Late last week I got a chance to dive head-first into the upcoming zombie survival MMO The War Z, with Executive Producer Sergey Titov showing me around. Here's what I learned while racking up a significant virtual body count.

Betas first

For those who know about the game, I know what you want to hear and I don't plan on teasing you. The beta is set to begin by the end of October, so expect to delve into the zombie madness in a month or so if you pre-ordered. For those that are new to The War Z, it's an open-world first-person or third-person shooter revolving around surviving the zombie apocalypse that borrows heavily from massively-multiplayer online games.

Please note that the current build is in an alpha state and is in no way reflective of the final product. However, I think this hands-on report gives a great idea of the how the game will play and the features that will be present.

After a quick character creation page where you can build and customize from a few standard archetypes (I chose the dude with the mohawk) I spawned and immediately noticed some similar sights from the DayZ mod: a food and drink bar outlined my health and a meter for my visibility and noise. I would need to rely on canny use of stealth and sustenance to survive. Diseases are also prevalent in the world, especially for bite victims, but you can use small doses of antidote to remove toxicity in the blood or fall back on painkillers to delay the effects. Ideally, don't get bit in the first place.

First look at the world

We started near a desolate cabin up on a hill in the woods, a real picturesque spot until night fell. The twilight before sunset made for a very eerie setting, and I was thankful we were in what seemed like a safer area for the moment. We lit a green and red flare in the immediate area and my shadow created a long, dark figure on the wall behind me; as far as I can tell from this early build the lighting is done very well, and everything casts a shadow in real time. A full day and night cycle in the game takes about four to five hours, so during a marathon play session you will probably experience it a couple of times.

The game is set in the wilderness of Colorado, with roughly 160 square miles of virtual terrain to traverse. There are plans to release more maps in 2013 to keep the game fresh and dynamic, though it is unclear how the different maps will be related to one another or if you will be able to travel from map to map in the same server.

To my surprise you start with a map the moment you begin, though only a portion is visible. About seventy-five percent of my map was pixelated when I began, making it nearly impossible to make out any sort of roads, cities or natural landmarks, but the visible 25 percent revealed a bunch of stuff around my location. A major aspect of this game will be about exploring the world and revealing those unknown areas, but I was expecting to have to find a map first. Part of the fun of a survival-centric game is the pointless wandering, and surviving, until you find something useful (such as said map). Maybe it helps with some initial direction since there will undoubtedly be some sort of open-world quests that you may or may not choose to do, but it takes out some of the hardcore survival feeling you expect from a survivor game.

Weapons are hard to find

During my demo we ran from building to building, flashlights (which double as a melee weapon) in hand, searching for a real weapon. We found nothing but a hammer, some painkillers and a pack of bandages. Titoy didn't seem surprised, reiterating how difficult it is to find weapons and ammunition; when you do manage to find an item it will respawn some time later, but in a different location. There are hundreds of locations for the items to spawn at, making it pointless to camp one area in hopes of that powerful weapon you saw there once. After a bit more fruitless searching, he manually spawned in some weapons and attachments with his god-like server commands.

I got my semi-automatic assault rifle and opened a menu to attach a silencer, ACOG sight and laser aiming. I was informed that we were the equivalent of millionaires in terms of gear. The military grade weapons and especially the attachments would not be easy to find or get to, so don't expect to see some serious firepower without some dedication. We headed into a small town, surveying the zombies and building locations. We spotted a post office where weapons could be found, a grocery store where medical supplies and food could be found and a church that could be used as a survivor holdout.

Engaging zombies

We slowly moved into the town, crouching and going prone for optimum stealth. Switching to third person was a little easier to navigate. I take my first shots, landing hits to the stomach and arms. The zombie stumbles back but doesn't go down. A few of its "colleagues" start to take notice and stumble towards us. "Aim for the head, that's the only way to kill them. Otherwise they will just keep getting back up," says Titov. As you might expect, The War Z encourages the classic "destroy the brain" approach. A few well placed shots to the brain-pan drops our pursuers.

We made it to the town square, and though our ammo was starting to run dry there are still a couple dozen walkers converging from all sides. The buildings were barren except for some basic medical supplies. It was becoming obvious we were not welcome in the small town and high-tailed it out of there. Luckily, these are the George Romero type zombies, unable to sprint or climb, and we easily outran the horde.

