As we eagerly await Left 4 Dead's release next week, it might be useful to look back on the long, storied history of zombie videogames. Actually, it might not be useful, as top ten lists so seldom are, and the history of zombie videogames isn't actually all that long or storied, and we might not be awaiting Left 4 Dead all that eagerly since we'll have Mirror's Edge to keep us happy.
But still, top ten lists are fun, right? This one's about the best zombie videogames ever. Not just the best games with zombies in them, but the ones that create the best, most interesting zombie atmospheres. Or are just really gory.
Hit the jump for the full list.
10. Left 4 Dead
Wait a minute, wait a minute -- Left 4 Dead is so low on the list not because I think it's a bad game, but simply because it's not out yet. As much as I love the demo, and as much fun as I had playing it for an hour with Nick at E3, I can't in good conscience judge a game I haven't fully played yet.
That said, the demo alone has provided me with more thrills and/or chills than the majority of games on this list. Everything, from the awesome Infected animations, to the creepy music and director AI, to the sheer horrible joy of blasting through wave after wave of the running dead while backed up by three of your friends, is just plain goddamn satisfying. Zombie films tend to focus on man's need to cooperate in times of crisis (and their all-too-common inability to do so): what little I've played of Left 4 Dead's cooperative campaign replicates this idea surprisingly well.
Before we had entire games centered around decapitation and dismemberment, any title that allowed players to blow off individual body parts at will garnered far more recognition and respect than it probably deserved (see: Soldier of Fortune).
Enter BrainBread, a perfectly serviceable Half-Life mod made considerably more awesome thanks to its dismemberment mechanics. In a time when stuff like this was the height of visuals, the ability to blow off not just entire heads, but specific parts of heads was simply too awesome to ignore. Even ignoring the head-explodey stuff, BrainBread was a pretty fun cooperative zombie-fightin' game -- sort of like Left 4 Dead, only slower (BrainBread zombies don't run), uglier, and less structured.
8. The Last Stand 2
Flash games are a dime a dozen in this high-octane, low attention span world we live in, so it's usually a surprise when something posted to ArmorGames doesn't suck complete ass.
While simplistic, and having quite possibly the dumbest title in the history of flash games, The Last Stand 2 plays on several of gamers' basest desires: fortifying defenses, finding new weapons, and shooting corpses in the face.
Simple enough to be picked up and played, yet deep enough to carry you through the game's fifteen-minute run time, The Last Stand 2 charges the player with blasting away at the undead during the day, searching for weapons and survivors during the night, and saving up food and supplies in order to make the trip to Union City, a zombie-free haven for the uninfected. Also, the art is great.
7. Survival Crisis Z
Survival Crisis Z aspires to the loftiest of heights that comprise every zombie lover's fantasies: the nonlinear, sandbox zombie epic. Granted, it's hampered by wonky controls and an unfriendly interface, but if you can get past all that, this indie game has more free-roaming zombie goodness than most of the games on this list.
In a zombie-infested wasteland, you must choose to fight for the SWAT or the Rebels, or play both sides against one another. You can progress the plot by taking story missions, or just scavenge for food and ammo while getting into dynamic gunfights with both human factions and the undead. Though the actual story missions aren't that enthralling, you won't care when, after entering a SWAT base to load up on supplies, a horde of the undead breaks through all the windows and doors of the base and you're suddenly forced to defend yourself against the innumerable undead alongside an entire base full of SWAT officers. After every last zombie has been killed and every downed SWAT officer has been looted for their weapons and ammo, you'll realize it: that entire fight was unscripted. That sort of stuff just happens in Survival Crisis Z, and it happens all the time.
Were someone to make an improved, fully 3D version of Survival Crisis Z with better controls, interface, and story, that might well be, in theory, the ultimate zombie apocalypse game.
6. The Typing of the Dead
You can't rightly have a Top Ten list about zombie games and not include The House of the Dead. Though its zombies don't follow any of the Romero rules (they can function even without a head, for instance), The House of the Dead was my first foray into the world of zombie videogames. Its awesomely horrendous voice acting (Suffer, like G did?) and over-the-top gore first introduced me to the joys of dispatching the undead, pistol in hand.
If there's anything more satisfying than killing a zombie with a pistol, however, it's killing a zombie with a keyboard. The Typing of the Dead, the most perplexingly entertaining typing tutor of all time, showed us all that while it's relatively easy to blast a zombie to (un)death, it's much cooler to talk them there.
To this day, I don't understand what it is that makes Typing of the Dead so fun. Is it the way that every single typed letter acts like a bullet, punctuated with the sound of a gunshot as a segment of your enemy's body flies off in a wave of green goop? Is it the fact that you'll kill bad guys by typing out weird-ass sentences like, "No finance charges will be incurred"? I have no idea, but hell if I don't often find myself getting the urge to replay this game every few years.
5. Zombies Ate My Neighbors
A classic, by any definition of the word. Zombies Ate My Neighbors speaks to the eternal human struggle between zombies and squirt guns, between Frankenstein's Monster and a blonde kid wearing 3D glasses.
The premise of Zombies Ate My Neighbors will be intimately familiar to anyone who has played the game, and sound absurdly boring to anyone who hasn't. As you fight your way through the campaign mode (once again, with an optional second player -- zombie games and co-op evidently go hand in hand), you'll have to take out chainsaw-wielding maniacs, werewolves, and zombies while saving the living residents of your neighborhood from the claws of the undead.
