Project Zomboid artwork of the Spiffo mascot as the main character

"You Should Try" is a series of articles where I showcase a game I really enjoy while explaining what exactly makes it so much fun. This can be any game: new or old, action or strategy, indie or AAA. The only requirement is that it has to be something I've found myself obsessed with and in need of sharing with the world.

Today I think you should try Project Zomboid - in my humble opinion, easily the best zombie survival game ever made. With a tense and immersive atmosphere, a massive world to explore and inevitably ruin, countless hordes of zombies to squabble against, as well as a high degree of customization, Project Zomboid simply has it all! So if you would like to experience a zombie sandbox game without equal, allow me to show you why you should give Project Zomboid a try.

Video version of this article (~13 minutes)

Atmosphere and appeal

The main thing that makes Project Zomboid so good, and why I believe it to be a perfect fit for Halloween, is its tense and crushingly oppressive atmosphere. Project Zomboid might not be scary in the same way a naked clown covered in whipped cream exploding out of your closet would be, but instead it strikes on a far deeper, more primordial level. It instills in you the idea that you're never safe, that no matter what you do you'll never be able to cover every corner and predict every eventuality, and that sooner or later you're going to slip up and end up joining the endless ranks of the dead.

The way Project Zomboid accomplishes this is twofold. The first factor is that its world is eerily empty. Outside of multiplayer there are no other people to talk to, no pets to keep you company, no nothing. It's just you, the zombie hordes wandering across the decaying carcass of a once thriving civilization and way, way too much time to think!

Project Zomboid screenshot of a horde emerging from a foggy parking lot

Welcome to Riverside!

Unsurprisingly, this inevitably leads to paranoia. When you're constantly on edge the random swaying of trees can start to look eerily similar to a zombie breaking through the branches, while the howling of wind down empty streets can sound exactly like the moans of a zombie that's just around the corner, yet somehow always out of sight. Most of the time these little scares will be nothing but a figment of your imagination, yet every so often your worst fears will come to life, thus only further enhancing the tension and the paranoia.

The second reason why Project Zomboid's dreary atmosphere is so effective is the simple fact that your character only has one life. If you die, no matter how bravely or foolishly, that's it! An entire week's worth of gameplay can just disappear in a single mouthful of a rotten hamburger or an overconfident tussle against the living dead. There are real stakes to everything you do, which makes even the most minute of excursions outside your safehouse a stressful affair.

Even as a veteran player that can confidently combat a cluster of zombies, I still frequently find myself frantically searching each area for potential threats as my laxness has burned me many times before. Project Zomboid's world really is a ruthless one, and much like real life all it takes is a single moment, a single lapse of judgment, and you can end up with a massive bite wound right on your groin... not that I would have any experience with that... in either scenario!

Project Zomboid screenshot of a wounded survivor returning home

It's been a rough night...

Interestingly enough, all of this is also why Project Zomboid is so incredibly addictive to play. Sure, losing your character and being set back to zero sucks, but the constant threat of dying also makes every single success feel like a monumental triumph. The simple act of getting your first car, establishing your first base, or even just finding a big backpack feels like a genuine achievement as you had to risk everything in order to succeed.

Also, since you're completely alone in the world and need a whole lot of tools, materials and random knick-knacks in order to survive, there's always something to drag you out on an expedition and get you into interesting situations. You'll only ever run out of things to do once you've survived for a couple of months, but at that point you'll probably be ready to start doing more challenging runs which will greatly shake up the gameplay and make the whole experience fresh again. So as long as you're willing to immerse yourself into the world and your character, Project Zomboid should be able to keep you entertained for a long, long time to come.

Gameplay rundown

When it comes to the actual gameplay, Project Zomboid is probably easiest to describe as a demented game of The Sims. Not only does your character require the usual stuff like food and water to keep going, but you also need to worry about how tired or sleepy they are, about how wounded they are physically and mentally, as well as a bunch of other smaller things like body weight and boredom that, while not super relevant on their own, are all important parts of the greater whole.

Managing these things isn't usually hard, it's just that once things go bad the various maluses can really start to compound each other! Having to escape from hundreds of zombies is a terrible predicament all on its own, but if you start getting exhausted during the chase because you've been sprinting all over town earlier, that situation can rapidly escalate into something rather... unpleasant.

In order to survive these types of nightmare scenarios you'll often have to take some drastic measures which bring with them a great degree of risk, which can then only further complicate things. And so, what once was a simple looting trip can easily turn into a day-long fight for your life that will either see you sent back to the menu screen or laughing with joy once you finally manage to outwit the bozos and return home unharmed!

Project Zomboid screenshot of a van getting away from a zombie horde

The dumber the mistake, the better it feels to get away from it!

