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‘World War Z’ Tells New Stories Within the Film’s Universe

Video game movie adaptations have a terrible lineage of rushed products that were either boring or just broken. That’s what makes “World War Z” so unusual: It’s coming out nearly six years after the film.

Released in 2013 with Brad Pitt in the lead role, the movie “World War Z” was a financial success, grossing over $540 million worldwide. But it had little to do with the best-selling book it’s based on, and a sequel is nowhere near complete. As far as the pop culture zeitgeist is concerned, the “World War Z” brand is just as cold as the undead themselves. However, that didn’t stop developer Saber Interactive from partnering with Paramount Pictures for its zombie shooter.  

Coming to PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2019, “World War Z” is a cooperative multiplayer game where you and up to three of your friends can take on the zombie horde. It’ll inevitably draw comparisons to “Left 4 Dead,” and after playing through a demo at E3 2018, it does feel similar to Valve’s game. But a few features stand out. Like in the movie, the stampeding zombies run super fast and can climb on top of each other to reach high places. And in some scenarios, your team has to set up traps at choke points to defend yourselves from an incoming swarm.

Saber Interactive is also trying to differentiate “World War Z” by relying on its storytelling chops. The game introduces a new cast of survivors, people who didn’t appear in the book or the film. For writers Oliver Hollis-Leick and Craig Sherman, the license allows them to craft their own set of stories within the “World War Z” universe. They don’t have to stick to Pitt’s Gerry Lane or any other predefined characters.

“Storytelling is really important to us. Craig and I spent a lot of time looking into what kind of people might’ve survived, what kind of skills they might’ve had that helped them survive when other people didn’t,” Hollis-Leick told Variety. “Not just physical skills, but also, did they have the mind to see this amount of horror and still keep their marbles? So it was always very important to us that story played a big part of it, even though it’s a co-op multiplayer game.”

“World War Z” has 12 playable characters evenly spread across three episodes, with each episode consisting of three chapters or levels. While you won’t see their backstories in long cutscenes, you will get a sense of who they are while playing. Most of this will come in the form of — in another nod to “Left 4 Dead” — their dialogue, whether they’re talking to each other or just reacting to what’s happening around them. You won’t hear everything they have to say the first time around, so repeated playthroughs will offer more clues to their past.

The team is also planning on making audio journals and notebook entries that flesh out the characters’ lives. And despite not having the rights to the book, “World War Z” has something that longtime fans might appreciate: In the loading screens before each episode, characters will talk about what happened to them that day, as if they were recounting those stories for an interview.

“We want you to feel like these are real people that you can care about. Although the campaign is definitely based around multiplayer, immersion plays such a big part in how attached you get to it. If they were just random characters or random soldiers, you wouldn’t care. By making them real people, you get attached to them, you want them to succeed,” said Hollis-Leick.

While the writers hope that these stories will be memorable for players, they also know that, at the end of the day, “World War Z” is about having a fun arcade experience online, whether you’re matchmaking or playing alone with bots. The game will also have a competitive mode, where two teams of survivors have to work together to fight the zombies. But the twist is that at any time, you can betray the other side by sending the horde their way, leaving your group free to complete the objectives.  

Without the pressure of synchronizing “World War Z’s” release with an upcoming movie, Saber Interactive has the freedom to make the kind of game they want to make.

“It’s not about grinding away to find three cartridges for a revolver and strapping a knife to a broom pole. It’s about — you’ve got 20 minutes, and you just want to get your frustration out, get on a game, plow through zombies, feel the thrill of it, and then move on. I think this game really services that,” said Hollis-Leick.

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