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World War Z Interview: Saber Bites Into Zombie AI, DLC, Crossplay Prospects, and Brad Pitt


E3 2018 was not lacking in zombie games, but, when the dust settled, one of the titles I (somewhat surprisingly) found myself rooting for most was World War Z. Developed by Saber Interactive (Quake Champions, NBA Playgrounds), the game was definitely more entertaining than your typical licensed fare.

World War Z is a 4-player cooperative zombie shooter, but before you race down to the comments to post “Lol Left 4 Dead 2 ripoff!” know that the game feels fairly different than Valve’s classic. First off, the game is a third-person (not first-person) shooter and it, generally, feels a bit faster and more intense than L4D. Level design is more constrained, almost arcade-like, with a focus on action and forward momentum.

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The E3 2018 World War Z demo consisted of two missions set in zombie-blighted New York. Your team of four starts atop a high-rise office building, where you have the opportunity to load up on supplies and talk strategy. As you work your way through the building, zombies attack in waves, crashing through windows and leaping and crawling over furniture. These encounters are entertainingly hectic, and the gunplay feels tight and satisfying, particularly when your flattening undead with a powered up shotgun.

The mission culminates when you reach the bottom of the office building where a full-on swarm of hundreds of undead awaits. The lobby is packed, but the zombies don’t notice you at first, allowing the player to get clever by dropping large star-shaped ornaments hanging from the ceiling on their heads. When the zombies do notice you, they start amassing in a giant writhing pyramid to reach the upper area where your team is – launching a grenade into this mass of undead flesh is a gruesome spectacle. The makers of World War Z haven't cheated – all the zombies in the mass are still distinct, separate entities, with individual bodies flying in all directions when you throw explosives into the pile.

Once the lobby has been cleared out, the game gives you a bit of a breather, letting you prepare for the even larger throng of zombies gathering outside the building’s front doors. You have to prepare, laying down barbed wire and other traps as the horde builds in intensity outside – it’s definitely a bit unnerving, particularly since the player has to push the button to open the shutters and begin the battle. Needless to say, everybody on my team was a bit gun shy about actually getting things started (I was the one who finally pulled the trigger). Thankfully, the battle with the swarm was actually a blast – mowing down the undead was fun, of course, but watching how individual zombies dealt with out defenses was also fascinating.

Wiping out the swarm brought the first mission to an end. The second mission took us down to the NYC Subway, where we had collect supplies for another character in order to get a ride to another part of town. This mission didn’t include a full swarm encounter, but it was fun nonetheless, and I never got lost or confused, despite the stage being less linear than the first one. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of variety I saw on display during my time with World War Z – hopefully there are even more unique missions and challenges in store.

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Following the hands-on demo, I got to sit down World War Z writer/designers Oliver Hollis-Leick and Craig Sherman to discuss the game’s story, procedural AI, Brad Pitt references, and more…

What’s the basic structure of the game? Are there multiple missions within each location?

Oliver Hollis-Leick: Yes. We love the [World War Z] book, but we also love the locations from the movie. So, what we did is take the storytelling technique of the book, the survivor stories, and created three episodes. The one you saw is New York, so there's three chapters in which they make their way from the top of a skyscraper all the way through the subway and up north to where this big battle is going on. So, you get to experience the survivors’ story over those three missions.

Remind me, in addition to New York, what are the other two episodes?

Craig Sherman: New York, Moscow, and Jerusalem, and they're in the movie universe.

Hollis-Leick: But at different stages throughout the war. You get an overall picture by playing.

Will all three episodes combine to tell a single story?

Sherman: Each of the three episodes have their own arc.

Will we see anything lifted directly from the movie? Will we see any familiar characters?

Hollis-Leick: There's no characters from the movie...

Aw, no Brad Pitt hiding in one of the swarms?

Hollis-Leick: No Brad Pitt, but there are subtle references. We adhere to some of the scientific theory from the movie. We have some equipment that can mask you for a limited time…

Sherman: Remember in the World War Z movie when Brad Pitt shoots himself up with something that makes the zombies leave him alone? So, we have a masking grenade in the game, which is called the Lane Masking Grenade, named after Gerry Lane, which is Brad Pitt's character in the movie. So, that's an example of a subtle reference. If you're looking, and you know, you might see things, but we're not going to hit you in the face.

Are there any moments taken more from the book?

Sherman: No, just the structure. We liked the episodic way the book told the story.

With the episodic structure, it feels like World War Z is wide open to DLC. Will we see more locations added later?

Hollis-Leick: We really like the game, and we really want to continue with the story. We think there's a lot of mileage in it. So, I can't be too specific, but you can draw your own conclusions.

We do have another movie coming!

