This is quite a treat: stylishly presented and every bit as cinematic as the blurb promises it to be. The Introduction lays out what's there and includes a remarkable 'Summary for Experienced Roleplayers' that almost provides enough for you to get a game going without troubling to read the rest of the book - it's possibly worth keeping to hand for potential players although the GM at least had better read all the way through before you start playing.
Act 2: Setting Creation then looks at creating the environment that is shortly to be overrun by undead looking for a few tasty brains. It flips through a range of settings and time periods that you might choose, ranging from the familiar ones of the contemporary world or a post-apocalyptic future to unusual things like the Stone Age (ah, so that's what happened to the Neanderthals!) and other historical and science fiction concepts. Then you need to decide how bad your zombie outbreak is, from 'just started' to a full-blown apocalypse where scattered remnants of humanity are well-nigh overrun by the undead. Next, what's the vector? Or in other words, what caused zombies to arise in the first place and how do they transmit their curse to other humans. Both of these might be unknown or just guessed at, while if zombies have been around for a while the second at least has probably been figured out. Another thing that has to be determined is: what actually kills a zombie (for good, that is)? Finding this out may be an objective of your game, but the GM at least needs to have some idea. Once all these things have been decided, by the GM or in collaboration with the players, things like locations and situations can be worked out to provide the setting for each episode of actual play.
Next comes Act 3: Human Creation. This provides the necessary information to set up human characters. The details you need to determine are focussed on how well you are going to cope with the situation based around six attributes: control, fight, flee, hide, repair and scrounge... all useful survival characteristics. Each is assigned two numbers. The first is the target number that you have to exceed on a D20 roll to succeed in whatever you are trying to do. The second is quite novel - called the breaking point, it is higher than your target number and if you roll over the breaking point you succeed at your task but are likely to go a bit crazy as well! Dealing with zombies is stressful, after all! Starting with a target of 12 and a breaking point of 18 for all attributes, you can then adjust them to give your character strengths and weaknesses, just like real people do. Characters are rounded out with talents, serendipities and setbacks. These last two are chance events that will happen once during the episode either to your advantage or to your detriment. Motivations, backstory and some equipment and you are ready to face the zombie hordes, or at least as ready as you'll ever be.
And then we come to the other side, Act 4: Zombie Creation. A core suggestion is that players start out playing humans and then when they succumb to whatever is causing the zombie plague, the player then creates a zombie character and does their best to eat their former colleagues' brains. The zombie won't necessarily be the recently deceased character, and is likely to be a target for whatever the others can bring to bear, so it is suggested that you create three 'looks' for different zombies. Each will again need his six attributes which for zombies are chase, kill, notice and think. (Huh? They said six, then gave four.) Zombies have serendipities and setbacks, the number being determined by how badly decomposed they are. This vital statistic is classified as fresh, fetid, rotting or falling apart. Just as humans have talents, zombies have capabilities.
Now characters are sorted, Act 5: General Rules covers everything else you need to know to play the game. This covers using attributes and talents (or capabilities) to accomplish tasks or in opposed checks when conflict arises... and what happens when a character reaches breaking point. Appropriately for a cinematic game, it's all quick and straightforward to resolve. There is also a nifty karma system which in general ensures a level playing field: any time you use a serendipity against someone, you have to spend a karma point... and it is given to your intended victim! For those who feel being chased by zombies lacks that competitive edge, there is a scoring system to determine which player (not character) has 'won' the game: but some people may find that this detracts from role-playing, a basically collaborative exercise, so this is optional and it is suggested only to be used in lighthearted games when everyone is in agreement. Act 6: Combat Rules continues the discussion with the specifically combat-related game mechanics.
Next, Act 7: Equipment covers the items characters can find and use during the game. The focus is on items you'll have to roll to use, so weapons feature heavily as well as things you can use to support other attributes such as control or repair. Indeed, the lists are classified by attribute, a novel approach, but demonstrating clearly the sort of things you can do and what will aid you in doing them.
Act 8: Gamemasters' Section describes the role of the GM and runs through what needs to be done to run a game. Whilst much would be familiar to experienced GMs, there's enough here to let a novice approach the task with some confidence, at least as far as running a zombie game goes... the concepts are straightforward to grasp, after all. Still, there's a fair bit to cover from using character motivations to effect to deciding what is available to be scrounged; as well as minor details like how zombies infect their prey and how to handle it within the game. A neat suggestion here is to make the process quite slow, and to encourage infected human characters to conceal the process from their companions... The use of notepassing to inform players of how well their character is (covering a whole lot more than turning into a zombie, of course) is encouraged both to enhance role-play and to increase paranoia! Further notes on handling 'zombie characters' are interesting too, discussing how to involve them in controlling the mindless hordes - let's face it, playing a zombie may get a bit dull for most role-players. The chapter rounds out with ideas for plot elements other than zombies and ways for the GM to stay on top of the game.
Finally, there's a full-blown scenario to get your teeth into, Finding Mr FEMA. It's specifically designed to teach the game to new players, and even includes pre-generated characters if you want to dive straight in, but still manages to introduce a lot more than mere zombie-bashing. Everything is presented clearly and will serve as an introduction to the game for new GMs as well as new players, if required; while the action moves through classic zombie settings such as a shopping mall and a sports arena. If you like cinematic zombies (why else are you here?) this should prove enjoyable.
Appendices cover terminology, inspiration and blank sheets for human and zombie characters. Presentation is of a consistent high standard with only one or two errors that have slipped through proofreading, whilst the illustration is evocative and sets the scene well.
So, if you are in mind for some cinematic zombie fun, get this and round up some friends... and bring the living dead to a tabletop near you!
[5 of 5 Stars!]