‘World War Z’ is the Best Movie Game Based on a Novel Ever

Welcome to Game Pass Gems. Join us on the journey through the underbelly of Xbox Game Pass. Maybe we’ll find your next favourite game. This edition will focus on the edge of your seat sweat factory that is World War Z

Back in 2003, little baby Kieron was wandering about a 2003 book shop, dressed in his 2003 clothes, when he came upon the 2003 book The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. “Mum/Grandma!” he said (the details are fuzzy) “Can I have this book? It’s written like an entirely straight-faced survival guide, except it’s about the undead instead of remote locales or inclement weather.” Evidently, I was quite a verbose child. Eventually, after some persuasion, money was exchanged and the book became mine. I read it cover to cover several times, and I still have it on my bookshelf today. I’m thoroughly qualified to not only survive the apocalypse but quite frankly thrive in it. That, however, is beside the point. Three years later, Brooks released World War Z, essentially a fictional written account of the stories of those that survived the zombie apocalypse, detailed in the previous Survival Guide. The story takes the form of a series of interviews with people from around the world, and details different nations’ and peoples’ efforts and methodology as to how they wound up defeating, avoiding or subverting the undead hordes. It’s literally the best bit of zombie fiction ever written. So you could imagine my excitement when, in 2007, I found out that a film adaptation was in the works. Long story short, it took them six years to make and the resulting Brad Pitt vehicle was something quite far removed from the work it was based upon.

Traditionally, this is the point where a fan of an original work would launch into some tirade about the lack of preservation surrounding the author’s original clever ideas. But what I saw on screen was, while not in line with brooks original concepts, extremely creative in its own way. I’m something of a fan of the film. It’s got Peter Capaldi in it for one, and, above all else, it introduced the concept of enough zombies piling up against something to form a literal human pyramid of exponential height. Which, more than a decade since the cinematic rights to the World War Z name were secured, Saber Interactive brought to life in one of the most bizarrely timed adaptation video games ever released.

Essentially, the game is Left 4 Dead but with character classes and weapon progression. Which by modern standards, elevates it quite significantly in terms of design. There is an admittedly simple beauty to Left 4 Dead and it’s sequel, but nowadays, four player horde shooters are a dime a dozen, so giving players a reason to actually bother replaying the game’s four campaigns immediately shows a degree of foresight that very few similar titles ever reach. The campaigns also break away from Left 4 Dead in the sense that, unlike in valves effort, they each show an individual set of four different characters, in completely different locales. This is an interesting approach to level design, as it’s essentially a free creative pass to set your levels in varied locales, and for a fan of the original work. This is where the game can explore some of the concepts present in the novel, that the film opted not to tackle, as well as link the mythos more into the original work. A key example would be the fourth campaign, set in Japan, where the Japanese government has opted to evacuate the remaining populace to massive cruise ships, as they simply do not have the firepower to fight back the ever increasing hordes, due to the nation not having a standing military. 

It’s ideas like this that set the book apart from other similar titles that were released during the massive zombie media boom of the early 2000s, and similarly this is also what sets both the World War Z movie and the video game apart from contemporary alternatives. The scenarios presented show a believable human response to the situation they find themselves in. A desperate last stand against an unbelievable and overwhelming foe. Granted, Israel has some kind of orbital space laser, and Russia has a nerve gas fail-safe for if Moscow ever fell to the west. But on an individual level the world is reacting in a way that, realistically, most likely wouldn’t be too far off the actual response if these things were to happen in real life. In New York, the populace arm themselves and ragtag groups of survivors converge on military strong points. In Japan, the limited military personnel maintain evacuation routes, while capable civilians do the work of escorting civilian convoys to the coastline. Israel sees the army using their organised military power to actively fight back against the incursion. It’s not too much of a stretch to picture these events in the real world, and it’s an aspect to the storytelling that gives the game a real tangible quality that very few works of zombie media could ever hope to achieve.

The tangibility of the plot also extends to the gameplay. With each completed chapter of a campaign you are awarded not only with class progression but also weapon experience, depending on which of the games expansive array of firearms you opted to clap cheeks with. As your weapons level up you can purchase statistical upgrades which are accompanied by distinct visual development for the firearm in question. As weapons grow stronger they come with an ever increasing array of attachments and gadgets, which again could somewhat represent the arsenal of a survivor making their way through a zombie infested world. They’d learn their weapon and pick up practical attachments as they went. Rather than grabbing a fallen soldier’s gun, they’d just take the red dot sight from it, as they already know and trust their personal firearm. While this isn’t directly implied through gameplay, it’s a little bit of detail that just fits into place in the brutal world the game creates. 

Aside from this, the game manages to hit the atmosphere of sheer panic and desperation in spades by how the climactic horde sections of each level present themselves. In the film and book, humanity was always on a knife’s edge at any given moment, and in the game this is no different. You desperately bite and hold at a hospital, awaiting an airborne rescue that might be too little too late, literally thousands of the infected are pouring in from the nearby area, smashing themselves against walls and fences in a feral, blood-crazed rage. The infected pile up on top of each other until they literally spill over the fences and continue sprinting at your gun line, so you unload into the base of the pyramid, toppling it over and granting you the brief moment of respite you need to turn the tide in your favour. These moments happen frequently throughout every single level, and they’re only bolstered by the array of character classes made available. The Exterminator granting heavy weapons extra ammunition gives you the little edge in firepower necessary to hold that moment longer, The Dronemaster’s personal drones can use their onboard taser to free you from the grips of one of the Left 4 Dead-esque special infected, which, on one’s own can prove instantly fatal and the fixer’s masking grenades can hide you from the zombies in a cloud of chemical gas, giving you time to revive a downed teammate (this also has a certain degree of precedence shown in the film, although to not quite as practical a degree). The classes, while not as game-changing as similar fare, offer little incremental benefits that translate into truly meaningful change when the proverbial feces hit the fan. Every fight is a harried, skin of your teeth affair, so when you do eventually get a particular scenario on lockdown, it makes you feel like you’ve achieved something. Humanity is fighting back, and we’re winning. 

Saber Interactive have created the ultimate video game adaptation. Absorbing and building upon not only the direct source material but the source material that the source material is based upon. The game is not without its problems. The technical aspects of rendering literally a thousand individual enemies on screen at one time do sometimes create frame rate and latency issues, and some of the perks and upgrade trees do seem almost entirely redundant. But the feeling of beating back the horde with a big, chunky sounding automatic shotgun, set to a pumping, adrenaline-fuelled electronic score can not be understated. The comparison to Left 4 Dead is inevitable, and while the original great still exceeds in certain areas, most notably characterisation, as we’re given more time to learn and love both iterations casts, World War Z is an outright step forward for the horde shooter, and thoroughly deserves its place in the ranks of legendary genre alumni. While other titles make you feel like you are chewing through the zombies on your journey, this is the only game I’ve played that genuinely feels like you’re on a journey to stop the zombies from chewing through you.

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