No SAFE place: A hands-on preview of War of the Zombie

Maybe it is.

Aircraft carrier not to scale. I think.

Remember when we got our first peek at War of the Zombie and I said that it would be a better World War Z tie-in game than the inevitable actual World War Z tie-in game? I love being right.

World War Z showed up on the App Store last week and (voila!) it’s a fairly blah on-rails shooter, the sort of game that’s slightly less interactive than making toast. It’s certainly not much of a companion game to World War Z (at least not the book — the movie’s not out yet) which is the sweeping oral history of a future worldwide war against the undead, exactly the sort of thing that you’d expect to see made into a strategy game.

The forthcoming War of the Zombie (whose pre-release beta builds I’ve been dipping in and out of the for last couple of weeks) is a bombastic summer blockbuster of a game that cribs its strategic layer from XCOM and its tactical missions from Atom Zombie Smasher: it’s just the iOS game World War Z deserves.

World War Z is a stark, serious affair that takes genre fiction tropes at face value and tries to present a believable universe. By contrast, War of the Zombie is the sort of war on the undead that might be conducted by Nick Fury and Richie Rich. Those looking for a hyper-real zombie holocaust sim would do well to steer clear of this game, with its double-hulled aircraft carriers and private security mercs armed with RPGs and katanas.

Watch where you're pointing that katana.

Tactical missions are real-time, but manageable.

Even as rough around the edges as the beta builds of War of the Zombie are at the moment, it’s a blast to play. As the director of a Blackwater-on-steroids private army, you’re fighting the war against the zombie hordes from that aforementioned double-hulled carrier. Major nations of the world are represented by cities on a global map, coloured by that nation’s attitude towards your SAFE Force. Friendly nations will gladly share manpower and materiel with you (what’s a couple of Tomahawk cruise missiles between pals?), but hostile countries will interfere with your sourcing efforts and even dispatch aircraft to sink your marvelous carrier.

The strategic level is turn-based and advances one day at a time. Each day you can dispatch missions to cities within range of the carrier to scavenge supplies or find new recruits — recruits can be pressed into service as Marines, researchers who will improve your arsenal, military advisors who provide your troops with an experience bonus, or diplomats who can be sent to Paris to convince the French not to Exocet your boat. Your aircraft have a limited range but the ARK (your carrier) can move anywhere in the world in the space of a day — remember, we’re suspending disbelief for this one, okay?

When you send your forces to a city where zombies are present, the scale of the game shifts and you are suddenly in control of a squad of four SAFE Marines who will terminate zombies and rescue civvies in real-time. The UI here is a little dodgy (it’s almost never practicable to split your squad up and feel like you’re in control), but the Marines are thankfully autonomous enough that they shoot when they see bad guys without waiting for your say-so.

Rescuing civilians and blasting zeds is fun and occasionally surprising. In some missions, you’re sent to eliminate armed rebels in addition to the zombies, and here you can use the destructible terrain to your advantage. Using a Tomahawk missile to blast a hole in the pen where the rebels have cooped up the zeds gives you an unlikely ally in your fight — though you’ll have to take down all of the rebels once they’ve turned undead. Tactical battles are full of clever details like this: popping smoke grenades to mark helicopter extraction zones, special air strikes that destroy a circle around your target — perfect for protecting a stationary group of Marines. The game’s options offer three kinds of zombie: the slightly slower Romero and Russo zombies, or the nightmarish “Snyder” running zombies (who really should be called “Boyle“, no?).

Enemy of the enemy?

Countries can be friendly, indifferent, or hostile to you — in the latter case they’ll actively antagonize you.

True to the XCOM inspiration, your Marines gain experience from sorties and you can level up a range of abilities from shooting accuracy to maximum health. Wounded Marines will return with (presumably awesome) bionic limbs but dead Marines stay dead — though an option called “Deja Vu” in a mission’s debriefing screen lets you replay it if you think you can better your previous effort.

War of the Zombie is currently in a late beta, but Van Der Veer games haven’t put a solid release date on it yet. I will recommend it on the same basis I recommended the new Star Trek film to my friends: if you can suspend your disbelief from the highest available perch and just dive into War of the Zombie, you’ll have a great time with it. It’s a hugely ambitious game and I’m ever-so-slightly afraid that it’s too ambitious in places: the game features loading times that will let you get a lot done around the house will you’re playing, and the sound design’s limited palate could use some work — one of your first actions will be to disable the mind-numbingly repetitive text-to-speech “AI assistant”. But War of the Zombie is still the most enjoyable zombie conflict you’re likely to watch, read, or play. Sorry, Brad Pitt.