Hollis-Leick: We do indeed. Exactly.

We encountered a variety of specialized zombies during the demo. How many types are there?

Sherman: What you didn't see during the demo was the Bull, who's just what he sounds like -- he's a massive guy in armor. I don't know how many shots he takes, it takes all four teammates hammering on him. He will grab you and kill you unless your teammates come in and help you. You also have the screamers, lurkers, the creepers, which are the guys that jump out of nowhere, the hazmat suit guys that slime you. When zombies go down, sometimes they'll crawl along the ground and grab your feet.

Hollis-Leick: Even the main swarm zombies have different sizes and different properties. They come in different speeds and so on.

Will there be any bosses?

Hollis-Leick: Not exactly. What we really like about the game is the idea that the hordes actually behave like a single creature when you get enough zombies together. So, rather than a boss, we have that. As you go through the game, the hordes get harder and harder. You'll find yourself in the middle of a frozen river in Moscow with massive hordes coming down from the Kremlin.

In the demo you pushed a button to trigger the swarm. Will they take you by surprise in other missions?

Hollis-Leick: Usually we have a kind of dramatic buildup. We like to scare you before we send the swarm out. As you move through the levels, they can come down from the rooftops, they can come through doorways, or crawl under cars and stuff.

Sherman: You can trigger different mini swarms, but there are specific, scheduled giant hordes. You'll get a little warning for those, so you can set up. And then, good luck.

How many zombies were in the swarm we saw in the demo?

Hollis-Leick: At least a few hundred. Because there's the initial wave, but then they send more waves, and we have them trickling in, jumping down from the tops of stuff.

You mentioned there was also another multiplayer mode in the works…

Hollis-Leick: Can't tell you anything about that right now. That's the next surprise. But it'll be good.

More of a competitive thing?

Hollis-Leick: Uhhhhh...your words. I'm not saying anything.

What are some of the different defenses you can use to hold back the horde?

Hollis-Leick: We've got a nice variety. The scenario in the demo, that's the simplest setup there is for swarms. In the atrium you have two channels -- the zombies come over the gate and they can go to the left or the right. Defenses are spawned depending on how well you're playing the game, so if you're playing really well, we're not going to help you out, you'll only get a couple of defenses. If you're not playing so well, and you found it difficult last time, you get some better defenses. How you use those defenses is the key. Barbed wire for instance -- you can put that on both sides, left and right, but eventually they'll get over. Or, you can put two barbed wire on one side and funnel them up the other side, setting up a kill zone.

Other defenses are fences, electrified fences, voltage grids that electrocute them as they walk over, auto turrets, which you have to keep reloading, a 50-calibur machinegun, mortars for the bigger levels. So, we have a lot of options, appropriate to the environment.

Surprisingly, none of us died in the demo, but what happens when you do?

Hollis-Leick: When somebody's down you're against the ticking clock and have to help them up. If you die, your character will transform into a zombie and join the horde. You'll respawn and can keep playing, but your corpse will contribute to the zombie forces.

You've said the swarms have procedural AI. What are some of the scenarios that can arise from that? What are some of the different ways the swarm will react from game to game?

Hollis-Leick: Because it's procedural AI, the zombies can end up behaving very strangely. They may all mob one player -- you may get 100 zombies mobbing one guy, which is why you've got to stay together. You've also got the different types of zombies, and they may respond differently depending on who's present or not. They'll handle obstacles in a variety of interesting ways -- so you'll see them climbing fences or going under. They'll get to you. They're very, very responsive. If you imagine you've got 300 individuals all being controlled by procedural AI, there's just so many scenarios that can play out.

Sherman: And a lot of it depends on what you're doing. They do respond to sound, you can play it stealthy, or you can just go in guns blazing, and the zombies react to that.

Hollis-Leick: The thing about zombies, the key to the mythology -- they don't think. They're just aggressive.

Don’t have a lot of self-preservation instincts?

Hollis-Leick: Exactly. They're not afraid, at all. So they'll throw themselves off rooftops and other things, no matter how much it injures them.

The following questions were handed over Saber Interactive tech guys, Dimitri and Anatoli (they didn’t provide their full names).

Are you planning support for PS4 Pro and Xbox One X?

Dimitri: We're in a pre-alpha stage, but we'll definitely do as much as we can for those upgraded consoles.

What kind of special features can we expect on PC?

Dimitri: Uncapped framerate, 4K support, and HDR. Pretty much all the standard stuff.

Anatoli: If your PC will allow it, we have it.

Will there be crossplay between platforms?

Dimitri: Right now we don't know if we want to do that.

Anatoli: But it's possible.

Thanks for talking with me, guys!

World War Z infects the PC, Xbox One, and PS4 sometime this year.