GDC Online 2012: A (severed) hands-on with The War Z

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GDC Online 2012: A (severed) hands-on with The War Z
The War Z screenshot
Everyone loves zombies. We all enjoy shooting them to bits, pummeling them with a hammer, and watching them die... again. But I'd been feeling a bit tired of the zombie genre, even though some of my favorite titles are heavy on the zombs. Then I sat down and played through a bit of The War Z, a new post-apocalyptic horror shooter MMO that tosses players on servers up to 60 miles square and holding up to 250 players. Those zones are chock-full of zombies, so players who care to risk it all can hope to survive as they run, gun, and generally get their wits scared out of them.

I wasn't alone during my short time in the game, thanks to Alex Josef, Director of Communications for Hammerpoint Interactive We sat down for an interview and wound up smashing zombie heads with a flashlight. Ah, the perils of writing about games! Join me past the cut to read what I thought.
%Gallery-168282%The first thing I noticed about The War Z was how familiar it was. Even though this game was brand-new to me, I know what a zombie is. I know what a knife is, I know how important food and water is, I know how concerned I would be about survival and if zombies roamed the Earth. Zombies work on us in a very primitive way. They're frightening because they are us, or at least, they were. Alex began by showing me the basics of character creation. We made a new character, named Beau, of course, and went through some of the options for customization. There were several tops and faces, and while the hairstyles were a bit bugged (it is still in testing), everything was generally functional and polished. Honestly, I didn't notice any other bugs at all while I played. That's good news.

"The lighting in The War Z works beautifully and realistically. During the day, the sun casts long, dark shadows across the empty roads and crunchy grass. You can hide and count on the shadows to aid you, but, you'll have to be aware of how much noise you make."

There's more in the character selection UI than you might expect. There's your vault, a place to store goods for characters to access, a post office so you can post messages and quests, and a general store that will sell only basic melee weapons. All items in the store can be found in the game as well. You can even find the money used in the general store in the game, a bonus for those players who cannot afford to pay. Mutated zombies, for example, can drop some premium stem cells that can sold for gold coins.

After we made a basic character and loaded into the game, I was able to watch Alex show off some of the truly wonderful parts of the world. If you and your friends are going to jump into a game to survive and destroy zombies, you want to feel as if you're really there. How do you achieve this?

Lighting, that's how. The lighting in The War Z works beautifully and realistically. During the day, the sun casts long, dark shadows across the empty roads and crunchy grass. You can hide and count on the shadows to aid you, but you'll have to be aware of how much noise you make. There is a handy meter in the top right-hand corner of the screen that lets you know how visible you are as well as how much noise you make. It's a handy warning system, and players can be quieter by moving mores slowly, crouching, and eventually, crawling.

Nighttime is primetime, however. Alex was able to show me what the game looks like at night, and with my headphones on, I was actually a bit scared. I could only imagine how frightening it would be at nighttime with headhones on alone in my house. I'm not sure I could do it! The moon shone from behind a few wispy clouds, so we equipped a few green glo-lights from my pack and threw them down, casting an eerie green glow that quickly died off. I was able to use actual audio cues to let me know where things were. It was so dark that I didn't dare risk drawing the zombies in with a beam from my flashlight or with my smell (the zombie's strongest sense), so the sounds were priceless. I knew at that point that the nighttime would be the perfect time to go out into the world, to sneak up on other players and move around hopefully unnoticed. Of course zombies are more active at night and are drawn to you like moths to a flame, so the night is much more dangerous as well.

The War Z screenshot
The great thing about The War Z is that it is so simple to understand, at least for an experienced gamer. If you want to blockade a door with some friends in the hopes of keeping zombies out, you equip a barricade and lay it down. If you want to take your neighbor's things, you mow her down and take the loot. Of course, she might turn around and trail a horde of zombies into your camp, but all's fair in War Z, right? Players converge on massive maps that will support up to 250 players at a time. And there are several ways to play in the world:
  • Exploration -- Players search the world, finding goods and places to hide
  • Encountering and killing -- When hunting zombies becomes boring, players can hunt neighbors or random people
  • Player-generated quests -- A player might request help in getting to another point on the map or put out a bounty on another player's head
Players can also rent a chunk of land, basically similar to a Second Life server, and can decorate it how they want. One player created a "pit of death" in which he stuck several zombies in a barricaded area. Other players tried to survive in the pit, and if they did, they earned tons of loot. Another group built what is basically just a hang-out, a social area to meet and greet others. The War Z will basically be one giant sandbox of a game, connected areas of scary content for players to survive and build in. It's pretty ambitious.

What impressed me so much about the game was not only how smooth and polished it was for an early version but how immersive the game felt. I could lose hours and hours to this one. I can only imagine the turmoil involved with claiming a chunk of land or a building, working to secure it with several of my buddies, only to have it overrun with the undead or a stronger group of players. The lighting effects and simple interface are wonderful to toy with, and the different types of zombies will keep everyone on his or her toes. I found myself actually tensing up as zombies moved in on me, and smashing the undead in the head with the same flashlight that is lighting your way is quite invigorating.

Look for The War Z sometime later this month. Thanks to Alex for showing me how to survive in the wastelands. Now check out some killer videos of The War Z in action!

Massively sent two plucky game journalists -- Beau Hindman and Karen Bryan -- to Austin, Texas, for this year's GDC Online, where they'll be reporting back on MMO trends, community theory, old favorites, and new classics. Stay tuned for even more highlights from the show!
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