By Neil Merrett
World War Z, released on PS4 in 2019, developed by Saber Interactive & Left for Dead, released on PC in 2008, developed by Valve Corporation, Turtle Rock Studios, Certain Affinity
When you dig past the whole undead thing, there is something very human about the shared experience of playing through co-op zombie games – digging deep with friends and strangers, bunkering down on some roof or homestead and maybe, just maybe surviving the end of days together.
For a game with its roots in a satirical horror novel where the nations of the world fall to their basest natures in order to quell a human race in the process of losing its very humanity, World War Z is fairly generic in its influences.
Gone are the subplots about how governments such as the autocratic regime of North Korea hold their zombified masses in bunkers, while using its control of its own people to remove their teeth in order to limit a further potential viral spread. Terrifyingly, the country’s response hasn’t seemed to a million miles from this to its approach to deal with major real world infections.
Even the game’s decision to use vastly different countries such as the US, Siberia and Israel as levels ultimately says little about each nation’s respective treatment of both the living and the living dead in any meaningful way.
World War Z: the game, is truly a zombie survival videogame. In this case, rather than lampooning the conventions of a huge number of zombie-based shooters and survival games released over the last two decades, it embraces all their various, well worn tropes.
In an era where we have games with titles such as ‘Not Another Zombie Defence’, World War Z seeks to emulate everything from gaming franchises that include Left for Dead and Resident Evil, to more grounded third person online shooters such as the viral outbreak-themed, The Division.
Some of the game mechanics are satisfyingly familiar. It has the headshots and chainsaws and frenzied melee combat that are long associated with the survival horror genre as you try and push back against a literal army of the undead. It feels as if sometimes you are literally holding back hundreds of zombies.
Beyond the technically impressive number of on-screen assailants, World War Z feels like a little bit of just about every zombie game you may have ever played.
Best laid plans
Spiritually, the game’s biggest debt is owed to Left for Dead 1 and 2. These games were first developed by Valve over a decade ago and popularised the idea of co-op zombie bashing, of working together to ensure collective survival against zombie hordes and a perfectly judged shortlist of infected monsters.
These infected include a creature that can drag a player away from safe places with a snake like constrictive tongue, or the beast-like Tank that charges you into walls and smash the player to pieces in seconds. They are employed by the game’s AI to out manoeuvre whatever plans or strategies players employ to bunker down and stay alive against a common zombie. Should you find a nice safe room to murder zombies the minute they step into a door, then an exploding infected might soon ruin your plan.
This so-called ‘director’ AI is designed to decide when a group of player’s needs to be punished or given respite in the battle against seemingly endless zombie hordes that seek to overwhelm and turn the players into dinner, or worse,
These same battles for survival are relived over and over via a beautifully realised, but somewhat limited number of levels. Almost all of them have set pieces, such as having to fuel a getaway car while holding off a zombie infestation of a US mall, or surviving a siege of a cavernous Southern mansion and its surrounding grounds.
Yet thanks to the very nature of the AI, the experience, whether using a trusted strategy of holding a specific area, or adopting a bold new plan to maim and massacre the zombie armies – no playthrough of Left for Dead and its sequel is ever quite the same.
What happens then when a meticulously planned strategy begins to collapse in on itself? Do players stick with their strategy and try and push through the chaos and flames and bloody pulps that litter the grounds, or give up on plans and revert to instinct to save their squad mates in a moment of gallant sacrifice.
But under all this, the mission is always the same. Survive for a set period, fuel a car or boat, or battle to a safe room and safety with your colleagues. All of these infected types are more or less recreated in World War Z, although some of the more iconic and game changing concepts from Left for Dead, such as a ‘Witch’ that can tear a player to shred in seconds if disturbed, are switched out for different kinds of challenges.
World War Z, while not as anarchic in terms of the number of approaches and survival strategies that can be employed as Left for Dead, feels like an attempt to try and recreate the thrills of the series.
It does have a few of its own infected, such as a Screamer that will make a hellish noise to ensure a never ending influx of zombies will find the player’s team if not dealt with and silenced.
World War Z also does away with Left for Dead’s first person – through the eyes – view. Instead the game switches to a behind the shoulders, third person perspective popularised in Resident Evil 4 and 5. But much like the Left for Dead series, World War Z still seeks to recreate that chaotic feel of a world collapsing into chaos.
A slice of fried gold
Both titles arguably recreate the best type of gaming chaos, the type where you get to try and survive with your mates in the hope for a digital adventure of heroic lunacy and last gasp redemption, before inevitably blaming each other when it turns to shit.
Taking one of the more technically impressive – not to mention striking visuals of the World War Z movie – are sections where a mass of zombies will begin to form an undead pyramid that allows them to climb up walls or over barriers, threatening to bring down any carefully made plans. With whatever ammo, fire or explosives the player have, the game requires decisive thinking on how to topple these sometimes multiple zombie towers before you are overwhelmed.
In one mission, the players may find themselves taking one last heroic stand on a beach as you wait for rescue from the sea. An approaching horde of hundreds of zombies in the distance is meanwhile getting nearer and pretty much guaranteed to suck up your ammo until you are left fighting with knives. Another time you may have to run a literal gauntlet leading the way with chainsaws and high explosives to push through a thick river of the undead.
You simply have to survive, ideally together, and at a push with the odd sacrifice here and there against what seem like numerically impossible odds. There is comfort in companionship, even when facing horror.
That is perhaps a key part of the appeal of Left for Dead and the numerous zombie infestation titles that have followed it over the last decade across pretty much every gaming platform.
Teaming up with pals and trying, while the game world falls to a feral, inhuman chaos, to just hold an area securely together. In your tiny part of the world, maybe order can still hold and you are therefore not alone.
The player is often charged with nothing more than creating some fleeting, temporary place of safety and refuge with your friends and in World War Z’s case, aided by automatic turrets and electric cattle grids and barbed wire traps.
Unlike Left for Dead, World War Z sets you specific areas and places where these traps can be deployed. Usually this is done with a perfunctory 90 second warning where the player and their partners must scramble to shore up a rooftop or house as best they can for the untold chaos that awaits.
With friends like these
Will they be swarmed from the rear, the sides, or the front of a stronghold? Maybe an attack will come from all areas. Maybe your defences, if the player can keep reloading their turrets can hold and maybe you won’t be forced to face a frenzied battle for survival head on.
But in those 90 seconds or so of in-game preparation, there is the thrill and fear of building something and bracing to maintain your makeshift barriers of order against unrelenting chaos.
Should the whole plan inevitably fall apart, then players must then try and think on the spot, employing sharp shooting, a bit of luck, and maybe some molotov cocktails to get through the in-game madness and someone stay alive until the next bout of chaos.
It is perhaps the ultimate example of in-game cooperation under pressure. Hold your nerve, stay sharp and look out for your fellow human being and you might just get through it all.
A silly shooter game can show us that even with society past the brink of collapse, with things at their very worst, anything can usually be made better with a friendly face and even a small sense of sanctuary. Then some dickhead drops a molotov cocktail on the floor.
But even when your grand plan fails, games can always give us a second and third chances. A chance to maybe do things differently, or just shoot a lot more. There’s always another chance to survive catastrophe next time around, what else are friends for?