title="Permanent Link to The War Z review">
The War Z's mindless unpeople are only dangerous in large numbers. Hackers and spawn campers are the real threat.
I can see the benefits to having an identical twin. I mean, being followed around by someone that shares all your genetic traits must be like having a constant, you-shaped reminder to distinguish yourself. It’d probably make you a better person.
When The War Z revealed itself last July, jumping into DayZ’s still-fresh footsteps, the hope—mine, at least—was that the games’ doppelgangering designs would drive a mutual ambition between them. One that gamers would benefit from. Both Zs throw you into a vast, brutal sandbox filled with players and zombies. Both scatter a mix of boring and military items within their worlds, and make scavenging for food as necessary as bullets.
Hammerpoint Interactive wanted The War Z to be a more accessible mutation of DayZ’s ideals, ones rooted in military simulation Arma 2. I think there’s more than enough room for a game of that nature to exist. The problem was Hammerpoint’s recklessly fast pace of development. Four months after being announced, they committed to a pre-release around Halloween, all while promising an impossible-sounding feature set: maps up to 400km² in area, vehicles, bounty-setting, traps, player-owned private instances, and 250-player servers.
All of these features are still to be delivered. The game that exists now, version 1.0.1, is a shell of its own dubious intentions still waiting to be filled. In its haste to release ahead of DayZ’s updated, standalone version, The War Z duplicates most of its step-brother’s problems instead of addressing them.
Hackers still linger, ready to ruin your progress, and their exploits are exponentially less tolerable in a context where dying loses you the hard-earned gear you’re carrying. Server-hopping remains a relatively easy method of item farming. The War Z has its own, original issues too: cheap and inconsistent sound design deflates the game’s mood; the entire melee system feels like a placeholder; and bullets—one of The War Z’s most precious resources—can be bought with real money.
You know those blow-up punching bags for kids? That's what The War Z's melee system seems to be modeled after. Zombies root to their position when you hit them. As long as you're dealing with one or two targets, you won't take damage.
It’s a game that openly lacks DayZ’s experimental spirit, and yet, there are tiny glimmers—beams of light that occasionally pierce through the rubble of technical and design problems that The War Z buries you under. These moments of self-authored apoca-storytelling are rare, but here’s one.
I’m in a police station at dusk when I hear footsteps punctuating mine. I freeze, stowing my flashlight. I hide in the back room, hoping whoever else is in here doesn’t scan every corner. The footsteps get louder. Now, two glaring flashlights are upon me, occluding their owners. I don’t move. They don’t move. I breathe through my teeth. They’re two hovering lights, staring at me like curious aliens. I’m sure I’m about to be bludgeoned to death.
I sprint through them, booking it past dumpsters behind the station. I curl around a fence. Their lights chase inquisitively, but they seem to lose interest. I exhale, loop around, and perch up on the outskirts of town to watch them. I wait. And wait. And within three minutes, there’s a bandit in the street, emptying an AK-47 into the building that the pair of survivors wandered into. I ride a wave of giddy schadenfreude out of town.
On the surface, this is the same family of feelings I experience in DayZ. What I did in a moment of panic—how I problem-solved and reacted—created a small narrative. But anecdotes like this are rare accidents among a heap of damaged systems. As long as The War Z lacks its own identity, a clear vision of what it can offer the genre, a responsible approach to microtransactions, or a proper implementation of its own ideas, it won’t be worth playing.
The War Z claims to have a 100km² map, but you'll regularly spawn in the same spot as other survivors. This fellow instantly killed me, probably because we were wearing the same outfit.
There’s a huge obstacle to The War Z overcoming the frustrating mess I’ve played for the past two months: the absence of voice communication. Even more than competitive shooters, multiplayer survival games rely on integrated voice to facilitate interesting, coincidental experiences between faceless strangers. It’s an essential social tool, and one that can defuse the natural tension that spikes when you and another survivor come face to face in a barn, an abandoned post office, the woods—wherever.
