The rules used to be simple: Don’t get bitten; destroy the brain. Zombie games like Left 4 Dead , Killing Floor , and Resident Evil shared a vaguely similar approach, even as they offered terrific takes on one of horror’s most ubiquitous subgenres.
But zombie games have matured. They've mutated beyond simply being zombie-themed shooters, and redefined what we know as the zombie FPS into more of a genuine survival game. You still have to get headshots and avoid getting gnawed, but there are new threats to manage. Thirst. Hunger. Darkness. Scarce resources. Untrustworthy strangers.
Who knew trying to survive the zombie apocalypse could be so fun?
A gun can’t solve every problem you have in DayZ , The War Z , and No More Room In Hell , in other words. These zombie games demand different skills: communication, leadership, a knack for navigation over open terrain, nerves of steel, and even a little deception will help you survive. In short, they’re the zombie games we’ve dreamed of: demanding and realistic survival simulations that ask a lot of you, but reward players with unforgettable, self-authored stories of sacrifice, horror, and survival. If you're unfamiliar with any of these games, make sure to read on to prepare yourself for the horro that's in store.
Everything you learned about surviving the zombiepocalypse was wrong
In April 2012, an unfinished mod developed by a former New Zealand military officer quietly released. The add-on was designed for Arma 2 , a niche military simulation game from Czech studio Bohemia Interactive , known most as the creators of Operation Flashpoint .
Initially, DayZ arrived with little fanfare. “I developed it, essentially, in secret and that removes a lot of ego, it removes a lot of promises,” creator Dean Hall told PC Gamer last year. But DayZ would catch PC gaming by complete surprise. In just four months, it had drawn 1 million unique players . Hundreds of 50-player custom servers hosting the still-incomplete, alpha version of the mod sprung up in a matter of weeks. Almost 200,000 people were playing every day at the peak of the mod’s popularity in August 2012. The zombie game that gamers had openly fantasized about on message boards - an open-world, do-anything, go-anywhere survival game—had appeared out of thin air, albeit in a rough and half-realized form.
Even with placeholder animations, annoying bugs, and incomplete features, DayZ had a death-grip on gamers’ attention. Relative to the zombie games that preceded it, it offered unprecedented freedom and made other facets of the apocalypse—including fellow survivors—as much of a threat as the undead. Its style of realistic zombie arose partly from the inspiration of its creator. Hall had originally pitched the mod as a zombie-less training simulator, having endured survival training himself during an exchange program with the Singaporean military.
A lot of DayZ’s appeal is owed to Arma 2, whose Real Virtuality engine forms a foundation for its authenticity. Arma 2’s creators went to great lengths to create high-fidelity game technology, and DayZ benefits from sharing systems that model for vehicle fuel consumption and modular vehicle damage, a real-time night/day cycle, a working compass and detailed topographical map, voice chat that’s affected by proximity, and an engine that can render objects over long distances.
Loot is everything in DayZ. Your carrying capacity depends on the size of your backpack—a rare ruck can become a literal target on your back. DayZ’s rigid and unintuitive inventory interface, unfortunately, is a well-documented shortcoming.
A particular asset is Arma 2’s ballistics modeling, which distinguishes it from every shooter in gaming. Bullets travel parabolically in Arma 2 and DayZ based on their caliber, so the behavior of a hunting rifle, revolver, and M4A1 assault rifle, for example, is all significantly different. Getting a knack for your weapon is as important as just finding one—someone that knows the nuances of a low-end gun like a Lee Enfield (a bolt-action WWI rifle) is arguably more dangerous than someone holding an AS50 anti-material sniper rifle but doesn’t know how to dial-in its scope. Guns emit different amounts of noise, too—snipers usually find it safest to operate in teams for protection, as a single shot can ring a dinner bell for zombies two or three hundred meters away. For this reason, silenced sidearms and rifles are some of the most prized items in the game.
Chernogorsk (aka “Cherno”) is DayZ’s largest death trap. Erm, city.
