The War Z preview: Zombie apocalypse

By Ozzie Mejia, Sep 21, 2012 12:00pm PDT

Surviving a zombie apocalypse is hardly a new concept in games, with many of them visiting this idea through action games and shooters. The War Z, from Arkos Entertainment Group and Hammerpoint Interactive, takes the zombie game in bold new directions, placing a heavy emphasis on surviving in a desolate sandbox environment for as long as possible.

The War Z is best described as an ultra-realistic MMO survival game that places everything in the hands of the players. The world is massive, starting out at 160 square kilometers. Many of the abandoned towns are infested with zombies. It's up to players to clear those areas of the undead before setting up a safe settlement to recreate a semblance of society.

"Most of these games stick to one aspect of the zombie apocalypse lore," said The War Z producer Sergey Titov. "You either shoot zombies, you survive, or you work on rebuilding society. We kind of merged them all together. From our standpoint, when players start playing the game, there are two distinctive stages. You spend time exploring the world, scavenging for supplies and weapons. And after you get comfortable and learn how the world works, how the zombies work and how they behave, that moves you to the next stage. The next stage is social interaction with other players. "

Social interaction in this case extends to the game's mission structure. As far as missions go, The War Z completely forgoes the traditional formula. In keeping with the post-apocalyptic theme, there are no friendly NPC's in the world, whatsoever. That leaves the task of coming up with missions to the players themselves. Players can put out open calls to parties to complete tasks, like forage a nearby town for supplies or put out bounty hits on specific zombies. In exchange, the parties are rewarded with currency or items from the player's own inventory. It's an interesting twist on the MMO formula and one that will hopefully lead to some unique user-generated scenarios.

Ultra-realism is a major feature of The War Z, as players will need to be aware of their actions at all times. Players have two separate meters, in addition to their normal health meter, to indicate hunger and thirst. Food and liquid must be consumed throughout the day to fill those gradually-depleting meters. When nearing zombie-filled areas, players must be careful not to make too much noise, as the undead will chase down anything they hear. And as soon as players are ready to take up arms, they must compensate for real-world weapon physics, including recoil for assault rifles and controlled breathing for sniper rifles.

The War Z will contain two separate difficulty levels -- Normal and Hardcore. Both deal with player death in a serious manner. Player characters that die in Normal mode will not see action again for an indeterminate period, though Titov estimated something close to a full day. Characters that die in Hardcore mode meet an unceremonious end, as they will be permanently lost. Players will be able to create up to five characters and they can share items with each other through a global inventory slot. However, characters can only access the global inventory when near a safe settlement.

Once players learn the aesthetics of The War Z and its world, the next step is learning to interact with fellow players. Players can band together to form parties for supply runs and for general zombie hunting. However, players must also be wary of troublemakers, because humans can prove just as dangerous as zombies. Players can kill other players at literally any point in the game, regardless of whether they're out in the open or in the hallowed grounds of safe settlements. And just as players can assign hits on zombies, they can also likewise assign bounty hits on other players, as well. Of course, to prevent outright trolling of others, each safe settlement has sentries that will attack out-of-control players deliberately attacking humans in those areas.

After clearing remote areas of zombies, players can opt to build over it to create safe settlements for themselves, their supplies, and their clan of friends. However, some players have exercised creativity in crafting their strongholds. Titov recounts a story of one of the game's testers building a gladiator arena around a player spawn point using wooden barricades. He would then lure a pair of zombies into the arena and wait for players to spawn in. Players that survived the arena battle would be welcomed into the clan with loot and cash.

After learning of The War Z's features, it was time to jump into the world for myself. With Titov acting as my guide, we spawned into the wilderness in the middle of the night. The darkness limited visibility, even with the flashlight in my inventory. To make things easier, Titov set the game to daylight before taking me on a tour of the neighboring area.

A town was just across the hill, so Titov showed off the sniper rifle, zooming in on zombies and relieving their heads from their undead bodies. He noted that only head shots could kill zombies, so anyone hoping to get by on body shots will be sorely disappointed. We decided to move in a little closer to see what kinds of supplies we could pick up. Unfortunately, we must have made too much noise, because a herd of zombies snuck up behind us and started reaching for our precious brains. I quickly ran out of ammo on my sniper rifle (not that it would do much good as such close range, anyway), so I tried to melee with my flashlight. That proved a futile gesture, so we picked up and ran away. Titov said running away would prove less useful in the final version of the game, as an endurance system will be fully implemented.

Through my short time with the game, I was told that there would be no player leveling or upgrades. There is an experience point system, but it is used as a way to unlock gear, such as larger backpacks, different skills, or new character models. Currency can be used to buy supplies, but there are also rare gold coins that can be used for rarer items. Gold coins are found after disposing of special mutated zombies, who are a rarity in themselves.

The War Z is an amazingly ambitious title, putting zombie experience fully in the hands of the players. It will be interesting to see whether players can band together against the zombie menace or turn on each other, Mad Max-style.

The War Z is set to begin its closed beta later this fall.

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