Game Reviews

World War Z: GOTY Edition Review

The game is better than ever, but the experience is marred by a swarm of bugs.

World War Z: GOTY Edition Review

World War Z the film was a complete departure from the book that inspired it. Instead of deeply human tales about surviving and overcoming the zombie apocalypse, we got a relatively generic Brad Pitt led action film that had one standout feature: massive zombie swarms that were more akin to raging ant colonies than the slow hordes featured in other zombie titles. World War Z the game came out a full six years after the film, and while we didn’t review it at the time of release the game has grown a bit since it first shambled on to the scene. If there is one thing that has remained the same, however, it is the scale of those damned swarms.

World War Z: GOTY Edition bundles up all the paid content that was released over the last year for the game and delivers it with a handful of new missions set in Marseille, France. At a surface level this doesn’t seem like much for the asking price: most of the actual content Saber Interactive released for World War Z has been free, so any enterprising zombie slayer who picks up the game will have access to the Horde Mode, Challenge Mission, difficulty settings, and additional missions added to the original four chapters. If you are a returning player who never bought the season pass (which includes all the GOTY content, including Marseille), the upgrade may seem a bit steep then for what’s actually behind the paywall.

If you are a new player though, coming in now with only the GOTY Edition up for grabs, then it’s not a bad deal on paper. There’s a healthy amount of content to chew on in World War Z: GOTY Edition for what is essentially a AA cooperative game. Of course, quantity over quality doesn’t mean jack shit if the quality is abysmal, so it’s a good thing World War Z is a largely solid game. Operative word there being “largely.” Much like the zombies in game some parts of World War Z are a little worse for wear than others, and a plethora of performance issues and bugs dampen what is an otherwise fun, if remarkably repetitive, experience.

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World War Z is more than a “lesser” Left for Dead contender.

I’ve seen that phrase bandied about quite a bit while researching World War Z these last few days. As I noted earlier, we didn’t review the game when it initially launched, so I wanted to be thorough and see how far the game has evolved since last year. The general consensus at launch seemed to be, “it’s Left for Dead, but not as good,” which is fine all said: Left for Dead 1 and 2 were exceptional games, so merely existing as a “lesser” Left for Dead contender isn’t near as bad as it sounds (considering Valve hasn’t touched the franchise in 11 years, and only just returned to what we believe to be full-on game development, competitors had to fill the void somehow).

Left for Dead is essentially a genre at this point, what with Vermintide, Overkill’s The Walking Dead, and Earthfall all hewing closely to Valve’s core design. Of course, not all the end results have been great: of the games I just listed Warhammer Vermintide 2 is the only one I can confidently recommend, considering the other two are absolute duds. Saber Interactive didn’t need to be “as good” as Left for Dead to be successful. It simply had to be competent. By and large it clears that bar, and the attractive AA-pricing certainly helps salve most quibbles concerning quality.

So, what is World War Z exactly? It’s a third-person four-player cooperative survival game where teams are tasked with making it from point A to point B intact. If you’ve played any game set within the Left for Dead template you know what to expect: you’ll make your way through a level dispatching an ever increasing number of foes, scavenging weapons and tools as you go. What you do between beginning and end varies from game to game, but World War Z keeps it rather simple, for both better and for worse.

The majority of tasks in-game require you either flipping some sort of switch, hunting down some sort of item, or standing your ground against an onslaught of zombies. The more routine objectives are a general bore, and only a handful of levels shake up the format in creative fashion. Plain and simple: you’re gonna spend a lot of time in World War Z performing the same tasks, just with a slightly different coat of paint. That paint does help, however: each chapter features its own cast of characters and a distinct setting, which goes a long way towards alleviating the monotony.

This repetition isn’t an inherently bad thing, and it is a bit of a staple within the genre. The idea is simple: these tasks may be mundane, but they force your team to pause and work together as the A.I. Director works out how to end you and your compatriots. The objectives are not meant to be the star of the show – the tense fight to survive is. This is where World War Z compensates for its uninspired objective design: it doesn’t merely send a few dozen undead at you, it sends an entire (damn near literal) city-block after you.