To get your hands on high-end equipment, you need to scour the game world. You don’t complete quests or levels or experience points in DayZ, so typically you’re just worried about gathering useful gear—tools, food, and weapons—within the game’s enormous sandbox. One of DayZ’s masterstrokes is that the drive for gear always feels self-motivated; your needs and emotions naturally drive your goals. When you enter DayZ for the first time, you’re unarmed. You instinctively want to find a gun, but to do it you need to put yourself in danger: weapons and items only spawn inside structures, and zombies lurk where structures dwell. Other survival mechanics operate as motivators too. You need to eat. You need to drink, but true to Arma’s fidelity, you can’t fill your canteen in the ocean. I’ve been in situations where I would’ve traded grenades for a can of pasta, or nightvision goggles for a soda. If you’re injured, depending on your ailment, you’ll need to find morphine, painkillers, or antibiotics.
Surveillance is one of the pleasures of DayZ. It’s a game that makes looking and listening a genuine skill. Scouting an area for dangerous players (which you’ll need binoculars or a rangefinder for) is a good habit.
This isn’t a game where your health regenerates automatically, in other words. Actually, the quickest way to restoring your life in DayZ isn’t even something that can be done by yourself. Eating food slowly restores any blood you’ve lost from injury, but in order to use a blood transfusion bag, you need another player—meaning friendship (or temporarily trusting another player, at least) is roadblock to healing yourself. And interacting with strangers in DayZ—other players that, like you, want to find better gear—is inherently dangerous.
These intricate mechanics play out in one of gaming’s most detailed worlds. DayZ borrows Arma 2’s map, Chernarus, a 225km² country that’s actually a satellite-modeled slice of the Czech Republic (see comparison photos and maps here ). Basing Chernarus on real topographic data grants it a feeling of authenticity that isn’t present in other virtual environments. Hills roll into unexpected ponds and forest valleys. Road signs are printed in Cyrillic. Powerlines run perpendicular to ruined castles. Villages and dense cities cling to the coast. The only downside is that Chernarus’ realistic scale? To get where you want to go, you might have to run three or four kilometers in real time.
DayZ’s Chernarus map is actually one of several playable worlds available for DayZ. Modders have ported other player-made Arma 2 maps into the mod, including the tundra of Namalsk, the jungle of Lingor Island, and a dense urban desert called Fallujah.
It’s worth noting that modders—the ever-busy carpenter gnomes of PC gaming—have ported several Arma 2 custom maps into the game. A popular one is Namalsk, a connected by a half-kilometer railway bridge. You can spy it and the other four currently-available landscapes here .
DayZ’s biggest innovation is the trust it places in players to find their own fun. Compared to conventional shooters, it’s barren of any cinematic content. But DayZ leverages complex systems and difficulty in a way that produces incredible stories and interactions that don’t exist in other games. Banal tasks like watching another survivor through binoculars and trying to determine where they’re going or if they’re friendly are meaningful safety measures. YouTube is full of funny, scary, and fascinating interactions between strangers and survivor groups, bandits and self-described axe murderers, do-gooders and kidnappers. For the patient player, the search for water in DayZ can be just as heart-pumping as a shootout. It’s the first zombie game to emphasize stories over shooting, and the first that makes human nature an implicit part of everything you do.
Click the next page to read about The War Z
A sincere form of flattery
In July 2012, faster than you could horde canned goods, a DayZ imitator emerged. Within a month of DayZ’s flash of popularity, a new studio told the gaming world that it was hard at work on its own player-versus-player and player-versus-zombie, open-world survival sandbox.
The announcement of The War Z was met with skepticism and cynicism flecked with curiosity. Its features were uncomfortably familiar: a huge, verdant open world dotted with mundane and military loot, a first-person and third-person camera, and dedicated servers, all laid out to support unscripted, persistent gameplay between zombies and other players. Even the look of its characters--baseball cap-wearing, backpacked survivors--resembled DayZ’s. The War Z wasn’t being subtle about its inspiration.
