World War Z Aftermath has been around. The game is based off the 2013 Brad Pitt film (based itself off the 2005 book) and debuted in 2019. The origins of WWZ's gameplay mechanics was no mystery; GN's Carter immediately started making the Left 4 Dead comparisons in their review at the time. He also made a pretty poignant observation about the core loop of the game - loads of zombies, loads of shooting, not a lot of frills. Two years later, Henry took on the original review for the major expansion, Aftermath. That expansion added new locations in the story mode, new character classes, revamped melee combat, and a muddled attempt at a first person mode. The expansion also promised this next-gen update we finally have in our hands today, more than a year later.
So in this review, we're not going to look exclusively at the gameplay itself, but I will offer my opinions at the end. First we will try and take account of how the game has progressed from last-gen to next-gen consoles. Henry's review was on a PC and with ample power on a dedicated gaming machine, I doubt he ran into the same issues I did when playing last gen. Before the actual release day I spent a week jumping in and out of the PS4 version to get a feel for what was before. The biggest and most consistent issue I ran into were audio problems. Seemingly directly related to the number of objects on screen, whenever the action would ramp up and undead body count would rise in the field of play, the audio would often die. The roar of the horde, the brrrap-brrap-brrrap of the machine guns, most of what was meant to be immersing me in the experience would go eerily quiet as I'm guessing the game optimizations couldn't keep up with the number of assets the scenario was trying to force on the screen. I found this occasionally in multiplayer but it was a regular occurrence in Horde mode. Thankfully, I can't recall it ever happening in the co-op campaign mode. This was very interesting to me as this next-gen update introduces a Horde Mode XL that promises to increase the number of on-screen zombies in a horde wave to over 1000. The last-gen game on a next-gen hardware (I was playing on PS5) couldn't handle last-gen horde mode for whatever reason.
I came into this review very interested to see if the next-gen update could fix these audio issues; and from what I have seen it has, completely. In addition to bumping the visuals to 4k 60FPS, the audio has been rescued from its prison of silence, huzzah! Horde mode, multiplayer, even Horde XL, I never had an issue playing the next-gen version on a next-gen system. And while the visuals bump is nice, I never really had an issue with the old one, so that's not so much a killer feature for me. What I did notice, especially in Horde Mode XL, is at least one noticeable shortcut the devs took in order to cram so many zekes on the screen at once: they don't move their limbs...
It's a tricky thing getting a computer to process loads of information at a time. Graphics are especially intense, which is precisely why we have dedicated hardware, GPUs, to do that complex math. There are also memory constraints with both the movement of assets to and from the cache and having enough RAM to handle everything that is in the queue. There are lots of tricks to managing these limitations. For example, ever wonder why so many games have long hallway or elevator sections between action set pieces or levels? It's because the hallway is the trick that gives the engine time to clear the old assets and load in the new. Other areas of programming do similar things. HTML is notoriously inefficient yet the web powers so much and is so extensible. Even some desktop applications are written in a form of web app called Electron. It's great if you want your app to run on all the different systems, but can be terrible if that app needs to do heavy lifting. So say you have an infinite scroll in your app, like a message timeline. It's easy to grab all the messages - they are cheap; but rendering a visual object for each is expensive and will quickly eat up all your memory resources. So other tricks are implored like virtualization where only what is on-screen or the very nest thing to scroll into view is actually rendered.
World War Z doesn't have that luxury. If you boast about putting 1000 zombies on screen, you can't just pop them in, hide them under a scroll, or conveniently tuck most of them behind some MacGuffin. You need to render all 1000, along with the player character models, environment, traps and turrets, etc. So what the devs are trying to do here is make the zombies up close have all the features: they run, they climb, they leap off ledges with the classic WWZ dead fish flop that is so neat to watch. The ones that are far away... they just sort of glide through the world like characters from an old Japanese animation - their little legs spinning away while the body is completely rigid. Maybe it works in that animated medium as a single swordsman flying into battle. It doesn't work visually when 1000 of them are all coming at once. It's a great shortcut if you can pull it off. It's fine when there are enemies both up close that are really earning your attention and the rest are just in the periphery. When it doesn't work, though, is at the start of every wave when the horde is initially bearing down on you. It's noticeable. It's jarring. It looks cheap. A thousand silly looking gliders coming at you in 4k 60FPS. It doesn't spoil the fun, but it does ruin the immersion and puts a dent in the intensity of what's coming when it looks so... silly.
It's an annoyance that is added to the other issues present in the core game that the next-gen update didn't fix - namely a lack of real narrative to make the experience bigger than the sum of its parts and an uninspiring multiplayer mode (and don't even get me started on unkillable screamer placements...).
Before I nitpick on those negatives I want to state this clearly: taking on a wave of zombies is awesome. You can't watch the Brad Pitt WWZ film and not immediately want to jump into a game where a horde is bearing down on you. That gameplay device is found in many titles, is typically thrilling, and WWZ flushes it out as the central gameplay experience. Even dying to an unstoppable force of undead flesh is fun, but setting up your own immovable wall of defense to repel them even more so.
