The War Z review
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.
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.
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.