You can’t take a step on Steam without zombie games clutching at your ankle, wanting your attention. Don’t dismiss the entire genre as a load of brainless clones - some are among the best games to appear on the PC in years.
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We’ve collected together the best zombie games on PC. They range from survival simulation to period Lovecraftian co-op, via a shambling detour through tower defence and post-apocalyptic parkour. By the end, you'll know which to invite into your safehouse and which to axe off at the wrist.
The Walking Dead
Most of what we love about Firewatch today is also true of the template Campo Santo's leads set for The Walking Dead back when they were working at Telltale. A conversation system tied to a timer, inspired by social anxiety. A sense of interpersonal warmth framed by overarching gloom, like a campfire on a cold night. And a tendency to disarm the player with humour and half an hour of respite, before swiping cruelly at the characters we’d come to care about.
Like the best zombie fiction, Telltale’s The Walking Dead isn’t really about the walkers. They’re merely the backdrop for a series of stories about human nature under some serious stress. The key characters here are capable of both great kindnesses and unforgivable evils in the name of protecting their own. The only reassurance is found at the end of each episode, when you get to see what percentage of fellow players made the same terrible compromises as you.
Season One was vital, and the follow-up episodes have moments just as harrowing. Season Three is underway now, and sees Telltale keeping its decaying themes fresh with dual protagonists - an older Clementine and a newcomer named Javier.
Zombie Night Terror
In some takes on zombie fiction the horde isn’t mindless, exactly, but guided in its pursuit for brains by one bigger brain. Here you’re the hivemind, directing the pandemic from behind your keyboard. As developers NoClip argue: “the only way to survive the zombie apocalypse is to BE the apocalypse!”.
For those who found the cause of Lemmings too noble, Zombie Night Terror is a twist of the puzzler’s form. You’re offered a sidelong view of the black-and-white action and an array of ways to influence it, guiding your unthinking charges over the booby traps they’d otherwise fall blindly into.
Pesky humans will pick away at your numbers with buzzsaws, shotguns and repurposed snow trucks - but you can bolster the ranks with a few would-be survivors. What’s more, the undead can be altered into mutated beings that riff on Left 4 Dead - blowing themselves to bits and taking the living with them, or spitting globules of green acid which bubble away in stark contrast to the grey backdrops. This colourless world is just waiting to be covered in bright red blood.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III
Since World at War, Treyarch have always appeared to have more fun with their pulpy, anything-goes Zombies mode than in CoD campaigns proper. That trend remains true for Black Ops III Shadows of Evil, the most polished (and if Jeff Goldblum and Ron Perlman’s presence is anything to go by, expensive) take on a formula that hasn’t rotted yet.
Donning the dresses and trilbies of four anti-heroes (citizens of made-up Morg City in a noirish 1942 that Ken Levine would be proud of), players work together to gather components for a magic ritual - the only way to halt a wave defence Lovecraftian nightmare. There are none of the robots or cyborg super soldiers of Black Ops’ single-player here - but we’ve come a long way from repairing barriers and blowing away familiar shamblers.
There are shades of Left 4 Dead to be found in the shadows of Morg. Close communication is necessary to survive the hordes, and solo play an impossibility. As you topple undead, you’ll earn currency to unlock new areas and more explosive shotguns. All the while you’ll be looking for artifacts, deciphering clues, and occasionally morphing into a tentacular beast with access to dimensions humankind isn’t privy to. Oh! And there’s a neat jazz soundtrack.
Want more? Here's our Call of Duty: Black Ops III review.
Despite an arguable abuse of the concept of Early Access that’s stretching backer patience to breaking point, there’s more than enough to standalone DayZ to remind you why the mod garnered all that goodwill in the first place.
You’ll still endure that nervy survival phase, flitting from greenhouse to gas station in an effort to gather gear and avoid conflict. You’ll still have those Cormac McCarthy moments on the road, scanning a stranger for clues as to their intentions. Once you’re subsisting on soda and scraps, however, you’ll find that new DayZ opens up. That greenhouse can become a proper farming plot, enough to keep you and passing traders alive.
At this stage, banditry is no longer DayZ’s default - there’s potential for trading centres, large-scale farms and stable villages. We’re a few updates away from the post-societal civilised dream, and over the hours the bugs and performance issues can eat away at your enthusiasm like the undead. But DayZ isn’t just a survival sim anymore - it’s a living sim.
Want more? Here's our DayZ review.