There are no genuine quiet moments in World War Z. Even the “slower” sections are littered with zombies, and if your team decides to go in loud (I.E. opts to not use silenced weapons) you’ll rouse the undead masses and find yourself putting down dozens upon dozens of zeds. Again, these are the “quiet” moments in the game, as you go about looking for keycards, switches, or the optional breaching charges tucked away that are used to access sealed equipment caches. Even if your team goes in silent and dispatches the lingering zombies with silencers and melee weapons you’ll still have a small battalion of zeds to deal with.

Of course, there are special zombies to shake things up, but they are not near as frightening as those found in Left for Dead (for a good reason I’ll share in a moment). The riot-armored Bull will charge players and start slamming them on the ground until dispatched, Infectors will spit poison that must be cleansed lest you become a zombie yourself, Lurkers linger in the corners ready to pounce and murder the unsuspecting, and a handful of others all exist to make zombie encounters a bit more eventful. None ever reach the heights of the Tank or the Witch, but they serve their purpose well: give the players something more challenging to deal with. Naturally, the louder you are the more of these special bastards the A.I. Director will spawn, so it behooves teams at higher difficulties to have at least one silenced weapon among their two equipped weapons if they wish to progress with fewer headaches.

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The reason these special zombies are not near as threatening as the Special Infected that influenced them is simple: World War Z will spawn hundreds upon hundreds of zombies at once and send them careening towards the party like a tidal wave of teeth and hunger. All missions in World War Z feature two to three stand-and-fight segments where players will place available defenses down before buckling in to stop the swarm. When I said hundreds of zombies are sent your way I meant literal hundreds, as the screen is filled with the monsters. If you’ve seen World War Z the film or its trailer you’ll know exactly what I am talking about: World War Z the game embraces this concept, and it creates the best moments in the game.

You don’t need a Witch or Tank-level threat when there are hundreds of zombies bearing down on you all at once. You’ll need every tool in your arsenal to overcome the onslaught, because simply firing a standard rifle, shotgun, pistol, or SMG into the seething horde will do little to stop it. Slow it down, sure, but you’ll need the automatic and mounted machine guns, electric grid traps, and mortars to whittle the undead down. Special heavy weapons that have limited ammo are also key to survival – a grenade launcher, for example, can send a growing pile of zombies about to reach the top of the gate keeping you alive tumbling down ass over tea-kettle, giving you a chance to use your regular weapons to cull the survivors.

It’s this core loop that keeps World War Z from becoming an absolute repetitive slog. Slink about silently while completing tasks one minute, then plant your feet and push back against an army of zombies the next. Rinse, repeat. The class design in World War Z helps elevate the experience as well, because every player enters the game with a set specialty and unique piece of equipment that can dramatically alter your chances of survival. As you play the game you’ll earn experience for the class you are playing as, which will unlock additional perks that further enhance your odds, such as the Fixer’s ability to rise from the downed state for one final hurrah if the whole team is downed.

Additionally, each of the weapons scattered about have their own progression system that will allow you to purchase better versions of that weapon once you’ve leveled it up. The process of upgrading perks and weapons is a bit cumbersome (you have to use a currency earned from matches, and jump through a handful of menus to accomplish the task), but it provides a more long-term grind for those who want to push into the harder difficulties. You can also prestige classes once you’ve reached their max rank of 30 and have enough Supplies (the general currency) on hand, and doing so allows you to pick up additional game-changing perks for the effort.

In effect, these long-term pursuits make the repetitive nature of the game less aggravating. World War Z sets a clear standard from the start – survive, grow stronger, then try and survive at an even higher difficulty. Considering the game’s ace is its swarms this loop works rather well. There is something to be said about the joy of overcoming overwhelming odds, and the higher you climb the five-tier difficulty ladder the graver those odds become. Being able to tangibly feel the difference between going into Hard with my level 5 Fixer as compared to my level 15 Fixer provided World War Z a cohesive sense of progression, one that successfully masked how outright rote the game is at its core.

