With the Aftermath expansion, World War Z is a much different game than when it debuted in 2019, and overwhelmingly for the better. With more episodes to rampage through, a greater selection of playable classes, and dozens of major quality-of-life improvements (like zombies no longer being able to pull you off ledges and devour you in the most unfair manner imaginable, for example), there’s a lot to love about it these days. Aftermath is the next major step for this sleeper hit and one that mostly succeeds at moving the zombie-filled shooter in the right direction. That said, with ongoing online issues, forgettable stories, and some gameplay growing pains, it still has plenty of room to grow.
One of the more noteworthy things Aftermath adds is two excellent new campaigns that take you to reclaim Vatican City in Rome and to the utterly dismal wastes of Kamchatka, Russia. As with previous episodes, these episodes are challenging, heart-pounding nightmare scenarios that pit you and up to three co-op buddies against literally thousands of zombies while setting traps, managing resources like med kits and grenades, and trying desperately not to blow yourself up by firing a rocket launcher at point-blank range.
Rome is the more by-the-numbers of the two: it takes a well-known destination, gives it whatever the opposite of a facelift is, then lets you and your friends blast your way through it for a laugh. Aside from the new sights, sounds, and giant flaming pits filled with zombies, there isn’t much to distinguish Italy from other destinations. It’s still good ol’ fashioned face-smashing fun with a few highlights, like when you have to guide and refuel a van through the streets of Rome while under constant undead assault. Nothing really stuck with me very long after I beat it, though, except maybe those flaming pits filled with dead zombies; those might give me nightmares.
The frozen tundra of Kamchatka, on the other hand, has some really memorable moments, like one area where a blizzard causes you to take damage just for being outside for short periods so you’ve gotta race between heaters while fighting off waves of brain-eaters. There’s also some great puzzle sections that require teamwork, like one where your crew has to use a flamethrower to melt doors that’ve been frozen shut while the others provide cover fire, or another where you have to fix an electrical grid by finding and pulling levers in the right order. Fairly straightforward tasks quickly become formidable undertakings with the constant threat of zombie hordes, and the best-laid plans can become a comedy of errors in no time at all. Compared to the fairly straightforward design of Rome, it was really nice seeing the developers have some over-the-top fun with Russia.
Even when the new episodes are at their best, though, Aftermath still fails to improve in the way of storytelling, which is still as disappointing as it’s ever been. Precisely zero characters are fleshed out or interesting in any way, and their dialogue is campy and mostly serves as background noise while you run around shooting things. In fact, I feel like 90% of the time I heard a character speak, they were politely reminding me not to accidentally shoot them in the head. Cause, y’know, friendly fire is a pretty common mishap when you’re fighting thousands of zombies in claustrophobic areas and the characters will never not comment on it. I’m all for some mindless fun and World War Z has that in spades, but telling actual stories in the style of Left 4 Dead would make the world feel more worth saving.
My personal favorite addition in Aftermath, though, is the addition of an optional first-person mode, which breathes new life into every aspect of World War Z. Getting up close and personal with the flesh parades you square off against adds a whole new level of panic from behind the eyes of your character. As an FPS fan, I felt right at home taking on the horrors of the apocalypse this way, and it gave me another reason to go back and replay World War Z’s older episodes.
The caveat here is that, for whatever reason, aiming down the sights of your weapons has been curiously left out of first-person mode. Lots of guns have scopes, but instead of looking down them, you look down the side of the weapon, which feels very odd, clunky, and downright unsatisfying. It’s especially weird since ADS already existed in World War Z on some weapons, like the sniper rifle, so it’s not like looking down scopes just isn’t something you ever did in third-person. For all the added immersion the first-person perspective gave me, I was pulled right out of it again when I found myself looking past my scope during combat. I seriously cannot overstate how weird that felt, no matter how long I played; I probably muttered something like “So we’re just not gonna use that scope, huh?” a dozen or so times per play session.
Aftermath also adds some welcome changes to the sandbox in the form of an eighth character class called the Vanguard and some new melee weapon options, both of which succeed at evolving the close-ranged combat. As the name implies, the Vanguard is all about getting up in the enemies’ faces and comes equipped with an electric shield that you can use to charge through dozens of zombies or block pathways by turning yourself into a human barricade. It takes a bit of skill to get the hang of, as I learned from my many ill-advised dives into piles of zombies, but mastering it is a lot of fun and can be invaluable in keeping your team alive. Whereas other character classes quickly become Zeke lunch at close range, the Vanguard is much more viable, even if the high risk/high reward involved might not be for everyone.
The new melee options, though, are just a good time all around. Now featuring dual-wielded weapons like the sickles and heavy weapons like the sledgehammer, the melee system has been completely revamped with a perk system that helps you flesh out your playstyle. Using the sickles for example, allows you to attack faster and less lethally than other melee weapons, but has a perk that heals your character when you get killing sprees; the fire axe, meanwhile, is slower and more lethal and carries a perk that makes you more effective when fighting Zekes that are on fire. The improved melee system adds some much-needed variety to gameplay and also slightly improves the viability of close-range combat in general, which previously was only used by those with a nagging death wish. That said, you still won’t be able to tackle the undead masses with melee alone unless you’ve really optimized your Vanguard class around it, but it does help to get you out of the occasional bit of unplanned face-to-face time with a zombie or two, which is a godsend.
While most of Aftermath’s contributions to World War Z are welcome, one in particular just left me scratching my head: rats. That’s right: big, black rats with tails and everything. Y’know, those creepy things from A Plague Tale: Innocence and also my apartment in college. I really don’t know why the developers thought these were important to add, but now roaming packs of ravenous rats will sometimes spawn in a level and just start eating your face right off. Since they’re a horde of tiny enemies that can’t easily be killed with bullets, the only real defense against them are explosives or flamethrowers, which aren’t always readily available. Sometimes a perfectly good run of a level will unexpectedly be interrupted by a swarm of rats that start eating your teammate, which wastes your valuable healing kits and ammo, or – even more embarrassingly – straight-up killing your whole team. To be fair, the randomness of the rat swarms can be pretty entertaining and are definitely not without their novelty, but honestly, I would rather if they weren’t there at all.
Far more disappointing than a herd of hairy rodents though, is that the online experience in World War Z is still extremely rocky in Aftermath. I was lucky to have a group of friends to play with most times, and although loading into levels and keeping a stable connection can be rough on occasion, it’s still a mostly serviceable experience when you bring your own team. But if you’re hoping to matchmake with others, things go from workable to painfully broken. You should expect extremely long wait times to get matched up with others or sometimes just waiting in the lobby infinitely. Your best bet is to just begin a public game and wait for others to join partway through – a method that isn’t only not as fun as doing the whole level with a full team, but also isn’t a guarantee and you might end up going through the entire thing with AI-controlled bots that can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag. The alternative to this painful online experience is to play completely solo with AI to leave nothing up to chance, but this is an equally bad time, so you’re left to choose between the lesser of two evils. So bring your own friends, or be prepared for a headache.