the sincerest form of flattery
Left 4 Dead is a series that has remained largely influential for just over a decade. Just in the past year alone, many titles have looked to Valve’s zombie co-op shooter for inspiration. While some of those games shook up the formula with a unique setting, like Vermintide 2 or The Strange Brigade, other’s, like Earthfall, changed up very little and delivered a very bland and soulless experience in the process. While World War Z follows the same route Earthfall took by following incredibly close to Valve’s tried and true design, it does so in a way that captures the essence of what made Left 4 Dead so addictive in the first place. In fact, this might be the closest we ever see to Left 4 Dead 3.
To be completely transparent, I expected very little from World War Z. Being a six-year-late movie tie-in, I expected pretty much a bare minimum effort that would be mildly amusing for a few hours, if that. What I didn’t expect was to be this impressed. Now, saying that, I know full well that much of what makes the game so engaging is largely in part to what it takes from the Left 4 Dead series. In fact, nearly every aspect of the game from its core structure to its special zombie types, is fully lifted from Valve’s co-op zombie shooter. While the game does have a few key differences; it’s third person, has a progression and class system, and its zombie horde mechanic, it’s hard not to compare the two games due to just how on the nose Saber Interactive is being here.
Where other titles have played like Left 4 Dead, it’s another sensation entirely for it to feel like Left 4 Dead, which World War Z actually manages to pull off. Despite other games mimicking the decade old franchise, I never felt like I was playing Left 4 Dead when I booted up Earthfall. Despite its vast similarities, it still felt like a low budget copy cat. World War Z is a fairly polished, semi-good looking game that is immensely satisfying to play, but a lot of that is credited to the formula and design they are imitating.
While i’ll get more into the further comparisons shortly, because there is quite a lot, I’m going to dive into where it differs first. World War Z is based upon the movie and not the book. It’s also worth noting that the movie is not exactly based on the book either but rather used the name for instant brand recognition. That said, the game uses the movie as a visual guide for when it comes to its zombies. Instead of slow shambling undead or the small packs of speedy flesh-eaters, we have tidal waves of zombies that attack in the hundreds. Seeing a wave of undead as they climb frantically over one another is a sight to behold, especially when they use this hive-mind teamwork to scale the side of a building, or just up to the next floor. This act of seeing all this occur as you’re trying to stay alive has left me speechless several times over.
When you approach any of the available set piece locations across all four episodes, zombies will start flooding in from alleyways, over rooftops, or just bursting through doors or over fences like a swarm of ants. As they pile up against a fence or a wall, they’ll use each other to climb it, and you can break the pyramid of zombies by taking out its supports. This is easy enough to do with a standard gun, but far more satisfying with a grenade or rocket launcher. These set pieces also allow you to set defenses like wire traps, mortar’s, electrical boxes, or turrets, ready to chew up the undead should they get into range.
From a gameplay systems point of view, World War Z’s biggest departure from the standard Left 4 Dead formula is through its class and progression systems. Through its PvE component, there are six classes to choose from; Gunslinger, Hellraiser, Medic, Fixer, Slasher, and Exterminator. Most of these classes are pretty self explanatory when it comes to their function as Gunslinger and Medic offer exactly what you would assume they would. Hellraiser is an explosive based class, whereas the Fixer can drop off ammo supply bags to their teammates, or start the round with a breaching charge, an explosive used to access locked rooms. Finally, the Slasher and Exterminator classes which are designed around your melee abilities and fire-based attacks, respectively. Each class offers over two dozen skills to place points into that you’ll earn through completing levels or winning matches in PvP.
While the PvP offerings here are also class based, it surprisingly uses a completely different set of classes than I’ve just mentioned. While these classes don’t feature as many skills to unlock, there are still a dozen skills within each class to advance here. These classes include; Survivor, Trapper, Specialist, Warfighter, Phantom, Demolisher, Striker, Support, Assassin, and Shadow. Each class features a variety of weapons that help balance out the items they are given, preventing any one class from just completely dominating. That said, grenade based classes do have somewhat of an edge over others, at least based on my experience.
The PvP modes offered here are your typical online competitive fare without setting the world on fire. You have zone control in Swarm Domination, resource collecting in Scavenge Raid, an item control mode in Vaccine Hunt, a pretty standard King of the Hill mode, as well as your basic Team Deathmatch. Each multiplayer mode will see zombies join in alongside you to shake up the action and hopefully distract an opposing player so you can swoop in for the kill. As you win bouts, you will earn currency to purchase skills or purchase the better versions of your weapons. The unfortunate side of this is losing a match will reward nothing. Because of this, there really isn’t an incentive to continue in a one-sided match and I’ve had several players leave when it was clear we were not going to win. Had the points been halved, then I think it would keep players from leaving a losing match and kept them motivated to keep playing after a four or fifth consecutive loss.
