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Hands-on: Infestation: Survivor Stories, aka War Z, is worse than actually being killed by zombies

Mike Foster
Mike Foster|@mikedotfoster|July 22, 2013 7:00 PM
Infestation: Survivor Stories
If there's one thing we know about the games industry, it's that no success goes uncopied. World of Warcraft breaks a million subscribers, everyone starts building WoW-like MMOs. Minecraft showers its creator with enough money to buy his home country, voxel-based crafting games fall like rain. It's just how things go.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some studio somewhere would attempt to piggyback on the success of DayZ, Dean Hall's ridiculously popular mod for Arma II. The title, which drops players into a dangerous, zombie-filled open world and challenges them to survive, resonated so immensely with gamers that a clone wasn't so much probable as it was inevitable.

But Infestation: Survivor Stories, formerly known as The War Z, is more than just a clone of DayZ. It is a charmless, cynical, and craven rip-off packaged with one of the most sinister microtransaction models ever implemented into a game, and it's developed by a company that has on multiple occasions proven itself to be only shades away from a dedicated fraud factory.

Jumping on the bandwagon

Before I get to the meat of this whole thing, let's be upfront: Plenty of ink has been spilled over Survivor War Infestation: Z Stories and its creator, Hammerpoint Interactive, in the past. Thanks to the game's checkered origins, colorful developer personalities, and continual problems with hackers and security, it is almost impossible to analyze on its own merits. The title doesn't exist in a vacuum, nor can it ever.

Infestation: Survivor Stories Outside
Reception to the original launch of the game was very, very bad. The game's Metacritic score is an abysmal 20/100, accompanied by a user score of 1.5. Mentioned in the negative reviews are a few common themes: The game is a sloppy DayZ clone, it has a vicious and exploitive payment model, it doesn't deliver on any of its promises, it is full of bugs and half-implemented ideas, etc. However, most of these reviews were written back in January, right at the time the title landed on digital shelves.

Since it is now July and the folks at Hammerpoint have had roughly six months to improve upon the initial product (and their dealings with the community), it seems like a fair enough time to give the title a second look. This is especially true since it recently received a name change and just last week popped up in the Steam summer sale, meaning thousands of new customers are potentially being exposed to it without having a clear idea of what it is or whether they should buy it.

Maybe it's not as bad as everyone claims. Maybe it's not the nefarious cash-grab of a group of video game con artists. And maybe, just maybe, a bunch of elitist video game writers simply crowded into a clown car of negativity and proceeded to high-five each other for their brilliance while heaping scorn on a game that deserved better.

Spoiler alert: Maybe not.

The experience

The core concept behind Infestation: Survivor Stories is simple and beautiful: You are alone, you are fragile, and you must survive. Your character starts his journey in the middle of the Colorado wilderness with only a flashlight, granola bar, and a soda, and must find a way to stay alive without drawing the wrath of wandering zombie hordes or murderous and greedy human players. You can die of thirst, you can die of hunger, you can die from injuries, and you can die of zombie infection.

Infestation: Survivor Stories Woods
Most likely, though, you'll die at the hands of another player, and this death will occur within 10 minutes of your logging into the game. This is because the world is so boring and bland that players really have nothing better to do than stalking around the woods looking for newbies, executing them, and taking all of their stuff. Your first lesson in this game is simple: Other players are more dangerous than anything else the world has to offer.

Player-killing is so rampant and ridiculous that avoiding ganks is pretty much the core focus of the game. Here's a true story from my playtime: Another player, trailed by a gaggle of zombies, stopped running and died just so he could beat me to death with a baseball bat. Any semblance of "trying to survive" is undercut by the fact that no one playing the game really cares, at all, about living in the reality of the world. Since you don't start with a weapon and every player you end up encountering seems to already have an arsenal, it makes for a truly excruciating experience.

The game tries to help you out in this department by assigning rankings to players based on their actions. New players are "Civilians," players who murder those civilians earn titles like "Bandit" and "Assassin," while players killing the villainous players are given titles like "Guardian" or "Constable." There is a theoretical endgame here that involves heroes battling villains to keep civilians safe, but several problems stop it from functioning.

Infestation: Survivor Stories Settlement
The most obvious problem is that the great majority of players on any given server are villains. It's not uncommon to see dozens of villainous rankings on the scoreboard, a few civilians, and one or two good guys. There is no real reason to align one way or another, so most players seem to take the ganking route for the easy kills and free equipment. Another problem is that without villains, there can be no good guys, meaning ganking new players is an absolute requirement for the game's core design to function.

"Nothing in this game makes the reward worth the risk."

There are several safe zones scattered around the world map. In a safe zone you cannot be killed by other players or zombies and can visit the general store or in-game vault as needed. Of course, these safe zones are really nothing more than baited traps for civilians, as gangs of players often just stand outside of the entrances and exits and murder anyone trying to get in or out. There's no penalty, no guard system, and no reason not to do it. Besides, why buy stuff at the general store when you can steal that same stuff directly off of the fresh corpse you just created with your gank posse?

