I’m fairly sure that zombies are the perfect video game enemies. They’re relentless, for one thing, happily chomping their way through anyone who gets in their path. The undead are faceless as well, so you don’t feel too bad about escorting them back to their graves. Yet they can be poignant, dramatic reminders of friends and family that meant a lot to characters too, depending on who the shambling corpse used to be. If I was going to hire any enemy for a game, I’d hire a zombie. Then they’d eat my brain. That’s why I hired them! So to celebrate our very iconic, vitality-challenged friends, I've put together a list of my favourite zombie games.
Just a few zombies are never enough, and ideally you want a proper, full-on zombie apocalypse – or, at least, a Resident Evil style outbreak – if you’re going to have fun with the concept in any game starring the walking dead. Zombies are at their best when they’re a heaving, shambling mass, their groans merging together like the resonating frequency of death itself, hungry for the life they can never have again. Now, admittedly not all of all of the games here feature quite that, diverse in genre as they are, but they all confront the oxymoron of living death with vitality. That’s all you can ask, really.
The Walking Dead: Season One
Ah, the episodic zombie adventure game that started it all. Wait, Telltale’s The Walking Dead didn’t invent zombies? You could have fooled me, human. Perhaps it’s the insistence on not referring to the shuffling wraiths as zombies, which makes very talkative protagonist and convicted murderer Lee Everett’s discovery of the apocalypse unfolding around him seem all the more urgent and convincing.
It helps that The Walking Dead is episodic, too. Lee and his charge Clementine face some devastating decisions, recurring villains, and plenty of the undead through the original five episodes. You need a breather between them, because there’ll be QTEs that make you pound your keyboard in legitimate anger, trying to force decisions that can’t be made. You’ll choose between characters only to see things end the same way further down the line. Choice is an illusion that humans thrust onto the world, but the dead don’t split hairs.
Yep, Dark Souls is about a zombie apocalypse. This isn’t anything new; people have been suggesting it since the game was released. The cursed undead might not want to eat you, but they certainly become riled up enough through hollowing to repeatedly try to murder you without any real provocation. Dark Souls undead are the worst kind too, because they never stop getting back up again.
You, the Chosen Undead, are afflicted too, although you do seem to be special enough to retain your sanity and purpose in the face of undeath. Hollows are more like the classic zombie: stinking, rotting, corpse-like. Robbed of will, devoid of their former personalities and compassion for life. In the end, they just want to finish off anything that seems more alive than they are. In this fantasy take on the zombie apocalypse, humanity is every bit as damned.
They Are Billions
Proving that nowhere and nobody is safe from the plague of undeath, zombie apocalypses can even strike the top-down viewpoint of real-time strategy gaming. Case in point: They Are Billions, the game that finally realised that zerg rushing bases is essentially just like countless mindless corpses assaulting that Pennsylvianian mall from Dawn Of The Dead. The game pits the miniscule remnants of humanity against an unimaginably huge mass of seething undead. It’s great.
Where They Are Billions succeeds is its survival mode, randomly creating a map for your bunch of living, breathing fleshbags to fend off roaming hordes for a limited amount of time. That’s the main reason we gave it a Bestest Best back in the innocent days of 2019. They Are Billions can chuck up to 20,000 groaning zombie units at you at any one time, which is pants-cacklingly intimidating. This is what it’d be like, folks.
State Of Decay
State Of Decay is zombie figure-skating. BOOM. I’m of the opinion that State Of Decay is the ideal zombie apocalypse simulator. I’ve never played the sequel, because I’m not sure anything could top the original. Sorry, Undead Labs. It’s because this take on the zombocalypse has range, y’see. It can be quiet, too quiet, stealthing around to take out straggling shamblers while rummaging up supplies for your compound.
Or State Of Decay can go loud, with hordes rampaging through Trumbull Valley and rending your player character – and band of survivors – asunder. If you die then you’re transferred into the body of another survivor, ready to avenge your own death by busting zombie heads with an open car door. Oh, the joyous car door. Maybe State Of Decay 3 will stumble out of a nearby building one day to consume me in the way its rabid grandsire once managed. We’ll see.
Imagine, for a moment, that the zombie apocalypse is fun. Hold that thought and say “cheese!”. That’s Frank West, photojournalist and Capcom’s alternative to the dingy melodrama of Resident Evil, for you. Frank likes golf, particularly when played with undead heads. He’s secure enough in his humanity to scoot around a zombie-packed mall wielding a toy of Mega Man’s hand cannon, popping out foam balls at nightmarish creatures that want to rip him open. You’ll like Frank.
