Hammerpoint Interactive are the epitome of pragmatism. Engineering a concept around technology you’ve already got at your disposal, and shipping it as a sale-able product once someone else has made the jump and proved that, indeed, the idea is marketable. What was War Inc. is now War Z, and whilst Hammerpoint Interactive claim that War Z has been in development since the release of Dean Hall’s popular Day Z mod, they’ve made no effort to prove that claim; a claim that doesn’t make much sense. War Z is basically a total conversion mod for their previous title, which is not really a method often implemented in games looking for a hefty developmental period, based on an original concept. In other words, all evidence suggests that War Z is a shameless cash in on the success of another title, which in and of itself is fine: if the game works.

War Z is marketed as a zombie survival shooter within the MMO genre. The idea is to spawn, collect, avoid, survive, and ostensibly cooperate with other survivors across 100km maps. Players must scavenge for food, water, and weapons in order to  prolong their lives against all the odds, and with no grouping system or private chat capabilities, keeping track of your party or your friends relies solely on your ability to keep them within your sights. The interesting thing is that War Z, potentially, is exactly what they say it is (aside from the features listed on Steam which don’t actually exist). It is a survival game, and you do have to scavenge for food and ammunition. The problem with War Z is that pretty much all its potential is completely washed away by a torrent of poor programming, lag, bugs, hacks, immersion-breaking visuals, bitter community support, and a blithely approach to accepting what’s wrong with it from the executive producer, Sergey Titov.

This isn’t an editorial, though, it’s a review – and whatever you might make of Hammerpoint Interactive’s business ethics is, for the sake of my review at least, besides the point. What’s life like inside War Z?

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Wait until he comes round the corner, then smash him in the face with a hammer.

I’ve been playing War Z since the earliest availability of the alpha stage. At risk of sounding like a “hipster”, I’ve been playing the game since before it was cool to tell everyone how bad it is. This doesn’t mean that I hold some mystical knowledge about why everyone is wrong – they’re not wrong – but it means that my experiences haven’t been tainted by out-side anecdotal tales. When I jumped into War Z for the first time, I was basically met with a logical clone of Day Z, albeit with slightly less clunky movement. For most of you starting a ‘career’ in War Z, that’s exactly what you get – so long as you’re going in with no knowledge on the controversy thus far.

I can honestly say that my first 8 hour play session with the game back in alpha (I can’t remember the build) was a very enjoyable one. I was on the PCGMedia mumble channel with three good friends, and after creating my first character I was launched into Colorado (the only current map available) in the middle of nowhere. Since I was playing with friends, I knew what to do: find my friends. We all compared maps and examined our positions relative to each-other, and decided to head to the “city,” name of Campos.

When you get within about 450 feet of another player, ambient music starts playing. There’s of course no way to know where the player is, or who they are, so when I made contact with the people who may or may not have been my friends, we spotted each other for a good five minutes, dancing around in strange and exotic ways in order to really figure out if we were who we said we were. This happens a lot in War Z, although usually you end up shot and dead.

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Once we had established who’s who, we headed into the city – a rather empty and dreary affair only a fraction of the size the term ‘city’ denotes – and we huddled together crawling and weaving our way through hordes of zombies, afraid that at any moment we could be shot. We searched many of the open buildings for food and ammunition, and got excited by various melee weapons we found and finally a pistol, and later a rifle. We spent around 8 hours playing the game, and immensely enjoyed our time with it. If we weren’t running around high-top buildings, jumping between roof-tops to avoid zombies and look for ammo, we were crawling along the floor avoiding players.

Eventually, I was killed by a zombie, and my two friends perished in their own separate ways. Our avatars were dead for an hour (now four hours) and we created more. For us, War Z opened as a cheap, interesting experience that, given its potential, played out really rather nicely for our first sitting. The most important thing, however, is that that’s how it was for us. It just so happened to play out that way.

The difference between how it was, and what it is

Sweet ignorance runs short after a 10 hour gaming session, and the more you get to know the game, the more you understand that it’s fundamentally broken. For instance, this is a survival game, but you can buy rations and food and water with real money. Effectively then, you could, once you have found a weapon, camp the same spot for days on end, replenishing nutrients with real cash. Where’s the survival? Zombies are only troublesome until you realize they take three hits to the head with anything – including your torch – and as soon as you get even the weakest pistol, it’s a mere single headshot to kill one. This means walking through swarms of zombies is a cakewalk with a mere single clip. 16 shots? That’s a lot of zombies.

Character creation too is very limited, with the base pack granting you a few very generic, very similar heads with equally generic shirts and trousers. The Pioneer Package and Legendary Packages offer more in the way of customization (with more in game currency) but you’re not going to be able to get anything particularly unique. Once a character is dead, there’s now a four hour waiting limit before you can respawn him, and all the items in your backpack will probably have been looted. This sounds like a solid mechanic, but there’s a problem with the dynamic of the game:

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War Z is not the slow, methodical process by which our first play-through meant an enjoyable time. Once you figure out that as soon as you spawn, you can head to a supermarket to find a gun, body armour, and helmet, the game becomes a prosaic and drole PVP experience. Loot isn’t valuable, and although when I found a sniper rifle I felt a sense of “oooh, shiny!” that was about the only weapon I had seen that seemed particularly rare. My point is that it doesn’t matter if you die. You have about 5 characters, and can jump back into the server, gear up in under 40 minutes, and do it all again. Because of this, War Z became: spawn, gear up, hunt players, die.