A non-functional slider for adjusting communication volume implies that some form of voice is coming, but in the meantime The War Z’s proximity text chat forces you to pull your hands off your mouse and WASD to type, leaving you defenseless. It’s unforgivable that Hammerpoint is willing to sell The War Z in this state. The UI element that displays global, clan, and proximity text is a clumsy, immersion-breaking container, too: unless you hit F12 to disable the whole HUD, enjoy watching a steady tick of chat room gossip that you can’t turn off individually.
I wish that the only audio sins committed by The War Z were against your microphone. They’re not, though. Every sound feels homemade in the worst way, or pulled from some public audio library. Whatever virus afflicts the zombies has given them the gentle feet of fairies—other than their grunts, zeds are completely inaudible when moving. In most situations, players don’t make footstep noise either: they’re inexplicably silent on dirt, dense grass, urban outdoor areas, and pavement, except when sprinting (and even then, whisper quiet). But you will hear the clanking, oddly metallic thud of human feet when you or another survivor are moving on indoor surfaces or say, an empty shipping container.
Don’t interpret this as an objection to The War Z’s loose realism. Audio is just one of the many hollow bones in the game’s skeleton, but it happens to be a particularly brittle one. Not being able to hear zombie or player movement makes detecting threats frustratingly difficult and eliminates any possibility of listening being a fun skill, as it is in Counter-Strike, for example. Sound directionality is also an issue, with zombie howls and other effects never quite deciding which side of your headset they belong in. Perhaps worst is the hackneyed horror movie trick the game relies on: telling you how to feel with scary noises.
The sourceless, ominous bonging of a church clock. A haunted airplane hum that steadily rises in pitch. These are the grating, ambient noises you’ll be subjected to every few minutes—and no, they cannot be turned down or off. Why rely on such fake stimulation? The threat of permadeath (on Hardcore mode) or an hour timeout (on Normal), and the loss of your gear in both, are natural fear-inducers. If anything, the inclusion of these bizarre effects betrays how little confidence Hammerpoint has in the game’s inherent ability to spook you.
Military gear, groceries, backpacks, and medical supplies make up most of The War Z's loot.
If part of Hammerpoint’s goal is to create a game that’s more accessible than DayZ, there are a few ways they’ve been relatively successful. Character movement is as effortless as any other average third-person shooter (The War Z allows first- and third-person perspective swapping), and I like that sprinting stamina is a player resource that depletes and fills. The map has some interesting landmarks, including a ski resort lodge, a snapped freeway overpass beside a dense city, and some modest military installations. The War Z also addresses one of DayZ’s defects by making more of its structures enterable, although I’ve built sand castles that are more geometrically diverse.
I don’t like how homogenous the landscape is, though. The level designers treat the Colorado forest simply as dull, wooded filler between points of interest, demonstrated by the ancient texture quality trees and shrubbery are drawn with. Overall, War Z hands you an incongruous but more functional world, while DayZ’s current main map Chernarus has heaps more personality and authenticity. Being satellite-modeled after a slice of the Czech Republic probably doesn’t hurt.
In terms of features, one I like is War Z’s global inventory system. Any items you’re carrying can be deposited to a secure inventory for later use, or to be given to other characters on your account. You can only transfer gear while you’re inside one of the map’s three designated safe zones—protected areas of the map where players can’t shoot, use melee weapons, or take damage. I like the way the shared inventory provides something to do beyond hunting other players. Reaching a safe zone and banking a rifle, some ammo, or some body armor for a new character feels like reaching a finish line. It also makes low-end loot slightly more valuable, as junk like juice boxes, binoculars, or bandages can be used to boost revived characters when you inevitably die.
This feature, of course, is in place in part to give The War Z’s item marketplace a reason to exist. Other than guns, almost all loot can be purchased in the game with real money or a large amount of in-game currency (zombies will sometimes drop enormous piles of paper cash when killed).
