Zombie games are now more popular than ever, and, as the saying goes: “you can never have too much of a good thing”. There’s something about being a stocked-up survivor trying to make it through desolate wastelands of civilisation or a gun-toting undead killer that connects with gamers; you need only look at how many new zombie games come to Steam each week to see just that.
Much like their movie counterparts, however, there is an awful lot of bilge to wade through until you find some walking cadaver fare worth investing your time into. For every Left 4 Dead, there’s an innumerable amount of wannabes, such as The Grinder and Revelations 2012 – the best thing about the latter is that it actually came out in 2012. There’s nothing else there.
So when a truly great zombie game comes around, they’re worth treasuring. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the titles that will make you want to say hello to your aunt Alicia.
Before we start, here are the rules:
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– No modes within games that aren’t primarily about zombies. Sorry, Call of Duty.
– Only one entry per franchise.
– No games still in Early Access, like DayZ or 7 Days to Die.
– The list is in no particular order. Please, please read this bit and don’t just skip through the numbers.
20. Lollipop Chainsaw
Brasher than a group of drunken cockneys with a loudspeaker, Lollipop Chainsaw makes no apologies for what it is: a self-aware, almost demented hack and slash game from the minds of Suda51 and celebrated filmmaker James Gunn. If that doesn’t instantly hook you, I don’t know what will.
Lollipop Chainsaw follows Juliet, a San Romero (ha) High School cheerleader who must fight through waves of zombies. She’s joined by her boyfriend, or what’s left of him. Left as just a head after the zombie outbreak, Nick can be used as a weapon to fend off the hordes. Definitely a case of style over substance, Lollipop Chainsaw is a straightforward adventure that is sure to raise a wry smile.
If you want a quick explanation of what Deadlight is like, imagine This War of Mine but with zombies. A side-scrolling survival game, it shares plenty of style choices with 11 bit studios’ emotionally draining gem and is just as exhausting to play. The zombies and violent survivors keep coming at our hero, Randall, and death is never too far away, so you have to make use of everything you come across in eighties Seattle.
The driving force of Deadlight is its story, which sees Randall on a desperate journey to make it to a safe zone where (he hopes) his family are. Some of the most memorable zombie games aren’t so beloved just because of the viscera flying around the screen and Deadlight is a fine example of that. It has a strong, relatable core that you need to experience if you haven’t yet. It’s available for relative pennies.
18. How to Survive 2
A flawed game, How to Survive 2’s many foibles aren’t enough to stop it from being one of the best of its kind. You’re going to find out if it’s for you within the first fifteen minutes, but if you can stick with it and see past the missteps, you’re in for a treat. It’s even better with friends.
Taking you from the remote island found in the original to the streets of Louisiana, you must, well, survive. A top-down adventurer, How to Survive feels hugely unfair at times, thanks to the almost crippling amount of micro-managing you have to take part in; drinking and eating are almost as important as fending off the dead. But then again, wouldn’t the end of world itself take a bit of getting used to?
17. Stubbs the Zombie
Hands up if you remember this one. Released on the original Xbox but criminally overlooked, Stubbs the Zombie was one of many, many new IPs that never quite found a home on Microsoft’s gigantic black box. It’s a shame, too – Stubbs is one of the most likable protagonists around, even if he does eat brains and only talks about them.
Killed in 1933, Stubbs finds himself brought back to life in the fifties and must feast on human brains to get by. This sets up a wonderful Destroy All Humans-esque game that has you wandering around suburbs and towns on the hunt for your next victim, which might not work as well if it wasn’t for the humour. Stubbs the Zombie is worth seeking out if you didn’t get a chance over ten years ago, but you might have some trouble tracking it down – it isn’t available digitally anywhere.
16. Dead Island
This was never going to live up to the hype, especially as it has arguably the best ever video game trailer. The tone of Dead Island seemed completely different to the one found in its unforgettable and haunting trailer, but the goofier style of the finished product won over plenty of fans nonetheless.
Buggier on launch than ants driving dune buggies through a cinema screening of A Bug’s Life, Dead Island’s interesting world and varied enemies managed to see it through. An open-world first-person game, Dead Island proved to be more of a prototype for a superior game from Techland down the line, but if you want to bash in some undead skulls and collect a lot (a lot) of stuff, you can’t go wrong. It’s available on current-gen consoles along with a standalone expansion, Riptide. A fully-fledged sequel has been in the pipeline for years; don’t ask us where it is, though.
15. Zombi/Zombi U
Doomed from the moment it landed on the Wii U, Zombi U found a second life on PS4, Xbox One, and PC in 2015 while sacrificing its more intuitive gameplay mechanics. Whichever version you play, however, expect to experience one of the most underrated and understated horror games of the last decade.
