I can't tell if people actually want co-op zombie FPSes anymore

Normally I'd be psyched to learn that legendary filmmaker and noted gamer John Carpenter is making a co-op zombie FPS called Toxic Commando. The trailer, shown during today's Summer Game Fest stream, looks fun and Saber Interactive definitely knows its way around zombie shooters after 2019's World War Z.

Instead, the announcement of another promising zombie co-op FPS has me worried. The Left 4 Dead fan in me wants this kind of game to succeed so badly, but it doesn't seem like zombies (and the zombie-adjacent "infected," evil sludge, or vampiric cohorts) are really doing it for people anymore.

Back in the early 2010s, when The Walking Dead was the most popular show on TV, zombies saturated the entertainment landscape. The undead were rising at an alarming rate on TV and in movies, but arguably their strongest impact was felt on videogames. People insisted that this whole zombie bubble was about to burst, but pretty much the opposite happened.

Earlier, in the '90s and early '00s, zombies were mostly seen as the basis for survival horror games like Resident Evil. It was 2008's Left 4 Dead that solidified zombies as excellent fodder for co-op shooters, drumming up a new subgenre of FPS and launching a cooperative renaissance that spawned Dead Island, State of Decay, Killing Floor, Zombie Army, Vermintide, World War Z, and Dying Light.

It wasn't until the past few years that I started to think that a zombie shooter malaise may have actually replaced that enthusiasm. We spent 10 years begging Valve to make Left 4 Dead 3, overreacting to every flimsy rumor of its existence. When Turtle Rock reemerged with Back 4 Blood, a spiritual successor that outshines the original in many ways, only a fraction of that enthusiasm was there to meet it, and it died down quickly. 

Back 4 Blood

Back 4 Blood (Image credit: Turtle Rock Studios)

B4B did well enough that Turtle Rock stuck a pin in its year of DLC and is moving on to its next thing, but I wonder if they're looking at where co-op shooters are right now and questioning if making another one is a wise move. Warhammer 40,000: Darktide stuck faithfully to the L4D formula and ran into complaints that there weren't enough missions. Overwatch tried to make a replayble co-op mode for years and just gave up. Redfall tried to blend co-op FPSes and immersive sims and... we all know how that went.

Are the zombies the problem, or have tastes changed, and people have simply moved on from the co-op campaign FPS? Maybe it's both.

In the era of service games that have to update frequently and monetize constantly, some studios are struggling to figure out how the L4D-style FPS fits into that puzzle. Two standouts in the genre over the last few years have been Deep Rock Galactic and Remnant: From the Ashes, partly because they went in novel directions—Deep Rock with procedurally generated cave tech, and Remnant with a branching campaign structure that randomizes which bosses you'll face. They're also, notably, not zombie games. 

The one exception is 2019's World War Z, which by all accounts did great for Saber despite being "yet another" co-op zombie shooter. It got an expansion in 2021 that added a melee system and a first-person mode, the fruits of which likely informed Toxic Commando's first-person-exclusive camera. I'm eager to give it a shot, if not to revitalize my love of zombie shooters, then to wash down the awful Redfall taste in my mouth.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.