I don’t have a huge objection to selling some basic items: it’s a mostly-harmless shortcut for players who hate grinding for staples. But it’s unsettling that Hammerpoint is happy to put on sale stuff like the largest backpack in the game, nightvision goggles and weapon scopes. These are significant tiers of progression that you can simply pay to reach, and pricetagging this gear undermines the significance of finding it in the wild.
But wait: it gets worse. The War Z’s marketplace sells the same bullets you can find in-game, and they’re only buyable with real money. How much does virtual ammo cost? Well, a 30-round STANAG magazine is about $0.32. A 10-round .22 mag is $1.24—more than $0.12 per shot. Five rounds for the .50 caliber anti-materiel sniper rifle will set you back a ludicrous $3.60.
That’s as expensive as it gets, probably because any further irresponsible mark-up would rival the cost of actual ammo. I usually shrug off claims that a game is “pay to win” as wild overstatements, but selling bullets—a legitimate form of power—is such a positively stupid, egregious thing. It sells out the very theme of the game. In firefights, it detracts from the mindset of needing to be hyperconscious of your ammo consumption, or the feeling that you’re fighting an enemy who’s similarly underequipped. I like scarcity in apocalyptic shooters; saving your precious flamethrower ammo in Fallout 3 until a boss fight made that encounter so much more meaningful. I can’t believe the extent that Hammerpoint is willing to put a price on that feeling.
The War Z's real money currency, Gold Coins, can be used to buy a vast amount of equipment, allowing players to sidestep the effort of finding it in-game.
I wish I could better evaluate the level of hacking in The War Z. On January 16, Hammerpoint claims that it has banned 3.5 per cent of its playerbase for hacking, and the forum dedicated to cheating complaints totals more than 9,100 posts. In a dedicated post with more than 14,000 views, loads of players report being killed inside safe zones. That’s unacceptably bad, although it didn’t happen to me.
Anecdotally, I’ve been killed by hackers two or three times in 60-plus deaths. Compared with Bohemia’s game, I’m relatively happy: I haven’t had to watch helplessly as all the players on a server were teleported into the ocean or into a pile of bear traps, as I did in DayZ. Hackers remain an issue but one I’ve experienced less in The War Z. Hopefully things will get better, not worse, if the game sees an influx of players when it re-releases on Steam.
The behavior of legitimate players has actually been a bigger problem. Despite the size of the world, spawn camping is a constant fear in The War Z. Spawn locations for new characters are predetermined, and it’s normal for these areas to be watched—even on low-population servers, I’ve found. I’ve been killed before the game completes loading (off my SSD, no less), with no chance to move or respond, 14 times. On several of these defenseless lives, I’d brought gear into the game that I’d purchased from the marketplace and lost it instantly.
The War Z’s recent attempt to address server hopping actually exacerbates this. Initially (as I complained about earlier this month) players could leave and join servers with no penalty, logging and out of high-volume loot areas to farm items. On January 23, Hammerpoint attempted to solve this by teleporting any players that leave a server and log into a new one to a nearby location. On paper, this seemed like a reasonable stop-gap. In practice, unfortunately, the locations the game teleports you to seem to be shared with the spawn spots available to new players, which simply adds to the traffic of fresh bodies for bandits to execute.
Time passes with an accelerated day-night cycle.
Hammerpoint’s hurry to sell something so openly unfinished is irresponsible. The studio has a pile of technical, design, and exploit-related flaws to address before it should even consider implementing the long list of originally promised (and then omitted) features.
And there are lots of these. Colorado’s open roadways are empty of vehicles. Strongholds—small, rentable, server instances—aren’t implemented. Bodies of water aren’t swimmable, and are blocked off with invisible walls. You earn XP by killing zombies, but the skill system for spending it hasn’t been added yet. Players can’t yet offer missions to other players for rewards, a feature that would formalize bounty-setting within The War Z.
With a dozen more months of effort, I think The War Z could’ve contributed something good to the survival genre. Its accomplishments include a comfortable inventory system, smoother player movement than a famously rigid military sim, and more building interiors. Other than that, it’s simply a reminder of how unflattering imitation can be, and that multiplayer survival games are inherently difficult to make.