Of course, I haven’t even touched on the Horde Mode, Challenge Mode, or Multiplayer components of the game. While multiplayer was included at launch, Horde Mode and the weekly Challenge Mode were added afterwards as free updates to the game, and they do a wonderful job of rounding out the experience. Horde Mode works exactly as you’d expect at this point: survive ever increasing waves of zombies, and use currency earned from killing them to purchase defenses, ammo, and other necessary tools. World War Z is at its best when you are fighting tooth and nail against impossible swarms, and Horde Mode is nothing but that experience. When the monotony of the regular missions start to wear out their welcome, Horde Mode provides a much welcome respite and some sensational zombie slaying.

The weekly Challenge Mode is the opposite: this offering is for seasoned survivors to test their mettle against a set of three brutal modifiers in a select mission for a healthy amount of currency and bragging rights. The grind to upgrade your class and weapons comes to a head in Challenge Mode, and it’s an excellent way for teams to come together and utilize their builds to overcome a fresh challenge. Progression is shared between the regular missions, Horde Mode, and Challenge Mode, meaning all three holistically come together and round out World War Z in a more comprehensive fashion, making it far better game than it was at launch when all you had were the regular missions and four difficulty modes (Very Hard has since been removed, but the game at one point had six difficulties post-launch).

Multiplayer progression is divorced from these three modes, though it does have it’s own set of classes to level up. Overall multiplayer is decent. It certainly feels a bit bolted on, but having swarms of zombies flood the map periodically does spice up what would have otherwise been a very fire-and-forget mode. It’s mostly fine, and a solid distraction from the PvE shenanigans, but multiplayer often feels like a mode that was included to sate some publisher checkbox. It’s fun, and by no means bad, but it’s the weakest part of the package.

Overall, even before touching on the “new” GOTY content, World War Z is a solid coop zombie shooter that never quite reaches the same heights as its inspiration, but is an enjoyable romp nonetheless. It’s the sort of game you pick up and play for a couple hours maybe every week or so with friends, and have a blast doing so. Thing is, the World War Z: GOTY Edition update has introduced a bevy of bugs and crashes that sour the experience. When you’re resting on “mostly good”, you can ill afford such problems.

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Technical issues nearly pull World War Z into an early grave.

During one mission my whole team disconnected midway through a swarm, leaving me alone with the bots to push back the horde. The bots in World War Z are actually halfway decent, so the fight wasn’t lost. Thing is they won’t place defensive items, so I busied myself with the task. As I placed an automatic turret on the scaffolding above a point where the zombies were clawing up each other to reach us, I was promptly launched fifty feet into the air, off the scaffolding, and into the area where the zeds were. I was incapacitated immediately, and because I landed in an area players were never meant to enter, the bots couldn’t reach me. I died where I landed, and the mission failed. So much for those twenty minutes of effort.

While that exact experience was unique, those bugs on their own have not been. World War Z has been plagued by a litany of bugs, crashes, matchmaking errors, and broken mechanics since the GOTY Edition dropped, and they’ve turned what should be an otherwise mindlessly fun game into a frustrating exercise in patience.

I’ve lost count of the number of times either I or a teammate have been unceremoniously kicked from a mission, launched into orbit while deploying a defensive item, or some other strange bug appeared. Matchmaking has been maddening on both PC and PlayStation: queues often fill only to be purged milliseconds later. Additionally, there seems to be a bug right now where if someone drops from your group (whether intentionally or due to a crash) the game refuses to punt them and backfill the slot, even after a mission when in the lobby loading up the next one (this could also be a design quirk, but I’ve not seen this problem mentioned prior to the GOTY update).

From what I saw browsing around the forums and subreddit, crashes on the PlayStation 4 are common. I personally experienced ten within a three-hour window the other day, which may be a new personal record. Speaking of the PlayStation 4, the new Marseille missions are slideshows on Sony’s console, and I noticed they ran noticeable worse than the older missions on PC as well. It’s a shame, because of all the “content” added in World War Z: GOTY Edition these new missions are arguably the marque feature, and when they work they are just as brainless and enjoyable as the other missions.