Into the big city

We headed into one of the bigger cities to search for anything useful. As we walked the ravaged streets it was obvious a struggle had taken place; body bags lay near dumpsters, walls were crumbled and vehicles were scattered, some in better shape than others. I was told vehicles would be available in the game (though they were disabled for the alpha test) and would not require any maintenance. They do, however, require gasoline, which is a rare consumable. Aside from powering vehicles, you can also use gasoline offensively; pour it out, attract some foes and throw a flare to start a zombie-Q.

Character building

So far this sounds like more of an open-world Left4Dead with a lot less ammunition. So where does the character building come in? There are no classes or levels, only skills and gear. I was assured no skill would be game-breaking and would mostly consist of physical and weapon proficiency bonuses; this includes sprinting faster or reloading quicker, things you would learn anyway by doing them time over time. You can also build the world around you. There are different defensive items and barbed wire structures to start constructing walls of a settlement. Wooden barricades are effective against zombies for a while but players can knock them down easily; later, a stone wall would effectively keep zombies out indefinitely while players would need to set explosives to destroy them.

Be sure to be social

The coolest and most innovative aspect of the game was some of the social ideas that are promised. In the world there are safe settlements that provide safety from zombies (but not PvP, watch your back!). They contain a general store where you can spend in-game currency (that zombies drop), a vault that allows you to trade out your items to a secure place where you won't lose them if you die or need to transfer to a new character (like cloud storage) and a pub. The pub is the center for social activity; you can post your own mission for players to complete (anything from setting a bounty on a player to hiring a shoulder to cry on for 20 minutes) or just socialize...peacefully. I really hope it doesn't just turn into a constant blood bath.

The good, the bad and the friendly

If you do decide to wander into town and become a heartless bandit, you will get a reputation, literally. A board will track a "Most Wanted" for those that go around killing for the fun. If you have a negative reputation people will have the opportunity to bring you to justice, with a bullet, to gain positive reputation points. Kill the bad guys, be a hero. If you need some backup, just turn to your friends list and implemented clan support. There won't be any fast travel to their position, but you will be able to see where they are on a map to quickly gang-up on the enemy.

Pricing and micro-transactions

The pricing managed to pique my interest. Most MMOs require a monthly subscription and paid content updates (i.e. expansions); not The War Z. A flat price of $30 will get you the game, unlimited play and all future DLC. There will be some micro-transactions, but they will be purely cosmetic. Get a cool hat, make your gun look cooler or add some nails to your bat. I was also informed that all items that you can buy via micro-transactions can be found in the world with some serious exploration. There is a unique purchasable item called the "time capsule" that allows players to leave written messages anywhere and can be read by anyone. They will last a few real-time days and then disappear. They allow you to communicate while offline, set up a meeting place for supplies or set up a trap for curious wanderers.

If you're impatient, avoid death

You can have up to five characters at any one time, but most people will focus on one to build up gear and skills. You choose a difficulty for each character you create, either Normal or Hardcore. If you die on Normal your character will be locked out for 24 hours of real time. If you die on Hardcore, you can kiss your character goodbye due to permanent death. The developers of The War Z are currently playing with the idea of allowing a pay-to-unlock option for a dead character if you can't wait an entire day or if all your characters are dead, but they will wait for community response before going forward with that.

Final thoughts

Overall, the game looks terrific despite the typical alpha bugs that I expected to see. Some of the textures were odd, the water reflected at a strange size and the zombie animations weren't entirely fluid. But I felt the atmosphere and the panic of being surrounded while my last few bullets fluttered away. It's easy to compare The War Z to DayZ, but there is something there that is fundamentally different. DayZ is for the masochist that will spend the day crawling for three hours only to get gunned down at an airfield and restart the process all over again; The War Z is about building a character, not only with gear and skills, but with a story. I look forward to seeing what people will do with the social and building aspect of the game, to see semi-permanent settlements sprout up in the wilderness to house clans and if there will be an integrated storyline.

It's unclear if the zombies or the players will be the largest threat to a survivor. In DayZ the zombies feel a bit like an a small bump in the road, something that gets in the way when there are people to snipe. In The War Z, while the zombies are slow, their massive numbers and stealth make them a decent threat. We haven't seen if strangers immediately become hostile or cooperative when meeting in the post-apocalyptic world, but you better make some friends to watch your back.

If it gets all polished up and maximizes on some innovative social ideas, this game seems poised to become popular. At $30 with free DLC it isn't a high-risk gamble for consumers, and from what I've seen the game seems likely to be a hell of a lot of fun.