Zombies aren’t the main focus of War Z: players are. Zombies aren’t fun to kill, nor are they particularly problematic. You can crawl or crouch your way through hordes of them, or even fight off 3 or so with your flashlight. Once you’re geared up for war, your objective becomes clear: find more loot. Who has loot all in one place? Players. Once you realize this, War Z becomes a tale of camping the peripheries of small towns and the city, and picking of players who you hope are less armed than you. In a nutshell: War Z is a PVP shooter. This is a far cry from the atmospheric, cooperative zombie survival horror game in the promotional screenshots are marketing materials.

But you don’t have to kill other players? Let’s get one thing straight: War Z has PVP mechanics. It has a ‘Bandit’ system whereby if you kill too many other players on the map, you cannot go into the “safe zones” which house gear, where you can swap and transfer items between characters. In other words, it’s a viable tactic to hunt other players. It’s also quicker than sifting through zombie infested towns. My point is that War Z‘s dynamic in no way promotes cooperation or survival instinct – it promotes the exact opposite. This becomes apparent very quickly.

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The game has been officially released, and it’s true that there are an inexcusable amount of bugs still extant here. Whilst some I would argue are merely janky programming (such as the ability to see character parts if they’re standing against a wall), but whilst there are some aches and pains I expect to be patched out, there are others that basically break the game. Firstly, if walk down a very short, but steep edge, you might invisibly “drop” taking half your health in fall damage. That’s a bit like going down a stair in your house normally, and breaking your leg. If you’re carrying your best loot, and you die because of that, I’d understand why you’re quite angry.

Other bugs include zombie animations not correlating to you hitting them, or them hitting you. When you’re up-close to a zombie in melee, it sometimes feels like the animations from both of you are superficial, and actual hits are registering outside of the animated blows and strikes. It feels pretty horrible in that regard, and it makes it hard to hit a zombie on the head – which is the only way you can kill it. For instance, if a zombie has been hit, you don’t follow its head as it bobs with your cursor, because the game still thinks its head is upright.

Animations in general are fairly poor, and although the movement and shooting animations and mechanics are more suited to this game than its (free) competitor, it feels cheap and unsatisfying.

There’s still plenty of floating objects, too, and as far as I can tell an anti-viral item that so far has no use in the game (ostensibly to be patched in later). In short, War Z doesn’t feel finished – but then, what MMO ever did so close to launch?

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Zombies on your butt? Climb onto a table at hit them. They can’t hit you.

There are plenty of ways to cheat the game here. If you have a lot of zombies chasing you, break line of sight with a solid object. Usually, they’ll bug out and get bored, returning to where they were a-la WoW mob. If that doesn’t work, jump on something and hit them in the head with a hammer. They can’t climb. “Surviving” in War Z doesn’t require any of the given mechanics in the game, it merely requires creative use of the games short-comings. Most developers would call this ‘exploiting’, but Hammerpoint Interactive don’t have the luxury. If you can get 2 foot above your enemy to avoid dying, you’re gonna’ do that.

Graphically, War Z is competent. It’s not the prettiest game in the world, but it’s also not the ugliest. It doesn’t look anything – in any way – like the air-brushed promotional screenshots with beautiful, glowing light embracing the richly textured character models, so much as a free-to-play 3rd person shooter from Europe or Korea. It has “that style” which is easy to spot when you see it, but hard to describe. The easiest way to describe it is like this: cheap.

Colorado does have some nice landscape, though, and the map is relatively well laid out. There’s a good variation of places to visit and things to see, and whilst it in no way feels like a huge expanse, it does take you about 2 hours to run from top to bottom which is often necessary if playing with friends just to meet them.

The controversial honest analysis

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First person was necessary for fighting until they patched in a crosshair

War Z is a cheap, fundamentally broken concept that fails to deliver on its promise of a hearty zombie survival horror. It’s about killing people, not zombies. It’s about looting people, not buildings. Does that mean it’s not worth your money, though? No. I’ve had more than the $15 worth of fun the base package costs, and even if the mechanics implemented to steer us in a certain way are broken, I’ve had enormous fun doing my own thing. I don’t care what Hammerpoint Interactive think I should do in Colorado – my friends and I will set our own task. We escorted a guy to his friend on the other side of the map, only to offer him the chance to take our loot by killing his friend (he didn’t.) We’ve bopped and weaved our way through cities and hunted players with a sniper rifle only to be met with “I have fear” in proximity chat. We’ve killed, died, and run for hours and played for around 40 total hours since release, and we’ve had a great time doing it.

The game is broken, visually dull, janky, buggy, and clearly a rushed cash-in – but at the same time I can honestly say I’ve had my $15 worth of fun. I’ve bought myself the right to drop in any time and see how it’s coming along. I won’t be buying any of the weapons you can buy in the real cash store (only melee), and I won’t be buying any of the customization items. They got my $15, and that’s all they’re getting.

It’s really as simple as this: do you think $15 for a permanent membership and 3 24 hour guest passes is a good deal? Could you have an evenings worth of entertainment for that package? If so, try War Z. It is possible to have fun with this release, even if it is a fundamental failure of PC gaming. I cannot recommend it to everyone on the premise that it’s a well built game, but I can – and will – say that if you’re playing with friends, you’re going to get your money’s worth by merely exploring what it has to offer, where it excels, and where it fails.

Make your own fun. Enjoyment is subject to your own experiences – I cannot deny that there is potential for enjoyment in what Hammerpoint Interactive have provided, but I also cannot deny why it failed to deliver what it promised.