Some context: in 2012, a mod designed by Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall for the 2009 military sim Arma II was released. It was called DayZ and it turned Arma II into a multiplayer, zombie-survival game. Players started off unarmed (or barely armed) and had to scavenge for food, water and protection in a land overridden by both zombies and other humans, neither of whom tended to think twice about killing you.
It proved incredibly popular, giving Arma II the kind of late sales boost only mods can provide. Hall now works for developers Bohemia Interactive and is developing DayZ as a standalone release. It should be a considerable improvement over the somewhat clunky mod and is due sometime in 2013.
That stuff is important to know.
Other stuff that’s important to know: DayZ is in no way connected to The War Z. The War Z is not the aforementioned standalone version of DayZ, nor does it share any of the developers, graphics engine or anything else aside from the zombie survival theme. Having spent the past few days confirming my worst fears about people confusing and conflating these two titles, I think that needs to be stated and re-stated.
So again, just to be sure. The War Z is not DayZ.
For anyone outside the videogames bubble, it’s an easy mistake to make. Whoever named The War Z is an expert in diabolical marketing. Not only does it sound quite like DayZ, a successful mod in the same thematic genre, but it also sounds like World War Z, a successful zombie-themed novel (and soon to be film.)
But it is neither of those things.
More context: The War Z was spawned from War Inc, an unremarkable online shooter. When it was announced in July 2012, the game was clearly positioning itself to take advantage of the interest in DayZ. That action wasn’t too egregious in itself. This is an industry which thrives on iteration, and if Hammerpoint had delivered an alternative zombie survival title of sufficient quality, all may have been well.
All was not well. Producer Sergey Titov’s claim that “we began developing our game before DayZ” was shown to be, at best, a semantic contortion. More strangeness and half-truths were to follow.
When the IncGamers team played the beta in November last year, we assumed we were sampling a game that still had a great deal of development time ahead of it. Our reservations were tempered by the hope that the strands of gameplay that were obviously still missing would be implemented, that bugs would be dealt with and that the game could establish itself as a credible alternative to DayZ.
Instead, the game emerged from its ‘beta’ period with minimal (if any) changes and attempted to launch on Steam accompanied by a list of features that were not yet present in the game. A couple of days later the game was pulled from sale and Valve offered full refunds to all buyers. If you still need one, here’s where you should go.
You can probably see where this review is heading.
The War Z is not just a bad game. Bad games happen all the time. This is something far more insidious; a shameless attempt to cash-in on a popular trend with the minimum possible effort. It’s different from the regular band of clones, copies and derivations because most of those at least attempt to fashion a half-way decent game. This is a focused cash-grab, as plain as there ever has been.
Put simply, The War Z is the Ratatoing of videogames.
The expected components are all there (zombies, a big map to wander around on, items to find, other people,) but any sense of why that combination of things worked so well in DayZ has been trampled underfoot in a race to cream money off bamboozled players at every possible juncture.
In The War Z you will die, a lot. Sometimes fairly. Other times to animation glitches, bugs, unchecked hackers and spawn-point campers. If you’ve spent some real-life money in the game’s marketplace, those purchased items will be lost in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry, you can always buy more!
The survival genre relies on tension. If that constant sense of threat to your character from external sources is removed, games of this sort begin to fall apart. DayZ had the unwieldy but sim-based Arma II engine at its disposal, which resulted in a pretty immersive experience. The bleak landscape and Soviet-era buildings of Chernarus created enough of a suspension of disbelief for the mod to work. You felt alone, afraid and in peril.
In The War Z it’s more likely that you’ll be pulled out of the game’s Colorado landscape by repetitive sound loops, dodgy texture work and atrocious animations. Whenever you attack a zombie with a melee weapon it looks like this.
Maybe after all that exertion you should cool off with a lovely swim?
There is a constant level of threat to the game, however. It’s the worry that something will bug out while you’re making your way slowly down a slope, costing you a sizeable chunk of health or possibly your life. It doesn’t matter which of the cosmetic character classes you opt to go for, they all have ankles made of brittle china.
Of course there’s also the ever-present danger of other human beings in general. The cheaters are inevitable and an annoyance, but genuine friendly encounters are rendered even more unlikely by the current restriction of communications to text. There’s an option to alter “communication volume” in the game’s menu, but voice chat appears to be yet another item on the To Do list.
Nobody, in a zombie survival game known for the ruthlessness of its players, is going to take their hands off their ‘weapons’ to input text and attempt close-range diplomacy. This leads to even more emphasis on a “shoot first” policy amongst players, and all-but rules out any entertaining negotiations.
Then there’s the stuff that’s just unfinished. Presumably you will be able to go in water at some point. Maybe the Missions screen will have purpose one day. Perhaps the experience points you gather from slaying zombies can, in some distant time, be applied to that greyed-out Skill Tree tab on the survivor screen. For now, of all the invented features advertised on the ill-fated Steam release back on 18 December, only two (100 player servers and a functioning perma-death mode) have been implemented. The rest are still missing in action. Lost in the development wilderness.
The developers can claim this title is a work in progress (or “foundation release”) all they want, but the moment they launched it on Steam with the impression that it was feature-complete they lost any right to the benefit of the doubt. There’s no indication on the War Z homepage that the game is in any way unfinished (save for a suggestion that more maps may be added in future,) but you’re unlikely to miss the garish BUY NOW button. It comes right after a set of images depicting scenes that never happen, and never can happen, in the game.
The War Z’s development has been characterised by duplicity, amateurish customer relations, shoddy craftsmanship and basic design flaws. It’s an unfinished, bug-ridden shambles and the fact that substantial amounts of cash have already been funneled to the charlatans behind it is a crying shame.
Remember the names Sergey Titov, Arktos Entertainment and Hammerpoint Interactive. If you ever see them involved in future titles, consider it a warning from history.
… On the other hand, the game does have quite a neat looking skybox.