Hands-on with The War Z

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Late last week I got a chance to dive head-first into the upcoming zombie survival MMO The War Z, with Executive Producer Sergey Titov showing me around. Here's what I learned while racking up a significant virtual body count.

Betas first

For those who know about the game, I know what you want to hear and I don't plan on teasing you. The beta is set to begin by the end of October, so expect to delve into the zombie madness in a month or so if you pre-ordered. For those that are new to The War Z, it's an open-world first-person or third-person shooter revolving around surviving the zombie apocalypse that borrows heavily from massively-multiplayer online games.

Please note that the current build is in an alpha state and is in no way reflective of the final product. However, I think this hands-on report gives a great idea of the how the game will play and the features that will be present.

After a quick character creation page where you can build and customize from a few standard archetypes (I chose the dude with the mohawk) I spawned and immediately noticed some similar sights from the DayZ mod: a food and drink bar outlined my health and a meter for my visibility and noise. I would need to rely on canny use of stealth and sustenance to survive. Diseases are also prevalent in the world, especially for bite victims, but you can use small doses of antidote to remove toxicity in the blood or fall back on painkillers to delay the effects. Ideally, don't get bit in the first place.

First look at the world

We started near a desolate cabin up on a hill in the woods, a real picturesque spot until night fell. The twilight before sunset made for a very eerie setting, and I was thankful we were in what seemed like a safer area for the moment. We lit a green and red flare in the immediate area and my shadow created a long, dark figure on the wall behind me; as far as I can tell from this early build the lighting is done very well, and everything casts a shadow in real time. A full day and night cycle in the game takes about four to five hours, so during a marathon play session you will probably experience it a couple of times.

The game is set in the wilderness of Colorado, with roughly 160 square miles of virtual terrain to traverse. There are plans to release more maps in 2013 to keep the game fresh and dynamic, though it is unclear how the different maps will be related to one another or if you will be able to travel from map to map in the same server.

The apocalypse is picturesque

To my surprise you start with a map the moment you begin, though only a portion is visible. About seventy-five percent of my map was pixelated when I began, making it nearly impossible to make out any sort of roads, cities or natural landmarks, but the visible 25 percent revealed a bunch of stuff around my location. A major aspect of this game will be about exploring the world and revealing those unknown areas, but I was expecting to have to find a map first. Part of the fun of a survival-centric game is the pointless wandering, and surviving, until you find something useful (such as said map). Maybe it helps with some initial direction since there will undoubtedly be some sort of open-world quests that you may or may not choose to do, but it takes out some of the hardcore survival feeling you expect from a survivor game.

Weapons are hard to find

During my demo we ran from building to building, flashlights (which double as a melee weapon) in hand, searching for a real weapon. We found nothing but a hammer, some painkillers and a pack of bandages. Titoy didn't seem surprised, reiterating how difficult it is to find weapons and ammunition; when you do manage to find an item it will respawn some time later, but in a different location. There are hundreds of locations for the items to spawn at, making it pointless to camp one area in hopes of that powerful weapon you saw there once. After a bit more fruitless searching, he manually spawned in some weapons and attachments with his god-like server commands.

Weapon with attachments

I got my semi-automatic assault rifle and opened a menu to attach a silencer, ACOG sight and laser aiming. I was informed that we were the equivalent of millionaires in terms of gear. The military grade weapons and especially the attachments would not be easy to find or get to, so don't expect to see some serious firepower without some dedication. We headed into a small town, surveying the zombies and building locations. We spotted a post office where weapons could be found, a grocery store where medical supplies and food could be found and a church that could be used as a survivor holdout.

Engaging zombies

We slowly moved into the town, crouching and going prone for optimum stealth. Switching to third person was a little easier to navigate. I take my first shots, landing hits to the stomach and arms. The zombie stumbles back but doesn't go down. A few of its "colleagues" start to take notice and stumble towards us. "Aim for the head, that's the only way to kill them. Otherwise they will just keep getting back up," says Titov. As you might expect, The War Z encourages the classic "destroy the brain" approach. A few well placed shots to the brain-pan drops our pursuers.

We made it to the town square, and though our ammo was starting to run dry there are still a couple dozen walkers converging from all sides. The buildings were barren except for some basic medical supplies. It was becoming obvious we were not welcome in the small town and high-tailed it out of there. Luckily, these are the George Romero type zombies, unable to sprint or climb, and we easily outran the horde.

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