Techland built on the runaway - shuffle-away? - success of Dead Island with another open-world zombie game kitted out with customisable melee weapons and four-player co-op. And to begin with they appear to be cut from the same cloth, offering directed, boring busy work for the first hour. But then Dying Light takes that cloth, stuffs it into a bottle, sets it on fire and hurls it from a great height into a pack of the undead.
Like its survivors in a post-outbreak world, Dying Light is a scavenger. Its map icons and diversions are ripped from the Ubisoft formula; the parkour is nicked from Mirror’s Edge. But the clambering informs every other aspect of the game, turning this into an explorative, emergent adventure. For best results, ignore the more repetitive missions and take to the rooftops of Harran, the overrun (fictional) Turkish city built with vertical meandering in mind.
They may have been working with borrowed parts, but Techland put together a formidable undead survival experience in Dying Light.
Want more? Here's our Dying Light review.
Left 4 Dead 2
It’s been six years, but Left 4 Dead 2 always looked economical in that way Valve shooters tend to be, so it’s aged well - despite the lack of your fancy physically-based rendering or global illumination. And it certainly hasn’t been bettered, even with the onset of the Vermintide and two Paydays.
There's an argument to be made that Left 4 Dead lost some of the exquisite balance of its tiny armoury by expanding it for the sequel - filling the world with impromptu melee weapons and special ammo types. But it's an argument soon drowned beneath the racket of the chainsaw or the insistence of the combat shotgun.
While some post-apocalyptic scenarios default to a familiar version of zombie-dom we've long been desensitised to, Left 4 Dead 2 presents a world in which normality is all too recent. Though the cities have emptied out after waves of evacuations, humanity feels close enough to touch thanks to the messages scrawled, crossed-out and rescrawled on the walls of safehouses. There’s a unique warmth here, too: the cultural influence of New Orleans and its environs seeps from the swamps to the streets and into the soundtrack.
Want more? Here's our Left 4 Dead 2 review.
“This is how you died,” Project Zomboid tells you as you walk gingerly into the overrun American countryside for the first time. This is not going to end well, basically. But you can drag out the inevitable quite satisfyingly for some time - eking out an isometric existence through shrewd scavenging, food sourcing and first aid.
The entire map is open and guidance is minimal - only good preparation and a tab open to the Zomboid wiki can save you. Once you’ve established a domestic base, the game becomes a matter of tense smash and grabs, weighing up potential loot against the chance of zombie encounters. Long term, survival means rebuilding rural America - constructing and maintaining farms and adopting a more defensive playstyle.
Where most zombie games are about hitting the dead with something weighty before moving onto heavier artillery, Zomboid is about avoidance - careful management and slowburn strategy.
Speaking of slowburn, The Indie Stone have had this one in open development for nearly half a decade. Don’t be put off by the Early Access tag: this is one of the richest survival games in existence.
State of Decay
Far jankier even than the Early Access games on this list, State of Decay is no technical showcase: even since its Year One Survival Edition, the textures are unimpressive and the bugs frequent. But though it’s frustrating to see the machinery of a game click and whirr in this way, the dependable tick of its systems is precisely what makes State of Decay so compelling.
Playing like an open-world RPG, State of Decay surprises with its permadeath. You’ll pick a protagonist from your community of survivors and take them out into the wild to find the food, fuel or drugs necessary to keep the rest alive. Once they collapse into a bed back home - or under the blows of the undead - you can take control of another character with their own background, personality and combat abilities. Whenever you choose to let another stranger into your growing base, you’re letting in another playable character; another new story to write a middle and an end to. And there are more potential stories on the horizon, if these State of Decay 2 screenshots are anything to go by.
Atom Zombie Smasher
Atom Zombie Smasher is one of very few zombie games that goes for the big picture. It puts you in charge of the city of Nuevo Aires’ defence forces and tasks you with saving as many citizens as you can. From your top-down perspective you’ll call in rescue helicopters, direct sniper teams, and make monstrous sacrifices to achieve your goal.
Your goal for most maps is simple: airvac out as many citizens as possible. You tell your helicopters where to land, place your marine teams, and set up explosives. Then, when you hit the start button, zombies flood in from different entrances around the level. If a zombie reaches a civilian they’re instantly infected, and all too quickly a city block can become swamped with undead.
Sometimes, you have to cut your losses. Every time you put up a game-saving blockade, you’re inevitably trapping some of your charges on the wrong side. The distanced perspective, which casts yellow dots as civvies and pink ones as zombs, encourages distanced utilitarianism. You’re not Francis, Bill, Zoey or Louis this time - you’re the military dropping bombs on their heads.
That’s all where the games about rotting people are concerned. Let us know your thoughts on our choices in the comments.