Easy to pick up and play, but ridiculously challenging in that "after the halfway point, the designers decided they hate you and made the levels ridiculously difficult because this is the 1990s and it's okay to do that" kind of way, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is, by far, the best zombie-related game on the SNES. And maybe the only one.
4. Cottage of Doom
I just wrote about this game for Indie Nation and can't think of any new ways to promote this awesome indie game, so I'll just quote myself:
Cottage of Doom's most interesting mechanic, by far, is the player's ability to block windows, doors, and entire areas off by moving furniture. Though it sounds like a small thing, there's literally no other zombie game I can think of (heck, maybe no other game, period) which allows you to dynamically barricade certain parts of a house.
In most zombie games, barricading is a binary thing: you either do it, or you don't. In Cottage of Doom, barricading is an integral, strategic part of the game. If you don't keep the right parts of the cottage defended, you'll get overwhelmed quickly. If you don't destroy certain barricades ot get ammo from them, you won't be able to take out the encroaching zombies. If you can't strategize and find a good balance between blasting the undead and maintaining your barricades and doors, you'll be screwed. The barricading system almost makes Cottage of Doom more of a strategy game than an action title. Blasting zombies is fun, of course, but the gunplay never gets any more complicated than "click on this zombie a few times to kill it," while the barricading gameplay has an incredible amount of depth and nuance. I'm not typically one to enjoy thinking in my zombie games, but Cottage of Doom tricked me into loving every minute of strategic, furniture-moving glory. "Strategic, furniture-moving glory" is also the exact wrong phrase to use on your friends if you're trying to get them interested in playing the game.
In most zombie games, barricading is a binary thing: you either do it, or you don't. In Cottage of Doom, barricading is an integral, strategic part of the game. If you don't keep the right parts of the cottage defended, you'll get overwhelmed quickly. If you don't destroy certain barricades ot get ammo from them, you won't be able to take out the encroaching zombies. If you can't strategize and find a good balance between blasting the undead and maintaining your barricades and doors, you'll be screwed.
The barricading system almost makes Cottage of Doom more of a strategy game than an action title. Blasting zombies is fun, of course, but the gunplay never gets any more complicated than "click on this zombie a few times to kill it," while the barricading gameplay has an incredible amount of depth and nuance. I'm not typically one to enjoy thinking in my zombie games, but Cottage of Doom tricked me into loving every minute of strategic, furniture-moving glory.
"Strategic, furniture-moving glory" is also the exact wrong phrase to use on your friends if you're trying to get them interested in playing the game.
3. Urban Dead
It's not the perfect zombie game, by any means, but Urban Dead is the only legitimate zombie MMO in existence, and thus deserves to be recognized. Taking place in a 100 x 100 square grid of buildings, alleys, and parks, Urban Dead is played by over one million people -- partially because the turn system only necessitates ten minutes of actual play every day, and partially because it's a goddamned zombie MMO.
Unfortunately, the game's user-friendliness makes it a less-than-faithful zombie experience (zombies can communicate, be cured of their disease, and can never permanently die), but it's still a hell of a lot of fun to find yourself sprinting across zombie-occupied territory just to get to a safe house and barricade it from within. Despite the fact that everything you will do in Urban Dead is represented solely with text, it remains a remarkably intuitive, addicting, and just plain clever casual MMO. You'll probably stop playing once you max out all your skills, but up to that point you'll be having the time of your (un)life.
2. Resident Evil 4
Series purists, if there even is such a thing where Resident Evil is concerned, might argue that Resident Evil 4 is actually the least zombie-filled game in the entire franchise: the baddies you take out are actually infected with Evil Biological Plague Alien Bug Things (Las Plagas, for short), and exhibit much more intelligence and communication skills than the undead of the previous games.
When one considers how goddamn fun it is to shoot them in the kneecaps and throw incendiary grenades at them, however, the difference is negligible.
If I have to further explain why Resident Evil 4 is such a fun, satisfying zombie game, then you probably haven't played it yet. And you really should.
Because it's fun.
1. Dead Rising
Its detractors complain about the unforgiving difficulty, the lack of save points, and the 48-hour time limit. Those who love it, do so for the exact same reasons.
Even ignoring how awesome it was to have an entire mall to run around in where every single item could be used as a weapon, Dead Rising captured -- like no other zombie game before it -- the terror of being alive in a zombie apocalypse. Dead Rising dabbled not in the subtle unease of the Silent Hill games, nor in the cheap shocks of Resident Evil, but in the legitimate terror of being only a few bloody bites away from dying...permanently.
By refusing to give the player mid-mission checkpoints, and by making the save spots a serious hassle to get to, Dead Rising encouraged the player to cowboy the hell up and enjoy the fear and self-preservation instinct we'd all feel if a zombie were really only a few inches away from grabbing us with his smelly, decrepit arms. Frank West spends most of the game's running time with the undead literally arm's length away from him, so the ability to use umbrellas, potted plants, and toy lightsabers to kill the hell out of them becomes even more natural and satisfying.
One moment, you'll be absolutely terrified of being eaten alive; the next, you'llbe laughing your ass off after you take down fifteen zombies with one well-aimed kick of a soccer ball. It may not have the greatest story in the world, and the human pathfinding AI may suck, but tonally, Dead Rising feels like a wonderful B-movie: tense and scary, yet corny and hilarious.
Its nonlinear structure and its stylish, unapologetic design choices make Dead Rising the best zombie game yet made.
That is, until Left 4 Dead comes out.