Set in a London plagued by the undead, you must play through a series of linear missions and try to find a light at the end of the tunnel of, you know, the end of the world. It could have done a lot more with its setting and may have missed a few opportunities to set itself apart from its peers, but Zombi’s unique survivor rotation and intriguing plot will hit the spot if you have love for the zombie subgenre.
14. No More Room In Hell
Here’s a Left 4 Dead “clone” that deserves more love. Rather than imitating Valve’s iconic team shooter, No More Room In Hell slows the tempo right down and somehow manages to ratchet up the tension at the same time. If Left 4 Dead is the Dawn of the Dead remake, No More Room In Hell is the original: rough around the edges but endlessly charming.
Time hasn’t been kind to Matt “Max” Kazan’s Source engine mod that became entirely its own thing, but it’s still a lot of fun with friends. Ammo is scarce, so expect to be squabbling with your teammates as the undead hordes close in. A sequel is in the works and looks quite lovely, upgrading the experience to Unreal Engine 4. Watch out for it in Q3 2017. Have to say that they missed out on an opportunity to call it No More Room In Hell 2 Dead 2 Furious: Electric Boogaloo, though.
13. Dying Light: The Following
Remember the guys behind Dead Island? They returned in 2015 with another zombie adventure that was superior in almost every way and surely one of the most underrated games of this generation. There’s something so primally satisfying about leaping from rooftops and kicking zombies in the face, you know?
If you want the full package, you have to go for Dying Light: The Following – Enhanced Edition. It adds all the DLC and an entirely new map in which you can drive around in a dune buggy and mow down the undead at your leisure. Mix that with cohesive parkour and collectathons that feel important to your progress and Dying Light absolutely delivers one of the better zombie experiences out there.
12. Resident Evil 2
So good that people are impatiently waiting for its remake, Resident Evil 2 didn’t so much tell gamers that the franchise was worth paying attention to as it did thrust it in their faces with some of the most terrifying, atmospheric gameplay available on the fifth generation of video game consoles.
Taking the foundations set by its predecessor and running with them, Resident Evil 2 took players out of the claustrophobic Spencer Mansion and into the open of Raccoon City. It somehow didn’t lose any of the tension in the process, either – Raccoon City was just as alive as it was undead. If you’re going to dip back into this one, you might want to take your nostalgia glasses off. It hasn’t aged tremendously well, but for what it did for the subgenre, it’s absolutely worth trying at least once.
11. Zombies Ate My Neighbors
Back when Konami wasn’t truly awful and LucasArts still made games, the two companies joined forces to release a little game that had a big impact on the industry, even if it wasn’t immediately obvious.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors tasked SNES and Genesis players with dealing with a zombie outbreak in their neighbourhood. Playing as one of two children, it was a barmy shooter that gave you an armoury that even Kevin McCallister would be jealous of. Imagine Home Alone and Dead Rising had a 16-bit baby and you have Zombies Ate My Neighbours. Sadly, it was never a commercial success, but a recent release on Virtual Console saw the praise and adoration pour back in for one of the many gems LucasArts had in their catalog.
10. Left 4 Dead 2
So good they forgot to make a third one, Left 4 Dead 2 isn’t a dramatic departure from its original. In fact, it only really has new maps and a couple of tweaks to mark the pair apart. Those tweaks did a lot to ensure its longevity, however – it’s still one of the most played games on Steam nearly eight years after release.
Heavily focused on co-op, you and three other players must team together to take on the undead in their masses and complete objectives. The zombies, whether they’re sprinting or throwing huge boulders at you, are always a threat, meaning that rationing and being quick on your feet is imperative. It’s a simple game, but one that is hugely effective in what it does. Try to tell me that the sight of a Witch still doesn’t fill you with dread and I will call you a liar.
9. Killing Floor 2
Take Left 4 Dead, turn the metal music up to a million, and crank the B-movie goodness as far as it can go. What do you get? Killing Floor 2, one of the maddest, most exhilarating team shooters around today. Released only last year, it already has itself a very dedicated set of fans, and it’s easy to see why. If you never want to touch another Call of Duty but will miss Zombies, Killing Floor 2 will set you straight.
Secretly an arena shooter, Killing Floor 2 has you staving off the undead in all their shapes and sizes, from the stick thin cadavers with blades for arms or the customary big fat guy that’s a staple of any squad-based game with zombies involved. It’s so to the point that it’s hard to explain what makes it so great, it’s just one of those games that you’re going to have to delve into and find out all about the lunacy for yourself.
8. Dead Rising 2: Off the Record
It was a hard task to decide which Dead Rising belongs on the list. Well, obviously Dead Rising 4 wouldn’t get anywhere near it. Even though I have a soft spot for Dead Rising 3, earlier games in the series perfected the recipe, so they would have to get the nod ahead of Nick’s gloomy adventures.
