Into the big city
We headed into one of the bigger cities to search for anything useful. As we walked the ravaged streets it was obvious a struggle had taken place; body bags lay near dumpsters, walls were crumbled and vehicles were scattered, some in better shape than others. I was told vehicles would be available in the game (though they were disabled for the alpha test) and would not require any maintenance. They do, however, require gasoline, which is a rare consumable. Aside from powering vehicles, you can also use gasoline offensively; pour it out, attract some foes and throw a flare to start a zombie-Q.
So far this sounds like more of an open-world Left4Dead with a lot less ammunition. So where does the character building come in? There are no classes or levels, only skills and gear. I was assured no skill would be game-breaking and would mostly consist of physical and weapon proficiency bonuses; this includes sprinting faster or reloading quicker, things you would learn anyway by doing them time over time. You can also build the world around you. There are different defensive items and barbed wire structures to start constructing walls of a settlement. Wooden barricades are effective against zombies for a while but players can knock them down easily; later, a stone wall would effectively keep zombies out indefinitely while players would need to set explosives to destroy them.
Be sure to be social
The coolest and most innovative aspect of the game was some of the social ideas that are promised. In the world there are safe settlements that provide safety from zombies (but not PvP, watch your back!). They contain a general store where you can spend in-game currency (that zombies drop), a vault that allows you to trade out your items to a secure place where you won't lose them if you die or need to transfer to a new character (like cloud storage) and a pub. The pub is the center for social activity; you can post your own mission for players to complete (anything from setting a bounty on a player to hiring a shoulder to cry on for 20 minutes) or just socialize...peacefully. I really hope it doesn't just turn into a constant blood bath.
The good, the bad and the friendly
If you do decide to wander into town and become a heartless bandit, you will get a reputation, literally. A board will track a "Most Wanted" for those that go around killing for the fun. If you have a negative reputation people will have the opportunity to bring you to justice, with a bullet, to gain positive reputation points. Kill the bad guys, be a hero. If you need some backup, just turn to your friends list and implemented clan support. There won't be any fast travel to their position, but you will be able to see where they are on a map to quickly gang-up on the enemy.
Pricing and micro-transactions
The pricing managed to pique my interest. Most MMOs require a monthly subscription and paid content updates (i.e. expansions); not The War Z. A flat price of $30 will get you the game, unlimited play and all future DLC. There will be some micro-transactions, but they will be purely cosmetic. Get a cool hat, make your gun look cooler or add some nails to your bat. I was also informed that all items that you can buy via micro-transactions can be found in the world with some serious exploration. There is a unique purchasable item called the "time capsule" that allows players to leave written messages anywhere and can be read by anyone. They will last a few real-time days and then disappear. They allow you to communicate while offline, set up a meeting place for supplies or set up a trap for curious wanderers.
If you're impatient, avoid death
You can have up to five characters at any one time, but most people will focus on one to build up gear and skills. You choose a difficulty for each character you create, either Normal or Hardcore. If you die on Normal your character will be locked out for 24 hours of real time. If you die on Hardcore, you can kiss your character goodbye due to permanent death. The developers of The War Z are currently playing with the idea of allowing a pay-to-unlock option for a dead character if you can't wait an entire day or if all your characters are dead, but they will wait for community response before going forward with that.
Overall, the game looks terrific despite the typical alpha bugs that I expected to see. Some of the textures were odd, the water reflected at a strange size and the zombie animations weren't entirely fluid. But I felt the atmosphere and the panic of being surrounded while my last few bullets fluttered away. It's easy to compare The War Z to DayZ, but there is something there that is fundamentally different. DayZ is for the masochist that will spend the day crawling for three hours only to get gunned down at an airfield and restart the process all over again; The War Z is about building a character, not only with gear and skills, but with a story. I look forward to seeing what people will do with the social and building aspect of the game, to see semi-permanent settlements sprout up in the wilderness to house clans and if there will be an integrated storyline.
It's unclear if the zombies or the players will be the largest threat to a survivor. In DayZ the zombies feel a bit like an a small bump in the road, something that gets in the way when there are people to snipe. In The War Z, while the zombies are slow, their massive numbers and stealth make them a decent threat. We haven't seen if strangers immediately become hostile or cooperative when meeting in the post-apocalyptic world, but you better make some friends to watch your back.
If it gets all polished up and maximizes on some innovative social ideas, this game seems poised to become popular. At $30 with free DLC it isn't a high-risk gamble for consumers, and from what I've seen the game seems likely to be a hell of a lot of fun.