Using separate real-money and in-game currencies, The War Z allows players to purchase some basic items—like melee weapons and food—before they spawn into the game. If you die, anything you’re carrying is dropped.
But if this blatant borrowing of ideas resulted in a good game, would it matter? More details snuck out as gaming press got early access. The War Z would include a player-written questing system, appearance customization, the ability to place bounties on other players’ heads, an RPG-style skill system, and a microtransaction store for items. Perhaps most interesting was The War Z’s promise to offer something called Strongholds—small, private instances like a cabin in the woods, a farm, a small town on a cliffside, or a trainyard that clans or individual players can rent for money. Even if these features don’t appeal to you personally, they painted a picture of a game that was less of a clone than originally thought.
“In fact, we’re fans of the mod,” The War Z Executive Producer Sergey Titov said to VG247 in October last year when asked about DayZ. “Ultimately, we hope gamers end up playing both The War Z and the DayZ standalone. It’s difficult to compare at the moment, but although there are similarities, we tried creating a game that was a little bit easier to access and play, and that would allow players to be creative and create their own scenarios.”
There’s some consensus that this isn’t a “there’s only room for one of us in this town” situation, but a sign that this sub-genre is simply in the process of losing that prefix. Competition between companies usually benefits consumers, and The War Z has a lot to live up to. Being built atop a military simulator, DayZ carries a lot of inherent traits that lend itself to survival simulation, and not all of them are easily reproducible. But the other side of that coin is that The War Z isn’t burdened by some of DayZ’s inherent quirks, and seems to benefit from being coded from scratch. It’s offers a few simple antidotes to some of DayZ’s issues, like confusing inventory management, inaccessible weapon handling, and rigid animations.
It’s also favoring accessibility more than DayZ. The War Z does have permadeath--if you die, you lose that character and their items forever--but only if you’re playing with a Hardcore mode character. Normal mode simply temporarily locks your ability to play that character for 24 hours and removes any items they were carrying. Likewise, you can get a leg up on a new character by spending in-game currency that persists across all characters, so it’s easier to recover from a death.
A stamina mechanic is one of the small-but-significant differences separating The War Z from DayZ. You can’t run forever, but the undead can—sprinting into a town while out of breath might be all it takes to doom you.
The focus on accessibility extends to gameplay itself, where weapon behavior is more akin to games like Battlefield 3 . An assault rifle or a pistol handles with the lightness and responsiveness you’d expect in an ordinary multiplayer FPS. You’ll still have to keep noise in mind when firing—letting loose with a sniper rifle will make you awfully popular in your part of the map. There are also small but significant difference between DayZ and The War Z in player movement. You can crouch and go prone in both games, but The War Z has a jump button. But more realistically, you can’t sprint infinitely in The War Z—running depletes a stamina meter that recharges over time, so you’ll want to conserve your sprinting until you really need it.
The War Z also features a few imaginative zombie types. “Sleeper” zombies deceptively lie dormant on the ground, but rise if they notice you nearby. The developers have also promised a rare “stem cell-carrying” zombie that only appears at night. “Visually they’ll look very different from other infected, they’re much more aggressive, fast and agile. They’re rare, they hunt only at night, so the best place to find them will be larger cities at night time,” says Titov. Killing one of these superzombies will yield stem cells, which are kind of a special currency within The War Z that can also be used to create a vaccine. Hammerpoint hopes that the relative difficulty of bagging one of these zombies will inspire some creative teamwork and competition among players.
Nighttime in The War Z is inherently dangerous. Flares, chemlights, and flashlights will help you find your way around, but any light sources will inevitably draw attention from other players.
These corpses lurk in a world about 160km² in size—about 70 percent the size of Chernarus in DayZ. Encouragingly, Hammerpoint has said that anyone who buys The War Z will receive additional maps that are released. The game’s stock map is inspired by Colorado, a rocky wilderness pocked with outposts, lakes, and small towns.