This is by far my favorite part of Project Zomboid as misfortune and the ways you overcome it help create a very vivid story for each individual character. They very quickly stop being a collection of stats and perks, and instead become "the guy that killed 300 zombies in a single day because he really wanted to make a pizza" or "the gal that ended her six-month survival streak by attempting to lug hundred kilos of gold across a zombie infested cemetery". And the more you get attached to your characters and their stories the more terrifying it'll feel to lose them, which only makes each encounter with the zombies feel all the more intense and exciting.

It's also worth mentioning that failure in Project Zomboid isn't something you should be sad or angry about. It's the natural state of things, so much so that every single run starts with the rather ominous quote: "This is how you died." So just enjoy the ride, for as long or as brief as it may be!

Project Zomboid screenshot of the "This is how you died" intro screen

Doesn't get more blunt than that!

There is, however, a sizable stepping stone you'll need to overcome before you get to truly enjoy Project Zomboid, and that is the steep learning curve. Between the zombies themselves and the innumerable ways you can accidentally doom yourself, surviving for more than a couple of days as a beginner is about as likely as my characters (or myself for that matter) ignoring a giant tub of ice cream.

On the positive side, once you do get to grips with how Project Zomboid works and how to maneuver through its many obstacles, the sandbox fully opens up and you're able to do whatever you want. You can roleplay an actual person and try to survive for as long as possible, embrace your inner action hero and see how many zombies you can destroy with the contents of an entire police armory, or even attempt to fulfill the dying wish of an art teacher by liberating the Louisville Art Gallery from the zombies and securing the priceless paintings for future generations.

Project Zomboid screenshot of a shotgun blasting zombies

Unsurprisingly, blasting zombies with a shotgun is a ton of fun!

Visuals and audio

Speaking of pictures, this is probably a good time to talk about Project Zomboid's presentation. As you've most likely noticed by now, Project Zomboid's visuals aren't exactly high fidelity, though they are not bad by any stretch. The grainy and somewhat dirty look does a great job of enhancing the depressive atmosphere and really making sure you realize that this is the end of the world as we know it, and that nothing you do will ever change that. So while Project Zomboid might not be the prettiest game around, its somewhat simplistic visuals do serve an important role. All of this does also mean that Project Zomboid's system requirements are fairly low, so unless your PC is practically a museum piece, chances are you're going to be able to run it without an issue!

As for the audio, that is just great all the way through. The moans of the zombies, the sound of their heads splattering as you stomp on them, the barely audible smashing noise somewhere in the distance, and even the way your steps lightly echo as you sneak down the abandoned hallways of the local school - all of it does a great job of building that tense and dreadful atmosphere I keep raving about.

The music is no slouch either. Most of it is, as you might guess, atmospheric tracks to give you something to listen to as you wander around or cook breakfast. There are also a couple of tracks that push themselves to the forefront, and I'm very happy they do because they're all great! My favorite is a track called Overrun that plays when you're being chased by an absurdly large number of zombies as it perfectly encapsulates the sheer panic you and your character are likely to be going through at that moment!

Project Zomboid screenshot of the atmospheric and dreary visuals

It's a simple yet highly effective art style


The final thing worth mentioning, and perhaps the very best thing, is the simple fact that Project Zomboid is highly customizable! If you find yourself unhappy with any specific feature, or if you just want to adjust the difficulty to give yourself a more interesting experience, there's almost guaranteed to be a way to do exactly what you want - either through the in-game sandbox options or through the various community mods.

My personal favorite, and something I would recommend you grab once you're looking for a bit of a challenge, is a mod called Random Zombies that lets you set how many of each type of zombie will spawn in your world. I've found that even a small percentage of sprinters, as low as 2-3%, can thoroughly shake up the gameplay and force you to think up entirely new strategies. It's a great way to freshen up the experience if you ever get too used to fighting the regular shamblers, and the best thing is, it's only one out of thousands of mods out there! 

Project Zomboid screenshot of the sandbox menu

If you want to know true fear, turn every zombie into a super-smart sprinter

Closing thoughts

Despite there being a seemingly unimaginable number of zombie games, Project Zomboid manages to tower over them both in terms of scope and quality. With a massive world to explore, an intense atmosphere and more customization options that I know what to do with, it's really no surprise that I've poured hundreds of hours into Project Zomboid without ever getting bored of it. Smacking zombies over the head with a pan really is just that satisfying!

Most importantly, Project Zomboid is still in development and there's a lot of cool stuff slated to come with the massive Update 42 at some point in the not so distant future. These include a gigantic map expansion, the ability to go both underground and higher in the sky, a complete rework of the crafting system, and even the very first iteration of the new NPC system! So as much of a shining gem as it is now, Project Zomboid's future is looking even brighter!

[Note]: I've also taken the opportunity to create a Beginner's Guide covering the most important strategies and tricks to help you survive Project Zomboid's deadly first week. So if you'd like your time with Project Zomboid to be as nice and pleasant as the zombie apocalypse would allow, I'd welcome you to give it a look.