Dead Rising knows you’re having too much fun though, so it only gives you a few in-game days to help Frank figure out the zombie problem and get the heck out of Willamette. A lot of this involves taking on missions for the randomers you’ll find kicking about inside, photographing zombies and the more deranged but still human inhabitants. There’s a lot to chew on in Dead Rising, but never quite enough time.
A lot of the games I’ve been banging on about, like a zombie on the barricaded walls of a police station, are pretty swish. They have graphics that move around, they have stories created by writers, and they have sound. Urban Dead doesn’t bother with any of that guff that appeals to tasty brains. No, Urban Dead has spent 17 years in a state of semi-living purgatory, constantly reviving the text adventure format as an MMO day after day.
Thing is, Urban Dead is very good. Its excellent survival-replicating action point system doles out limited opportunities to achieve something on any given day. The lack of any real visuals or noise to speak of means you’ll have to take all your cues from that most vivid tool: words. You can play as a zombie too. Best of all, it’s all rendered on a really zombie green background. Nice one, Kevan.
Resident Evil 2
The remake of Resident Evil 2 takes what was a playable Dawn Of The Dead, and turns it into a playable iteration of Romero’s most Hollywood zombie flick, Land Of The Dead. This isn’t Resident Evil, it’s President Evil, the VIP of Capcom’s ironically undying series. It might smooth out the wrinkles of the original through some modern-day graphical zhuzhing up and condensing various scenarios into just two, but the remake keeps that same rotting core.
Here’s a game that knows what it’s trying to be, a very good adaptation of an already bloody good and creepy survival horror. Resident Evil 2’s remake frees up the camera, at last, and revives Raccoon City’s final night by having that absolute unit Mr. X burst through walls after you. I just wish Capcom would hurry up and put the original RE2 on PC too, so I can play through them both again.
Stubbs The Zombie In Rebel Without A Pulse
Technically, Stubbs The Zombie is a reverse horror game. That means you’re the one scaring other people, rather than being terrified by flesh-eating monsters crawling and/or sprinting towards you. Stubbs had a bit of a comeback recently, appropriately enough for a zombie, remastered after 15 years. Thanks to its atom-punk setting, and unlike most other zombie apocalypse games, Stubbs also had a legit banging licensed soundtrack of covers of classic tunes such as Mr. Sandman and Earth Angel.
Probably the most ridiculous thing about Stubbs The Zombie, or any of the games I’ve mentioned, was the minor controversy it caused surrounding supposed cannibalism in games when it launched. Honestly, this really happened, I’m not making it up. Just because you’re playing as a zombie doesn’t mean you’re supposed to eat people, kids. Sheesh, I mean, does liking Monkey Island make you a pirate?
Left 4 Dead
Turtle Rock innovated on the boring old zombie apocalypse a few ways with their 2008 team FPS Left 4 Dead. First, and foremost, they stuck the AI Director in there. It reacts to whatever you’re doing, dishing out effects, character barks, health and ammo, and the game’s second innovation: the Special Infected. In a lot of other zombie apocalypse games, the undead are just the undead. They don’t have much to distinguish between them. It’s kind of the point of zombies, being faceless enemies who could be anyone. Left 4 Dead evolved zombies.
These ramped-up biters ranged from the vomiting Boomer and gymnastic Hunter, to the hench Tank and bloody terrifying Witch. You could even play as certain types of Special Infected in some modes. Left 4 Dead managed to tell a more than half-decent, and compelling, story about its four determined survivors throughout the campaign, too.
Plants Vs. Zombies
Not all zombie apocalypse games are gruesome and for nihilists such as myself. Some are for kids, and people who enjoy Flash games. I, too, was once a kid and played stuff on Newgrounds, so I’m okay with Plants Vs. Zombies’ interpretation of there being no more room in Hell. Chucking the living dead into a tower defence scenario makes sense, because they always love a good siege. They do it professionally and for fun.
The enemies in Plants Vs. Zombies know how to liven up their undead existence. Some pole-vault, some carry screen doors as shields, and others drive ‘Zomboni’ machines. This lot aren’t your average zombies heading to the mall. Remember, though, that they’re not dealing with human defenders. These mindless undead are up against equally mindless vegetation. You can’t eat vegetation if you’re a zombie, that’s just ridiculous. Not as daft as the dolphin-riding zombies, however.