Click the next page to read about "No More Room in Hell"
Expect at least half of your team to die
Unlike The War Z and DayZ, No More Room In Hell doesn’t fit into the newly-born “outdoor survival game” category. It’s fairer to call it an advanced, hardcore take on conventional cooperative zombie games like Left 4 Dead. In development for a decade before releasing over a year ago, the Source engine mod was selected through Steam Greenlight to release as a full, free game on Steam, but you can play it now by downloading it from www.nomoreroominhell.com .
What NMRiH shares in common with DayZ (other than an awkward name) is the unapologetic way that it throws you into a brutal post-apocalyptic scenario with almost no instruction. You’re fragile. Bullets are scarce. And zombies will infinitely spawn until you complete the map’s tough (and partially randomized) objectives, like switching on generators or finding the keycode that unlocks a door. NMRiH’s unforgiving approach to zombie co-op practically guarantees that a few of your teammates will need to die as you trudge from your spawn area to the end of the level. Your eight-person survivor group is twice the size of Left 4 Dead’s, and a given round typically sees your team whittled down as players inevitably get separated, surrounded, and eaten.
Though it resembles Left 4 Dead, what No More Room In Hell shares in common with DayZ and The War Z is that it often makes fleeing from and avoiding the undead preferable to fighting them.
Most of NMRiH’s zombies are of the slow, vintage variety. They’re easy to evade, but much more durable in combat, so the danger arises from their numbers and players’ modest agility. You can only sprint for a brief period of time, so wandering into a cluttered garage with a single exit, for example, is sometimes all it takes to doom you. A handful of speedier zombies jog after survivors (some of which—harrowingly—are children), but NMRiH otherwise lacks any undead with special abilities like leaping, acid-spitting, or tongue-lassoing. This gives the game a more grounded feeling; the molasses-speed creep of the horde gives you room to react, but the absence of a revival mechanic and the relative weakness of weapons has a way of turning small mistakes into permanent death.
Also refreshing is NMRiH’s emphasis on immersion. Like DayZ, the volume of voice communication is based on distance, meaning a far-off teammates’ cries for help may go completely unnoticed. The game also doesn’t place any interface, crosshairs, or HUD on the screen by default, and all of its maps are pocked with corners that are absolutely saturated with opaque, impermeable darkness. A small antidote to this is the flashlight. It mercifully doesn’t require fresh batteries, but just as you’d expect in real life, you can’t hold it and swing a sledgehammer or operate an M16 simultaneously. This design makes the seemingly banal role of “flashlight holder” a vital role for guiding teams through unlit corridors—being the guy responsible for shining the light on enemies while your teammates whack away with shovels or chainsaws is genuinely helpful.
The melee weapons themselves take a lot of finesse to operate. Most of them swing slowly (and with a wind-up animation much lengthier than Left 4 Dead’s), meaning they’re nowhere near the weedwackers you wield in Valve’s co-op zombie game. And despite their decomposing state, the undead are durable, taking multiple hits to bring down unless you skillfully connect with their skull. A typical hand-to-hand fight is a tense tango of bobbing and weaving, angling to position yourself to just the right distance where your axe or machete can clobber a zombie but the zombie can’t hit you. This limited room for error makes individual zombie kills feel like a heroic effort.
Zombies spawn endlessly in No More Room In Hell; this isn’t a game that’s afraid to overwhelm you with enemies. Some maps stack dozens of zombies directly outside the spawn room, only giving you a handful of bullets and melee weapons to deal with them.
Firearms are also handled with a modicum more realism than Left 4 Dead. They’re scarce, and pistols don’t have infinite ammo—when you pick one up, it might have a meager six or seven shots waiting for you in the magazine. More, they’re tough to aim: shots that look like a sure thing through ironsights won’t always produce a kill. And like DayZ, most guns have a discrete ammunition type —you might find handgun ammo, but if it’s .45 ACP and the only pistol you have is the 9mm Beretta M9, it’s not going to help you.
Appropriately enough, a lot of NMRiH’s scares arise from the lack of room in its levels. Structurally, they resemble Left 4 Dead’s meandering, point-to-point sprints, but because aggressive collision detection between zombies and even other teammates means that it only takes a few zombies to block a doorway. About a half-dozen maps, with the community and the development team filling in more.
