The new Tencent mobile game Undawn looks massive

We got an exclusive first look at Undawn, a new zombie MMORPG from Tencent, and it looks far bigger than you’re average mobile game fare.

Undawn first impressions - a man with a machete and woman with a bow and arrow take on a giant grizzly bear in front of faraway derelict buildings on some grass.

We got a chance to sit down with an early build of Undawn, a new zombie game from Tencent with survival, MMO, and role-playing elements, and we came back quite surprised. It’s big and a little clunky at this stage, but if it all gets ironed out, it’s got a lot more to offer than first impressions may suggest.

My first impression from the teaser trailer two whole years ago was ‘oh, this is a zombie co-op shooter.’ It’s a mobile game – these things don’t normally overflow with systems. Yet, within two minutes of sitting down to hear about the game, that presumption flew out the window.

First off, is the survival aspect. You need to eat, sleep, defecate, wash yourself and your clothes, stay warm when it’s cold and stay cool when it’s warm – the survival elements touch on every aspect.

Then there are the building elements. You can construct your own little space and collect materials to craft different objects, but this aspect feels more The Sims than Rust (which to me is a good thing). You get sofas, different clothes, and a level of luxury that belies a zombie apocalypse.

Undawn first impressions - silhouetted zombies walking through a misty derelict street with low buildings and a large, leafless tree.

This isn’t even the end of it – there’s a really deep character creator, a massive 10x10km map, Assassin’s Creed-esque towers to reveal sections of the map, Far Cry-ish encampments to fight through, characters to save and bring back to camp, multiplayer modes, and a single-player campaign to follow. It all sounds like a bit much, right? Well, whether it’s too much or not remains to be seen. But the sheer ambition comes as a large surprise.

In the early-build demo we got a look at, the surprises kept coming. The introductory section introduces you to various mechanics, like repairing and refuelling your motorbike, healing yourself, stocking up on ammo, and a handful of other things classic in a survival game.

You then head off to a nearby settlement. You meet different characters who talk you through things, dip your toe in a few more mechanics, before heading off to clear a section of the map. And the funniest feeling for me was how retro it all felt – retro in a good way.

Undawn first impressions - an overhead shot of a suburban street with high fences and pines next to sun-parched grass.

As I watched the demo, there were loud echoes of Rage or Dragon’s Dogma in my mind – not in terms of aesthetics or gameplay per se, but definitely in the way the game introduces itself. This feels like Xbox 360-era game design, and that’s a wonderful thing to see nowadays.

On a gameplay level, things feel straightforward. You control your character from a third-person perspective, wield guns and melee weapons to take down zombies, keep your health up and scavenge for goodies.

How it all plays on a touchscreen is hard to say – I didn’t get to touch the thing. There sure are a lot of buttons on the screen, something that’s bound to feel cluttered on a mobile instead of a tablet. Tencent is working on controller support but there’s news on when it will be added, you may need to be a proper mobile aficionado to feel comfy.

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These unknowns shouldn’t be around for too long, however. You can check out the closed beta trailer above – for US and Japan only – and give it a go for yourself if you can get in. But the unknowns still definitely temper my expectations.

For example, the two-pronged multiplayer approach – no-friendly-fire hanging out in the world map on one prong, specific multiplayer game modes in a separate space on the other – still has so many questions around it. How deep can alliances and rivalries go with no friendly fire? How the competitive multiplayer interacts with the main game will be interesting.

There’s also the monetisation question – something that’s integrated into the player customisation and base building, but it’s also still up in the air. Who knows whether it’ll go too far, pushing into pay-to-win territory. That’s just the risk with any free-to-play games.

Undawn first impressions - a woman running towards a man running out of an explosion at the front of a giant military gate just opening, surrounded by cars, traffic cones, and other street detritus.

Still, these echoes of Xbox 360 titles get me more excited than anything else, and the unknowns will disappear as and when. Oh, and graphically, it’s mightily impressive. Even with the early build’s expected issues, it’s very pretty. While we don’t know exactly how it’ll be in its final version, if you’re looking for something big and deep on mobile, Undawn could be it.

For more stuff to play, check out our guide to the best mobile games, or you could check out the best portable gaming consoles on the market today.