What happens when you try to turn a great book that became a not-very-good movie into a video game? Saber Interactive is here to answer the question that no-one was really asking with World War Z, a game tie-in to the Brad Pitt film based on the Max Brooks novel, and if you guessed you get something in the middle in terms of quality, you're not far off. Though it's not doing anything unexpected to dramatically shake-up the familiar ideas and tropes it's based on; World War Z is a reasonable bit of ambulant-corpse-blasting fun.
Here's the easiest way to explain what this game is, in all but name: an alternate-universe Left For Dead III. To be fair it's got some wrinkles in it to separate it from that venerable Valve staple, but this is an accurate description of its gameplay. Teams of 4 co-op players must make their way across a zombie (oops sorry, "Zeke") infested urban landscape, fending off attacking waves of the undead all the while having to complete objectives that facilitate their escape. Players will come up against special zombie classes that include a damage-absorbing tank that charges, a gas-emitting one, a loud one that calls other zombies in, and a scuttly one that hides and incapacitates you instantly. It will sound familiar to many, but perhaps those classic games are now far enough in the past it's time for another crack at the model.
World War Z manages to add a little bit of interest of its own, splashing out on paying the extra 80c for making a colour photocopy. Firstly its action takes place from a third-person perspective, to better facilitate melee attacks and give you a proper sense of being surrounded by the ravenous undead hordes. There's also an emphasis on creating defensive positions from which to fight back waves of zombies, with fun toys like barbed wire, automatic turrets and mortars to even your odds. Specialist class roles also bring a bit of modern multiplayer scene to the older concept.
The major achievement of the game is its zombies. Taking the movie's "angry ant swarm" approach to the undead, World War Z sends hundreds of the blighters at you and your teammates at a sprint, hurling themselves off bridges, swarming up and over wire fences, and yes, forming the zombie pyramid-ladders that were the film's big showpiece, all in the single-minded pursuit of biting your face off. Fair play to this game - zombies are done to death in general and we've seen this basic gameplay idea before, but it can still manage to instill a rising sense of panic as you see hundreds of zombies sprinting along a distant overhead freeway, only to flop off in en masse, fall to your level, and rise to begin sprinting towards in you a growling horde.
Fortunately, our heroes are psychologically well-adjusted enough to deal with such a threat. In keeping with the spirit of the "world" in the franchise's name, they consist of groups of survivors in the US, Israel, Russia, and Japan, the country switch-up all that really remains of the novel's more nuanced question of "How would different cultures deal with the zombie apocalypse?". That said, you can unlock a little comic style backstory video for each one, which is a welcome bit of detail and adds some more interesting writing than what you find in the game, which are lines like "It's too dangerous for you, even with your pistol skills" and "This open window leads to the street!". Ugh.
Best to focus on blasting the zombies - and there's a wide range of tools for doing so, from silenced pistols and an array of shotguns and rifles to explosive-bolt crossbows and yes, chainsaws. Your bog-standard machete is also pretty handy in all but the most swarmy of situations too, able to dice zombies with ease (and, one can only assume, still chop tomatoes like this!). Standard zombies go down exceptionally quickly, in fact - and though this is necessary for survivability, given the numbers in which the game wants to throw them at you, it does produce a slightly weightless air to proceedings. It sometimes feels more akin to puffing your cheeks and blowing away a cloud of (angry) feathers, rather than deadly combat with hundreds of heavy, meaty beast-humans. The special zombie classes are easily taken down, perhaps due to the game attempting to maintain a certain amount of 'realism' in its zombie apocalypse scenario (the tank or 'bull' is just a zombie in full riot gear, for example), and character barks forewarn you of their presence, so they don't represent a majorly elevated threat level. Zombie pyramids, too, which form so they can get to a height where you are, look pretty cool, but simply present easy targets, at least on normal difficulty levels. They are pretty fun to shoot, however - aim at the base of the pyramid and you can collapse the whole thing, and that's before you even get into the fun with explosives.
That's potentially going to be especially useful if you're playing as a Hellraiser, the things-going-bang expert in the game's class system. Separate from the characters themselves (who are simply physical models) are these specialist roles like the Medic and Gunslinger, each offering stat buffs and special abilities to certain gameplay elements (healing, firearms, melee combat) as you level them up and unlock them with in-game currency. Although there's some interest in trying a few different ones out and finding one you like, as you're likely to mostly end up playing with silent internet randoms who are all doing their own thing, it's hard to maximise any strategic utility they may offer. Furthermore, there's an entirely different suite of classes, based on weapon loadouts, used in the game's tacked-on set of competitive multiplayer modes, which makes all your levelling up of pretty limited use. As no-one seems too interested in playing said modes though, even shortly after the game's launch, this isn't that annoying.
Mention must be made of a few other annoyances though. On Xbox One I've experienced a couple of crashes to desktop from the game lobby, frequent music hitches, and a tendency to be spawned into in-progress games miles behind the physical location of teammates, which is terrible news in a game which keeps throwing zombies at you and typically requires your squad's combined firepower to survive.
Despite all these hindrances though and the game's derivative nature, when you're in the middle of one of its zombie swarm set pieces, it really can sing. That gives the game enough to make it a fun little diversion, but it's hard to see gamers falling in love with it.