Developer: Hammerpoint Interactive / Publisher: Hammerpoint Interactive / Platforms: PC / Release Date: Fall 2012 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
You’re in the forests of Colorado. Your stomach is empty and you’ve got half a clip of ammo left in your gun. Aside from that, you’ve got a ratty baseball bat to protect you from whatever may or may not be in the hopefully abandoned cabin just down the hill in front of you. Wind rustles through the trees and you can hear some birds chirping in the distance… but that’s all. As you creep forward, everything appears perfectly placid. You round the corner of the cabin hoping for a door, but instead run headlong into a zombie. Before you can blink he swipes at you knocking your health down to 60 percent.
You panic and shoot, hitting him in the torso which has no affect. Another swipe and now you’re almost dead. You run backwards firing frantically. Just as your gun clicks empty, you peg the monster in the head. He goes down, but now your gunfire has attracted the attention of all the zombies around you. How many zombies are there? Should you run? Can you take them out with your bat? You’ve scrounged for hours to collect everything in your backpack, how much do you risk to protect it?
From my time with The War Z, I can tell that moments like this will define the experience. The War Z is an open-world survival horror game, and all that horror stems from very concrete and unforgiving rules about the game world. This starts as basic as how much damage zombies do. In the preview build I played, a good three zombie attacks would kill you flat. Death is not a fuzzy consequence either. All the items you’ve accumulated — guns, ammo, food, bandages, etc — drop when you die. Given that level up bonuses will only be very slight enhancements like the ability to sprint longer or reload faster, the real progression in the game comes from stockpiling instruments of survivability. One bad death can set you back to zero in addition to locking out that character for a day or more while they “recover.” Oh, and of course there’s a “hardcore” mode in addition where death is permanent. If you’re thinking you can just alt-F4 to escape from harsh situations, the developers are one step ahead of you. All character data is stored remotely, and disconnects will just idle your character for a while to make sure you get what’s coming to you.
This is not a coddling, forgiving world. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to hear Ultima Online referenced more than once during the preview. UO had a very wild west feel to it; almost anything went provided you weren’t in a city under the protection of guards. The same will be true for The War Z. Not only will the zombies threaten to wipe out any progress you’ve made, but other players can gang up and ambush you without warning. There is a system to track this behavior though — kill too many players and you become a “bandit,” thus making you a target to everyone. You can only un-bandit yourself by killing other bandits. It sounds like a simple and self-correcting system that will promote interesting player behavior.
Speaking of interesting behavior, I’m fascinated by The War Z’s quest system. Rather than conjure up systemic goals like “go kill five zombies” or “find me five cans of food,” players write and post their own quests along with a reward in the game’s safe zones. Say a player ambushes you and steals a gun you really like. You can post a quest for a player to retrieve it for you for a large reward. If they do, it’s up to the honor system for you to actually pay up. Of course, they could just lure you away from one of the game’s safe zones and simply shoot you and take all your items anyway. This open system has the potential for some crazy EVE Online style shenanigans, and I can’t wait to see what stories pop up.
Some of my fondest memories are rooted in games that are unforgiving and brutal. With unrelenting mechanics and a laissez-faire attitude toward player interaction, The War Z could set the stage for war stories that you recall fondly years after. If you’ve got a dark streak that wants to be punished, look for The War Z when it launches this fall.