There's a type of zombie in Techland's recent Dying Light called the Demolisher. I came across one of them laying into a group of survivors in an open courtyard, and it wasn't exactly a fair fight. It was ten-feet tall and had muscles even the Hulk would check out in the gym. It must've been a riot officer in a previous life: the survivors' attacks just seemed to bounce off the creature's helmet and remaining armour. I could see how it got its name.
The Demolisher made short work of the others and quickly turned its attention to me. Thankfully, I had my trusty police rifle. Sadly, I knew the irony would be lost on this monster as it charged towards me. Dodging around, I fired into it, eventually breaking through some of its armour. But then I ran out of ammo. And while I was fumbling around trying to switch to another weapon, it charged into me and knocked me to the ground.
I had three choices. One: get up and continue the fight with a melee weapon. Risky, but it might be worth the reward. Two: flee with my tail between my legs. Avoidance is pretty much always an option in Dying Light. Three: turn the whole situation into an elaborate metaphor for zombie video games.
Much like my new Demolisher friend, zombie games are tough to get rid of. In the last couple of years there have been plenty of high-profile releases featuring the shuffling (or, some of the time, sprinting) undead, such as Dying Light, Dead Rising 3 and a few adaptations of The Walking Dead. There are several zombie survival games like DayZ and H1Z1 on Steam's Early Access. We've had a remaster of Resident Evil, and Dead Island 2 is coming soon.
That sounds like a lot, right? Well, I'm here to tell you that it's not such a bad thing. There has been some reaction to the never-ending tide of the undead, and I understand where it's coming from, because I used to be on that side of things. "Oh great, another zombie game has been announced," I thought to myself every few months; "why can't we just kill them all off?"
Well, you can't kill what's already dead, so the zombies just keep coming, and like the viruses that often cause the infected to turn, they keep spreading. They've become so prevalent that zombie games have effectively become their own genre – and when I realised that was when I switched sides. Zombies aren't just stale antagonists in the survival horror or shooter genres anymore – they have become their own thing. I didn't get mad when Yet Another FPS™ got announced, so why should I get worked up about another title featuring armies of the undead?
'Dying Light', launch trailer
Everyone has the same options with today's zombie games as I did with the Demolisher. You can either pick up your plank of wood with a nail in it and dive into the action, or you can keep your distance and not engage. If you're in the latter group, that's fine, I don't blame you. Just don't ruin the blood-splattering fun for the rest of us, yeah?
Barring the obvious similarities of the main enemies, zombie video games aren't as samey as they first appear. In the mid-2000s, critics said that the shooter genre had become stale. Then in 2007, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out and revolutionised multiplayer action, paving the way for years to come. The high lasted for about five years or so before the same questions were being raised again. "Okay, we get it. What's next?"
High mobility was next, taking a step back towards the fast-paced arena shooters of the 1990s. Games such as Quake and Unreal Tournament worked great with a mouse and keyboard, but the console market needed to slow things down a bit for the controllers. However, as technology and control systems have progressed, Titanfall and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare have added boost jets and free running to their repertoires. There are still loads of shooters, but there is quite a lot of diversity to be found.
The same thing has happened with the zombie genre. For the most part, the settings were dark and dreary. Scary enemies had to be backed up by a scary location, right? Dead Island flipped that idea on its head by having the best portion of the game take place in a sunny beach resort. Has the free running of Dying Light created a revolution for zombies that future games will try and emulate? Only time will tell. My guess is that, at the very least, the structures in zombie games will become more vertical, shying away from the labyrinthine tight corridors of old.
There is, of course, a lot more diversity in the genre than just how to move about, just like how there are way more zombie types than the Demolisher in Dying Light. From Dead Rising to Left 4 Dead, there is, as they say, something for everyone. Yes, there are a lot of zombie games, but that also means there are a lot of good zombie games, and they're not necessarily all alike (although maybe they should stop all having either "Dead" or "Z" in their titles).
Take Telltale's The Walking Dead, for example. If you had told me a few years ago that I would be utterly devastated by the death of certain characters, and that I would actually cry at a piece of zombie fiction, I would've laughed in your face. Narrative has always been something that horror games have had a problem with, and while The Walking Dead is more adventure than horror, Telltale has certainly taken some steps towards remedying that.
So that's if you want to feel. What about if you don't want to feel, and just want to mindlessly distract yourself for a bit? Zombies have you covered for that. The Dead Rising series is all about giving you the tools to go on a rampage through hordes of rotting enemies. Want to make a ridiculous weapon involving a teddy bear and explosives? Go for it.
Neither The Walking Dead nor Dead Rising are particularly scary, and that's what zombies are supposed to be, right? Fear is always around the corner with the likes of Dead Space, though. Okay, they're "Necromorphs", not zombies, but c'mon. A lot of it is simple jump-scares, but they're still frightening. The incongruously gruesome Wii U exclusive ZombiU can also be a pants-soaking experience unless your emotions are utterly dead to being cornered by blood-hungry bastards in the dark.
If you don't fancy taking on the undead alone, you've always got cooperative games like Killing Floor and the "Zombies" mode in Call of Duty. Teaming up with some pals to take on waves of the living dead is way more fun than doing it all by your lonesome. For something completely different, why not try Audio Defence: Zombie Arena? It's a game you can get on the App Store in which you're fighting the usual waves of zombies, but with a twist: you can't see anything. You put on your headphones and listen to where the creatures are coming from. With no visuals and outside noise muffled, you're fully immersed in twisting around to face the sounds to stop yourself from getting eaten. So while a sizeable stack of games feature zombies right now, it's foolish to assume they're all alike.
I ended up killing the Demolisher in the end, by the way. I found loads of money on its corpse. Zombies are big business. Just ask the developers of DayZ, a game in Steam Early Access and not due to be finished for some time yet, but that has already sold over three million copies. A few streets away I found another Demolisher, just like how in a few months there will be another zombie game to play. They're here, amongst us in greater numbers than ever before, and they'll be around for some time yet. But that's okay, because zombies are still pretty cool.