However, around this core gameplay device there is no real story mode. The Co-op Campaign plays out in a series of seven "Episodes." Each episode represents a city around the globe and has four missions that follow four characters for that city across a series of connected tasks, mission to mission. You can play online with an open or private lobby, or offline with AI teammates taking the other 3 characters in the party. The first issue is: while the storyline connects the missions, the co-op jump in/out nature of the gameplay means no progression carries over. So you end one mission with a sweet collection of weapons and gear acquired along the way and begin the next right back at the base weapon loadout for the character class. A base loadout that, by the way, is unchangeable. No matter what kind of shotgun and machine gun you picked up in the last mission, no matter what you might have sunk XP into to upgrade in the menu screen before the mission, the Fixer class always loads into the next co-op game with the scout rifle and silenced pistol. It's annoying as a gameplay device and forces you into playing character models rather than building out s-tier character loadouts, which is fine. But where it inhibits the game is it just further removes you from investing in the characters and story. You can't even jump into the next mission immediately from the last. It's back to the lobby each time, further breaking the narrative flow.
The narrative that plays out isn't a novel, it's a collection of short stories, each exiting in isolation. Each Episode stands alone. Each character too. They are just skins to play a class on. The only thing that ties them together is they all seem to use the same tired phrases to respond to environmental events. Across cultures and languages accents (e'erybody speaks English) "you're rat food now" uttered to a dead zeke is the only real thing that binds this world together. And while there are videos to watch and backstories to read in the character screen to get a sense of who they are, you're never really invited to care because you know you're only on the ride with them for four short missions, then onto the next group of four characters in the next episode. You don't even unlock the "intro" videos for the character until after you've completed a level on them, even further removing you from having a care to give about their backstory.
So the PvP multiplayer... I just don't have time for this mode. I'm not a fan of the gunplay. There's no vertical movement, time to kill just feels off on badly underpowered weapons. I put two shotgun blasts in an opponents' face and somehow they won the engagement with an auto rifle or smg or whatever. Besides feeling bad, I'm not sure the multiplayer knows what it wants to be. It looks and moves similar to the multiplayer of a game like the Last of Us, and there are clearly stealth elements baked in. But the modes and objective based play keep aping twitch shooters and lending themselves to more fast paced play that abandons stealth as a strategy. I feel like it's caught between two worlds and hasn't figured out what it wants to be.
What's worse is at this stage, the next-gen lobbies are a nightmare. I didn't have the same issues on the last-gen system so I think it's just a player population issue, but I'm constantly getting curb-stomped loading into 2v4 games in progress. Even quitting that game and trying to re-load often puts you back into the same exact game you just left. It's not fun. There is also some terrible lag and connection issues. One particular match I was matched against sub 30ms pings when my entire team was north of 150ms.
Which brings us to the real central issue I have with World War Z Aftermath as an overall impression: with multiplayer being something best forgotten, it's only really a one-trick pony. It has these great and massive hordes and waves of zombies that are the focus of the Horde mode, are in prominent use in every campaign mission, and are really fun to play out. But that's it. That's all it really has. It's a great trick, don't get me wrong; and it's probably the very reason you are drawn to the game in the first place. But once the wave washes over you, there isn't anything else to really do. It's wave after wave and if that short loop gets tiresome, there isn't anything else I found to hold my attention.
As for some housekeeping items. Last-gen save data can be migrated onto the next-gen game, but it's not automatic. There is a main menu option "Convert Save Data" that does that. What's not immediately obvious is that I needed to shut down and re-load the game after that to actually see my progress overwrite the new environment. Trophy progression did not immediately pop. Most can be re-earned pretty easily but I wasn't able to test any of the long progression based trophies like buy all weapons or play 100 multiplayer games because in my PS4 testing I never got that far. My expectation is the next PvP game would cause the trophy to go ding! (But let's be real, I'm never playing 100 games in this PvP.)
I have that list of grievances above, but they mostly fall on the annoying end of the scale. It can't be overstated how much fun taking on a wave of zombies can be. And the game really captures the look and feel of the zekes from the 2013 film. It's a roaring good time, but can be short lived as soon as you want to experience a different loop. Maybe the episodic and disjointed nature of the Co-op Campaign can even be a blessing here, as it invites you to nibble on hordes in small bursts and then jump out into a different experience in your gaming library. If a gaming session were a feast, I'm not sure WWZ is the buffet, but is perhaps an amuse bouche that you'll be thinking about at every cocktail hour the rest of your life - "Remember mowing down WWZ hordes? Man, let's jump back in there for one more wave before loading up <insert latest narrative epic>..."
The World War Z Aftermath next-gen update brings new visuals, fixes old audio issues, and introduces an expanded Horde Mode XL that packs more zekes on-screen than ever. The game is entirely predicated on the uninhibited good time that mowing down waves of onrushing enemies presents itself. Unfortunately, that's both where the game starts and ends. It's a rush, over and again, but when you want to look for something different, you have to go elsewhere to find it. A great gameplay loop to be sure, but a one-trick pony never the less.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...