Much like Left 4 Dead, World War Z tells its story over the course of different episodes, each containing up to three chapters within. Unlike Left 4 Dead, each episode features a unique set of four survivors to choose from; making a total of 16 different characters to choose from in either PvP or PvE. You have the photojournalist in Judd Whitaker, A Israelian Defence Force solider in Dina Mizrahi, a skilled hacker in Bunko Tatsumi, and 13 more characters each presented with different backstories which are unlocked upon completing any level with that selected character. These backstories are short animated sequences that flesh out who they are and how they’ve survived.
Each of the four stories takes place in a different setting. You’ll traverse New York, Jerusalem, Moscow, and finally, Tokyo, as each group of four survivors will have a different story to tell. While the narrative is always one of survival, each group will go about that in their own way. Each episode, regardless of their differences, will stick to the way this formula has always worked. You’ll progress through a linear path, defeating waves of zombies and encountering situations where you’ll need to interact with the environment or find items to progress further. As you push through each environment, ammo boxes, weapon crates, and special item refills will be largely everywhere, always ensuring you have the tools required to take down the massive hordes of undead. You’ll also find the better versions of various weapons laying about, allowing you to upgrade your arsenal during the level. Each level will have a moment or two where you will be required to stand your ground against an onslaught of zombies, using turrets and various defenses to assist you. Most levels will end in the same way, having you place down items in fixed areas and dealing with the final horde before you escape.
Being aware of what is around you while mowing down hundreds of zombies is important due to the special zombie types that can end your life in seconds. Similar to the Special Infected Zombies in Left 4 Dead, these monsters are far more powerful than your normal zombie and have special attacks that you’ll need to watch out for. These special types include the Bull, Lurker, Gasbag, and the Screamer. The Bull and the Lurker are essentially reskinned versions of the Charger and the Hunter, whereas the Gasbag and Screamer contain similarities to what we’ve seen before without them being full on imitations. The Bull will charge at you and then start slamming you into the ground, requiring a teammate to gun him down in order to save you, as is the case with the Lurker as they’ll often wait for the perfect time to pounce on you and start slashing away atop you. The Gasbag is a hazmat wearing zombie that will expel a dangerous gas when their suit is punctured, causing your character to lose a portion of health when exposed. The Screamer will alert zombies to your presence, and is usually a fair ways away from you in order for their scream to really take effect. It’s unfortunate that there are only this small handful of special types as it could have benefited the game by offering more variety. One weird aspect to the Lurker is that different survivors will call him a Creeper, despite the game, and much of the voice cast clearly saying Lurker when you defeat them. It’s more than likely the result of the name being changed before all the final dialogue was recorded.
While World War Z is not a visual masterpiece, it’s actually a decent looking game for being a mid-range budget title. Environments are nicely detailed, characters are visually fun and different from one another, and the while there is a lot of repetition in the zombies themselves, they are still fun to look at. That said, I do wish each episode, since it takes place in a different location, would have their own take on the zombies present and the special types as well. Seeing these special monsters all wearing the same outfits despite being on opposite sides of world doesn’t make much sense logistically, but from a game design approach, I’m guessing they just wanted people to instantly identify what is in front of them as quick as possible. Much like Left 4 Dead, characters will constantly talk back and forth with one another to make them aware of all the threats nearby as well as paint the story around them.
While I’ve been playing World War Z since its release, I’ve heard several people online complain about their connection dropping or that they haven’t been able to complete an entire episode without some form of the game just locking up. My entire time with the game was on the Xbox One X and frankly, I haven’t had a single dropped match or the game crash on me once. About the only glitch I have encountered is a zombie getting caught in a door. The errors I am seeing are from people playing on PC, or on PS4. Whether I just lucked out or maybe the Xbox version is more stable, I am not sure. Since I’ve not encountered these issues myself, they won’t affect my score, but I’ve included this bit to make you are at least informed about them should you play on another platform.
Originality is a very important aspect to games and is necessary in pushing the industry forward. That said, many great games have come from pulling from inspirations to create something enjoyable, especially when you are pulling from a very popular game. It’s unclear at this point if we will ever seen Left 4 Dead 3, but until then, we have a vast array of games that adapted that formula to create some enjoyable experiences. Do I wish that Saber would have injected some more originality to this game? Of course, but at the end of the day, World War Z is incredibly fun, even if its best ideas are not entirely their own. The depth offered from the class system is enough to keep me motivated to play, but it’s the overall feel of the game that has me diving back in, unlocking every character’s backstory and playing with friends and newcomers alike. If you’ve been disappointed by the current offerings of Left 4 Dead clones, this one is hands down the best out there and is immensely enjoyable, more so with friends.
World War Z was purchased by the reviewer and played on an Xbox One X.
All Screenshots were taken on an Xbox One X.