The utter lack of consequences and vulnerability of new players combines to create an experience that feels unwelcoming, unfulfilling, and extremely cheap. The core pattern of a typical life in Infestation: Survivor Stories is this: Log in, spend twenty minutes running though repetitive, boring environments, find something interesting, get killed by a sniper while trying to approach that something interesting, log out, repeat with new character.

Nothing in this game makes the reward worth the risk.

The mechanics

Infestation: Survivor Stories does manage to achieve one incredible feat: It somehow tops one of the least enjoyable player experiences of all time by layering that experience in a broken mess so packed with hacks, glitches, and bugs that it's amazing the game even starts.

Infestation: Survivor Stories Zombies
Punkbuster, implemented to prevent hacking (unsuccessfully, apparently, as you'll see literally dozens of hackers banned per play session), constantly boots everyone offline. Jumping the wrong way on a hill or rock causes your character to float through the air while you run. Zombie AI is so terrible it might as well not exist -- you can avoid zombies by running in circles, walking backwards, or jumping on almost any object. Stand on a wheelbarrow and you are rendered invisible to the zombie masses, free to beat them unsatisfyingly to death with whatever weapon you have on hand (if you have one, because you definitely can't punch or kick).

Don't believe me? Here's a highlight reel:

Infestation: Survivor Stories/War Z

Almost anything you can imagine that could be wrong with a game is wrong with the game. Graphics pop and flicker. Framerates drop inexplicably into the teens at random. The outdoor environment is filled with trees you can run right through, and the interiors are nothing more than hollow grey cubes with no furniture, no decorations, no personality, and no context. Water is pretty enough, but your character can't enter it (or drink it, because hey, Hammerpoint sells drinks in the store). Assets are repeated endlessly; the same five cars litter every street, the same six or seven zombies populate every corner.

The sound is horrifying, but not in a "zombies are so scary" way. Crickets screech endlessly through the day and night, though the point at which the audio loop restarts is painfully obvious every time it happens. Some surfaces have footstep noises, some don't. Zombie groans are weird, repetitive rasps with no variation. And the grunts and growls your character makes represent what is likely the least convincing voice work ever recorded since recording voices became something humans could do.

Put simply: Almost everything that was wrong with this game when it launched in January is still wrong with it, and Hammerpoint doesn't seem to care in the slightest.

The money

Despite the failings of its design and the complete inability to deliver on its premise, Infestation: Survivor Stories still manages to pack in one final insult to the grievous injury that it represents to lovers of zombies and gaming in general: One of the most underhanded, sneaky, and predatory monetization schemes ever packaged into a game.

Infestation Survivor Stories aka War Z is worse than actually being killed by zombies
This is a title that is designed to milk every possible dollar out of you, and to do it with ruthless aggression. The in-game store offers a number of helpful items and upgrades such as ammunition, food, drinks, and medicine. Because these items are in extremely limited supply in the game world (and venturing into a populated area to find them usually results in a player-fired bullet to the brain), it's almost a necessity to buy them in the store. Many can be purchased with in-game currency, but the prices are so astronomical that you're more likely to have supplies fall from the sky and land in your bag than to have the coin on hand to make the purchase.

"Not one feature of this game was designed without the explicit purpose of bilking players out of cash."

It's not just about the store, though. When you buy the game (because remember, it's not free-to-play), you'll have only one character template available. Other templates exist, but if you want to play as anyone besides the default dude, you'll have to pony up the cash. When you are inevitably ganked by a bored player who managed to find a gun, your character is locked offline for an hour -- unless you buy your way back in. You have five character slots and can log in as another character, but the dead one stays dead until you hand over your dollars or wait out the hour. Every action in this game beyond opening the login screen comes with some sort of additional cost.

Most importantly, the items you buy in the store with your real-life money are lost when you die. If you spend a few bucks getting your character prepped for survival with food and supplies (guns, thankfully, are the only thing the store doesn't sell) only to get immediately popped by a roaming bandit, all of that real-life money just vanished into the air. This only makes ganking more attractive to the villains of the world, as it is much smarter to steal things from other players than to buy them yourself and risk losing your investment.

Not one feature of this game was designed without the explicit purpose of bilking players out of cash.

A tragedy of exploitation

As I write this, there are 8,000 people playing Infestation: Survivor Stories on Steam. There is no question that immense demand exists for a hardcore zombie survival game set in an open world, and that demand is strong enough to push even something this horribly made into Steam's top 50 (Valve's questionable decision to include the game in its summer sale certainly didn't help). Hammerpoint figured this out early, of course, and capitalized on that knowledge by hurriedly developing the rotten husk of an idea and shoveling it out to the masses packaged with impossible promises and only the worst of intentions.

Infestation: Survivor Stories, aka The War Z is a terrible, terrible game. It is awful in every way possible. And seeing how little it has improved with six months of post-release development time is indication enough that it is going to continue to be awful until the population dips enough for Hammerpoint to shut it down and start looking for its next easy jackpot.

I've heard the word shameless before, but only now do I truly grasp the meaning.

Thoughts? Email me: mike@massively.com

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?
Hands-on: Infestation: Survivor Stories, aka War Z, is worse than actually being killed by zombies