A true zombie-survival enthusiast's dream game.
Zombies are invading video games at an exponential rate these days. No longer restricted to the realm of cheesy B-grade horror flicks, the undead hordes are now mainstream and are, in all honesty, getting a bit out of hand, shambling into every second film, FPS or open-world title like... well, a plague. And now, they just aren’t as scary.
Thankfully, State of Decay isn’t your average zombie game. It puts those undead bastards to work to re-create the tense, suspenseful survival-horror gameplay we originally associated flesh-eating walking corpses with. The end result is an ambitious, content-packed Xbox Live Arcade game you can pay and play for just 1600MSP ($20) — though a little trick is required for us poor Aussies to get it.
State of Decay consolidates all that is great about the zombie apocalypse scenario and offers survival nuts everything they secretly dream of — gathering supplies, building a fort, establishing a community, culling the hordes with smarts and generally conquering Armageddon — and backs its ambitious ideas up with dynamic choices, actual consequences and solid gameplay mechanics, all with a surprising amount of depth.
It’s a shame, then, that the game is slightly let down by technical problems. It’s even more of a shame (and a joke) that our country’s classification board has opted to refuse classification for what is the XBLA game to own this year for in-game drug references, delaying its release. Quick, hand me the bong to get over this unnecessary BS.
State of Decay immediately throws players into the deep-end as Marcus, a store-clerk and experienced outdoorsman who finds himself returning to a small town engulfed by chaos after a hiking trip with his friend, Ed. The two stumble upon an off-duty military survivor, Maya, and witness the massacre of several others.
The trio eventually find refuge with another group of survivors at the town’s church, who have built a base and survived through a mess that doesn’t seem any closer to ending. It is here you’re introduced to the central theme of the game: never let your guard down.
Switching between Marcus and Maya in the beginning (and any other able-bodied survivor who you raise to friend status) via third-person perspective, players are tasked to manage and fortify a survivor community, scavenge a myriad of necessary supplies — ammo, construction tools, food, fuel, and medicine — and deal with the ever-increasing amount of threats and problems which can bring down the community.
And that’s just the problems associated with the human element.
Zombies in State of Decay are not drastically frightening or different in their traditional depictions. It's how you engage them which makes the experience so tense and exciting. This isn’t Dead Island or Left 4 Dead where you can mow or chop hordes down with little effort: sure, one or two zeds are easy enough to bash to death, but if a group rushes you, run your ass off and live to fight another day.
The zombies are an actual challenge, and therefore a threat. When you triumph over their superior numbers and nasty bite, it's immensely satisfying, more so than killing hundreds in Dead Island by yourself. It's also just as crushing when they overwhelm you — which may happen a lot.
It is here you’re introduced to the central theme of the game: never let your guard down."
Why? In State of Decay, you aren’t a bad-ass zombie killer — at least, not until you train and level up. You’re a real person, a survivor stuck in a big mess who needs to think about every decision carefully, especially considering there’s only one save file and you can’t be cheap and reload a checkpoint. The game remembers every action: player character death is permanent, so if you die out there, say goodbye to that character's story. If you don’t have any other survivors to switch perspective to, it’s game over.
You can shoot that zombie for a faster kill or drive to get places faster, but be prepared to attract a horde to the noise and waste valuable resources. You can also avoid the hordes rather than fight, but if you don’t cull enough of them over time, it can cause real problems in the future. Getting caught off-guard by more than two or three zombies is a recipe for disaster, with no second chances.
The same problems apply within the survivor community. You need to constantly make sure all supplies are well-stocked via consistent scavenging, make sure morale remains high with fellow survivors by paying attention to their needs, and micro-manage your multiple playable characters to ensure they’re well-rested and not overused. Characters get fatigued, and you'll learn your cardio meter is everything in this game, even more important than health. Running and carrying supplies back to base sucks the energy out of your guys, so be wary and either raise your stats or switch survivors.