For marrying the most beloved protagonist of the series with the improved gameplay of the second game, Dead Rising 2: Off the Record has to come out on top. Frank is back in a non-canonical adventure that puts him in the place of Chuck Greene and it really works. As much as the original Dead Rising has achieved for zombie games overall, it’s quite dated. Its pseudo-sequel which comes equipped with ridiculous weapon combinations and Frank West in a dress has to come out on top.
7. State of Decay
Criminally underrated, Undead Lab’s State of Decay is a seriously heady blend of survival gameplay and relationship mechanics. It has its rough edges, but there’s never been a game that feels this close to what living through a zombie apocalypse would actually be like – its sequel looks like it might even somehow be more immersive.
Taking your small sanctuary and building on it before spreading across the map and offering a real chance of salvation for survivors is one of the bright spots in State of Decay. The going is tough and the hits never really stop coming, but with a ragtag group at your disposal, there isn’t much you can’t overcome. Before too long, the stressful dynamics of keeping everyone happy and, most importantly, alive feels far more engaging than any episode of The Walking Dead.
6. Telltale’s The Walking Dead – Season 1
Speak of the devil and apparently he will make you cry tears you never knew you had. Telltale have been producing narrative-driven adventure titles for many years now and seem to be in high demand, but nothing really comes close to telling the same stories or captivating the player as much as the first season of their The Walking Dead adaptation.
Based on the graphic novels and not the AMC series, Telltale’s The Walking Dead may not please those who want to kill endless amounts of zombies, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, The Walking Dead is a concise and essential game driven by themes of family that will chip away at even the most hardened macho gamer veneer. Remember to keep that hair short and lose yourself in the zenith of interactive storytelling.
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5. Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
A standalone DLC for Red Dead Redemption, a game which needs no more adoring words written about it, Undead Nightmare is so good that even if it didn’t have the Red Dead name attached to it, it would probably still make the cut here.
By no means a reskin, Undead Nightmare represented a complete change in mechanics and tone from its bigger brother, resulting in a challenging and surprisingly tense adventure. Ammo is scarce, but the undead certainly aren’t – you have to conserve your ammo wherever possible. Couple that with a sillier, almost knowing mood to John Marston’s zombie travails and you have a winner. Here’s hoping they do something similar for Red Dead Redemption 2.
4. The Last of Us
This is admittedly a bit of a cheat. While Naughty Dog’s somber masterpiece doesn’t technically feature zombies and has infected humans instead, it has many of the hallmarks of the subgenre an– look, okay, it’s magnificent. Let me have this one.
While its gameplay innovates in some areas, The Last of Us hasn’t become so renowned because of the way it plays. It’s because of the story it tells, one that’s basic yet incredibly complex at the same time. The relationship between Joel and Ellie, the game’s protagonists, acts as the catalyst for the player’s immersion and forces them through the congested corridors filled with clickers, runners, and all sorts of gruesome creatures just to see where the pair arrive next. It’s a masterclass in storytelling, showing that you don’t have to write a space opera for people to pay attention.
If The Last of Us 2 can be even half as good as this, it will do okay.
3. Dead Nation
By no means the most mature or accomplished zombie game on this list, Dead Nation claims a deserved place because of one very simple factor. Fun. For all the dark, emotionally manipulative titles that make up the subgenre, sometimes you just need to shoot some zombies lots and lots of times.
And that’s something Dead Nation does with aplomb. A twin-stick shooter that has lots to thank Left 4 Dead for, Housemarque’s zombie genocide simulator hits all the spots for some mindless enjoyment. Lots of weapons? Check. A rarely enemy-free screen? You bet. Explosions that would make the Amish guy from Diary of the Dead quite happy? Oh yes.
2. Organ Trail
There’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of Organ Trail, being that it’s one of the rare and exotic Steam Greenlight success stories that are almost myth. With a stripped back, almost cartoonish art style that belies the density of the game, Organ Trail is as close to an undead hidden gem as you’re likely to get.
You’re going to tell pretty quickly whether or not Organ Trail is for you; roughly about nine seconds. It’s ceaselessly irreverent, not much to look at, and isn’t particularly “deep”, but this callback to the early days of horror gaming has enough personality to make it a must-have. I mean, one of its key selling points is getting dysentery. You wouldn’t see Ubisoft try that. Maybe they should.
1. The House of the Dead
Your local arcade isn’t officially an arcade unless it has a dusty and weathered cabinet of Sega’s classic The House of the Dead somewhere on its floor. The rail shooter is one of the most beloved of its kind and spawned a franchise that’s been strong for over two decades, but for sheer nostalgia and its wonderfully camp tone, the original wins out.
Quite uniquely for an arcade game, The House of the Dead released with a system that relied heavily on player decisions. Choose poorly and you might make your life that much more difficult by it forcing you into difficult confrontations or giving you the bad ending. But let’s be real here, The House of the Dead’s main selling point is the insanity like this below:
Truly the most iconic story every set to a video game.
Originally published May 3rd, 2017