area round them, is rather dangerous.Scheming bandits tend to camp just outside the zone’s perimeter to take out loot carriers. Those sorts of despicable player tactics are really just a tip of a iceberg though, with spawn campers attracting the anger of the game’s producer no less, but hey what else are you going to do in a zombie apocalypse?

For a one-time fee MMO, The War Z offers a lot of easy-to-grasp and interesting gameplay. Currently its best selling point is that zombie genocidists don’t have to mess around with any third-party software or mod tools in order to get onto servers, a la Day Z, but for the most part this is the same game as its zombie-filled namesake.

The ongoing beta is already leading to some interesting tales of gamers screwing over each other for a bottle of water or a granola bar, and really isn’t that what a good survival horror experience is all about? The greatest threat in these kinds of scenaries isn’t really the zombies, it’s your fellow man that you really have to look out for!

Nevertheless The War Z currently borrows most of its good ideas from a free mod we’ve mentioned perhaps way too much in this preview, but it has stable foundations to build some really compelling stuff. Here’s hoping Hammerpoint Interactive have enough time and resources to evolve this exciting and still novel concept to its next logical step.

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    Hands on | The War Z

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