You'll also need to fortify your base and upgrade its areas for more efficiency —more beds equals more rest, a better medical bay equals more people available for labour, a training areas equals tougher fighters, etc — to level up your playable survivors and ensure the NPCs at home-base are beefed up for defending your home.
Most missions will be randomised depending on your immediate needs after the initial introductory hours. If you don't attend to them, or if you don't have enough Influence — a meter which measures your level of control as leader, gained via missions and contributing supplies — your mini-society will collapse quickly.
Expansion is eventually necessary via the main storyline and general gameplay. You'll be hard-pressed to establish outposts and other bases all around the sizable open-world while maintaining your HQ once the immediate area starts to get scarce on resources. Scout out bases with formidable walls or other natural barriers to maximise your chances of survival and allow your guys time to train up and truly become zombie-hunters.
State of Decay makes what seems a mundane task such as hauling your backpack back to camp or driving fellow survivors around the neighbourhood to scout base locations a constantly engaging experience. Depending on the survivor you use, different dialogue triggers and changes will be apparent during the mission, increasing potential replay-ability.
Melee combat is the most effective way of dispatching ghouls. You'll find a variety of home-made, make-shift blunt and edged weapons to bash skulls in with, and sneaking up on one or two zombies with a one-hit kill sneak move is the safest way to move forward. Guns are devastatingly powerful, as they should be, but ammo is scarce — sometimes not because the game-world doesn't have enough, but because leaving plenty back home increases your Influence, and taking too much for scavenge runs lowers it. This adds another tactical element to managing your community and leadership within it.
Perhaps one of the best features of the game is how it keeps going even after you switch it off. You’ll find the dynamic world has moved on in your absence, and upon returning, if you left your survivors with low morale, zero barricades or not enough resources, the game will update you on how they fared. Be prepared to deal with utter disaster if you neglected your homies.
It's impossible to detail every mechanic and option available to you because there's just so much to discover out there, and that's what makes the game so epic: it's the ultimate zombie-survival-management title we've been waiting for, if a little rough around the edges in its technical aspects.
This isn’t Dead Island or Left 4 Dead where you can mow or chop hordes down with little effort: sure, one or two zeds are easy enough to bash to death, but if a group rushes you, run your ass off and live to fight another day.
There is also a story located within State of Decay and for an Xbox Live Arcade game, it's great to see the narrative and quality of voice-acting was paid so much attention to, even with the focus being on the survival-management mechanics. Starting protagonists Marcus and Maya are interesting characters you can relate to with their own quirks and motivations, and playing as them and aiding their ascension to reluctant but natural leaders is enjoyable.
There are several other fixed and randomised survivors you take control of along the way, and you can choose to play the story as them. Or you can even miss out on their individual contributions if they fall prey to death, making every potential playthrough unique.
What hampers the addictive survival-management gameplay is a jittery game engine and some visual stumbles. I experienced a terrible frame-rate in areas with more than a few zombies and some clipping issues. Melee combat can also be a bit jarring, but bashing and blasting zombie skulls is just so satisfying, you'll hardly notice. The character models, lip-syncing and environment are also not as detailed as your average game, but considering the size of the game-world, the deep mechanics, and the fact that it's an XBLA title, Undead Labs should still be commended.
As the game chugged on and the depth of its mechanics opened up, these graphical and technical issues became less evident, if only because I was more focused on outrunning my possible death. The only slight disappointment I had was my anticipation to fight against other, hostile survivors (gathered from hours of mistrusting our bastard species in The Last of Us), but alas: State of Decay focuses on, for now, human on zombie violence.
The Final Verdict
State of Decay is the ultimate zombie-survival package. It's ambitious and immersive, the gameplay mechanics are deep and the choices you make dynamic, and its game world expansive and reactive, replicating the zombie-apocalypse survival in a remote small-town region perfectly, tailoring your group's fate to your choices, successes and failures.
While the game engine suffers from bugs, the solid and addictive gameplay more than makes up for it. Undead Labs are using their game to test the waters for a bigger, better zombie-survival MMO, and after playing State of Decay, I can't wait to see what's ahead.