There was also a bug I and others experienced in Challenge Mode shortly before the weekly rollover that saw the whole team fail if one person died. This was before the modifiers flipped over and adopted new ones for the week, one of which that made the mission fail if a select player died. It was almost as if the next weekly modifiers were in the chamber, and the game was pulling from them before they actually went live.

Then there have been the visual artifacts around dynamic lights and shadows when using Vulkan on PC, the constant stuttering and popping of sound on both console and PC, and general wonkiness with texture loading on PlayStation 4. It’s absolutely maddening! When World War Z works it’s a crisp looking title with good spatial audio that manages to churn out hundreds of zombies at once with nary a sigh. But, for every moment of stability there are two of jank. Saber Interactive have proven themselves coding maestros with The Witcher 3 for Nintendo Switch, so seeing their own game implode at every turn with this update makes me wonder if World War Z: GOTY Edition was ready for launch.

As of this review most of the world has transitioned to working from home, and many games have suffered both minor and major delays as teams adjusted. In a way, I feel like World War Z: GOTY Edition was at the quality control stage when this transition occurred, and instead of delaying the game a bit to allow the team a chance to settle in and review their product they were told to deploy the update as planned. Maybe that’s not the case – this is mere speculation on my part – yet, considering how even some old Vulkan issues that were once resolved have returned alongside all these other bugs and the poor performance of Marseille, I can’t help but feel this GOTY Edition update came out before it was thoroughly tested.

I mean, the four new characters added with Marseille don’t even have backstory cinematics like the other 12 characters. Outside the new missions, the only additional content locked behind purchasing the upgrade isn’t new at all. The weapon upgrades locked behind the season pass are the only other thing you are paying for, meaning if you don’t (or never did) give a rat’s ass about those weapons when they were released you are essentially paying $20 for three new missions that run worse than anything else in the game. The fact the base edition of the game is no longer for sale digitally means new players who want to jump in have to pay the premium (a $10 increase over the original sale price). Considering how much of what’s been advertised as a part of the GOTY Edition is actually older, free content this is absurd.

It’s absolutely mind-boggling to see the game build itself up over the last year into a more robust, entertaining product, only to bury a bullet in its foot. The amount on offer for the asking price already makes the GOTY Edition a hard sell as a standalone upgrade for existing players, but all these bugs, crashes, and performance problems almost make it worth avoiding the whole game entirely until things are squared away. Such a damn shame, because everything outside this upgrade is wholesale fun. Competent, maybe safe fun, but fun no less.

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The Verdict

World War Z is like gaming junk food: there are better, more appetizing options available, but sometimes you wanna sit down with something simpler. It isn’t overly ambitious, and plays to a single central gimmick, but it aces that core idea. You’ve seen and played better games than World War Z, but none quite feature the literal mountains of undead as seen here. The shooting, pacing, and enemy design are all competent enough to be enjoyable, but overcoming truly gigantic hordes of zombies is truly where the magic lies.

It’s disappointing then to see the game dragged back, kicking and screaming, by a host of bugs and performance issues introduced by the GOTY Edition. World War Z: GOTY Edition has everything it needs to be a compelling AA darling: multiple engaging game modes, a solid progression loop, a well polished core gimmick, and competent sound and weapon design. But, much like its standout zombie swarms, the myriad amount of bugs can prove too much to handle. Once these issues are put to rest you’ll discover World War Z is a solid, entertaining zombie-killing adventure, but until then it may be best to bunker down and wait.

- This article was updated on:May 26th, 2020

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World War Z: GOTY Edition

  • Available On: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
  • Published By: Mad Dog Games LLC
  • Developed By: Saber Interactive
  • Genre: Third-person Shooter
  • US Release Date: May 5th, 2020
  • Reviewed On: PC and PlayStation 4
  • Quote: "World War Z: GOTY Edition has everything it needs to be a compelling AA darling: multiple engaging game modes, a solid progression loop, a well polished core gimmick, and competent sound and weapon design. But, much like its standout zombie swarms, the myriad amount of bugs can prove too much to handle."
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