“Behind you!” The snail-speed crawl of zombies in NMRiH makes room for communication and decision-making in a way that isn’t present in most zombie-themed shooters.
My favorite, called Cabin, begins with a leap of faith. You spawn in a secure attic, and begin by combing dark corners for melee weapons, flashlights, and whatever you can find. But to start the level, you have to drop straight through a hole in the ceiling—a one-way trip that usually makes the first survivor in instantly popular . My usual tactic is to have this leading player lure zombies away from the entrance so the rest of the team can safely descend. They usually get beat up in the process, but it’s preferable to throwing everyone into a crowded, panicked melee.
A final twist on all this layered brutality is NMRiH’s infection mechanic. Zombies will occasionally grapple you, and if you or a teammate is unable to shake them loose, you’ll get bitten. You know what happens next: within minutes, you’ll drop dead, and rise again as an AI-controlled zombie. It’s surprising that the mod is the only zombie game we know of to model this classic horror trope.
NMRiH is a stand-out take on zombie survival, and the scariest multiplayer game I’ve ever played. Unlike Left 4 Dead, trying to kill every zombie you meet is the surest way to have your human card revoked.
Click the next page to read about the five most important zombie games.
OVER THREE DECADES, THESE TITLES HAVE SHAPED (OR WILL SHAPE) THE ZOMBIE GENRE AS WE KNOW IT
1984 (on ZX Spectrum), Spaceman Ltd.
One of the first games to feature zombies as its subject. Zombie Zombie had a very indirect way of dealing with the undead: You had to lure zombies up to tall buildings and then trick them into falling off to their doom. Coincidentally, it was one of the first games to use two-channel sound.
2007 (on PC), Capcom
The RE4 PC port was particularly bad, but the game still stands as the best “actionization” of the zombie genre. Japanese difficulty, boss design, and pacing tempered by Western playability and an over-the-shoulder camera spawned hordes of imitators. Weapon customization lent meaningful progression to the dozens of brushes with undead creatures.
The reigning champ in zombie co-op, L4D’s mildly forking level design and “zombie director AI” combined to create movie-like campaigns that wickedly and dynamically threw threats at your survivor group as you progressed through each chapter. Another L4D innovation, asymmetrical multiplayer, has been copied in games such as Dead Space 2 .
2012, Telltale Games
Telltale’s adventure spin-off of the Robert Kirkman comic book series has taken a novellike, “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” approach to the genre. Though it’s modest on interaction, choices you make—from whom to rescue to which friend should get a candy bar—affect the content of future episodes. The five-episode series has already been renewed for a sequel.
2013, DoubleBear Productions
Zombie shooters have been done to death; Dead State is a turn-based RPG. Described as Fallout-meets-The Walking Dead, it’s being helmed by Vampire: The Masquerade writer/ designer Brian Mitsoda. You play as the leader of a group of survivors that’ve holed up in a Texas elementary school. The game earned $332,635 on Kickstarter in July 2012.
Click the next page to read about the five most incredible custom Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns.
L4D2 MAY LACK REALISM, BUT IT’S STILL THE BEST ZOMBIE-THEMED ACTION GAME AVAILABLE. THE MODDING COMMUNITY HAS CREATED HUNDREDS OF FANTASTIC CUSTOM CAMPAIGNS THAT ARE A CINCH TO INSTALL
Fight your way through a white-walled, underground, secret research facility filled with traps (like a ceiling that drops cars on you) and endless tricks. Almost Portal-like in its devious cleverness, Questionable Ethics is the work of a Korean modder. Play the sequel after you’re done.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ iconic castle siege is reproduced here with almost 1:1 authenticity, with the exception of L4D’s menagerie of uglies swapped in for Uruk-hai. This multistage survival map has you meat-grinding through hundreds of zombies, climaxing in a defense of—and then escape from—the throne room. Nonstop violence and calamity.