You may think Minecraft is the most successful XBLA title ever released, and that’s probably true, but Undead Labs’ debut title, State of Decay, is giving Mojang’s blocky phenomenon some serious competition. It’s not surprising really, as it’s an open world sandboxer that features Zombies. Lots of zombies. And we all love zombies.
Think GTA with undead, and a heavier bent on RPG and resource gathering, and you’re practically there with this one. State of Decay is, on paper anyway, perhaps the perfect zombie game. It’s got everything, including a detailed, open map, non-linear and random quests (with a story arc), persistent world with serious ramifications, vehicles, stealth, masses of weapons and the need to establish and develop your own home base and find supplies. It’s a zombie survival mecca, and so should be a no-brainer purchase, shouldn’t it? Well, that really depends on your tolerance levels, and if you can see past some very rough edges.
Zombies! Zombies everywhere!
State of Decay takes place in the fictional area of Trumbull Valley, a largely barren and remote area dotted with towns and other areas of interest. As the game opens, you’re cast as Marcus, an athletic sort who’s caught up in a zombie apocalypse, even if he doesn’t know it yet. A short series of tutorial missions later and you find yourself leading a group of survivors holed up in a church. In order to endure you need to find fellow survivors, locate and secure resources such as food, medicine and fuel, and you’ll need to expand out into the world. All the while you need to make new allies, deal with a very troublesome military and, of course, have to deal with endless waves of zombies, of which there are a variety of breeds.
As you explore the world, rescue survivors and complete missions for people, you’ll earn their friendship and can then, at any time, switch to these new comrades, meaning you’ll have a selection of playable characters to chose from, each of whom has different skills and weaknesses. As you play as various characters you’ll increase their stats, making them into better zombie killers and hunter gatherers.
However, don’t think that this is simply an open world Left 4 Dead or Dead Island clone, oh no. This is a totally different kettle of fish, and the emphasis in State of Decay is heavily on surviving, rather than simple zombie slaughter.
In fact, SoD actively encourages you to avoid confrontations when you can. It does this in numerous ways, including overwhelming odds, limited ammo, and the threat of permadeath for any character in the game. Yes, even fully scripted ‘main’ characters can die here, and once they’re dead, they’re gone for good, unless you start the game fresh. What’s more, people can die even when you’re not in control, so there’s a lot of careful planning needed here, and a lot of resource hunting.
Supply and demand
Although combat is an always possible outcome, if you’re going to get the most out of SoD you have to embrace the zombie apocalypse survival simulation Undead Labs’ has worked hard to present. The people you control here are not super human, they’re not inexhaustible killing machines. Instead, they’re real people who need food, sleep and medicine. They can only run and swing weapons so much before they get tired out, and they’re certainly not going to be able to take on a zombie horde and come out unscratched. They even get depressed and can commit suicide if the situation gets too dire. So, to ensure your group of survivors makes it, you need to put blood and gore to the back of your mind and instead focus on finding supplies, establishing outposts and locating bigger and more secure bases.
This means venturing out into the world, sneaking around in the dark looting such locations as abandoned houses, supermarkets and gas stations to find and transport supplies to your base. You can only carry so many items at once though, so you’ll often have to call on your allies to do a supply run and help transport goods back home.
Locate secure enough locations and you can establish outposts rigged with traps that will kill zombies hordes marching through the area. You’ll also encounter infected buildings that have to be cleared out, in turn helping keep the tide of zombies a little more manageable.
Of course, this is an open world game, so expect missions to come from all directions. These range from story missions to a host of random quests. You’ll be tasked with locating survivors, investigating military actions, scoping out new areas, and helping to keep your comrades’ emotional state in good form. All the while you’ll be earning influence points, which are used to order others to make supply runs, establish outposts, move your home, construct new buildings in your base, upgrade defences, and so on. Many of these tasks also require supplies, so while seeing to all of this you’ll need to constantly keep up the hunter gathering.
It’s certainly complex, and after you put some time into the game and uncover the plethora of game mechanics at work here, you can’t help but be impressed. This is the closest we’ve come in gaming to what it may actually be like in a zombie holocaust.
State of Decay revels in the mundane and in micromanagement of people and supplies, but in a good way. Although you may worry that constant supply runs, looting wardrobes and taking fellow survivors on a trip to kill a few zombies so they don’t get to depressed will become tedious, it never really does. Instead the game draws you into the whole survival experience, and finding a new supply of wood or a cache of medicine when you’re in desperate need makes for some very tense and rewarding play. This really is survival horror, much more so that any Resident Evil. That said, we also like to kill all things shambling and no longer living…
I wanna kill stuff!
Although SoD is primarily about survival and resource gathering, it’s got plenty of combat too, and should you wish to, you can engage any and every zombie you see. You can use both makeshift melee weapons and firearms to combat the zombie hordes, not to mention vehicles, but this comes at a cost. Ammo is scarce, and combat, especially with guns, makes noise. This will attract more and more zombies, meaning you stand a better chance if you use stealth and take enemies out as quietly as possible.
Likewise, driving around in cars is the fastest way to get around, but the noise will only alert zombies (and it uses fuel). So, if you need to stay hidden in order to loot a house or get to a specific location with as little hassle as possible, sometimes you have to take it slowly and sneak around, hiding in bushes and using one-hit stealth kills. It’s tricky, but practice makes perfect.
You also have to consider melee weapon condition, as they can all break after continued use, so even relatively silent, close combat can lead to problems, leaving you with no form of attack. This isn’t good if you’re out in the wild with no easy way home.
In the end it’s all about thinking everything through, and carefully planning your runs outside the walls of your base. Yes, you can simply run around killing everything in sight, but you’ll probably get everyone killed by an avalanche of zombies if you do.
The ugly dead
As I said before, State of Decay is a sure fire hit on paper. The complex game systems, open structure, and deeply immersive world should create the perfect zombie title. However, as impressive as the game is for a first effort, and it really is impressive stuff in many ways, Undead Labs was a little too ambitious, and the end result simply doesn’t live up to the lofty goals the team clearly had.
Once you get past the decidedly ugly, last generation visuals, terrible camera and some awfully clunky and unwieldy controls (especially vehicles), you hit a multitude of bugs, glitches and downright terrible presentation issues.
This is a buggy game, make no mistake. The amount of glitching, ropey AI pathfinding, visual pop-in, slowdown and other tarnishing factors is almost unforgivable. It’s so badly polished it really does feel like an alpha build, not a final release, and this lack of polish continues past the core game engine and into other areas.
There are zombie killing quests that complete themselves as all foes are already dead when you get there, AI team mates that block doors, stopping you from leaving a room, terrible voice acting that undermines any feeling of emotion or coherent storytelling and the game does a terrible job of explaining some of the key gameplay mechanics, leaving you bumbling around unsure of what some things actually mean.
Also, the game doesn’t actually end when you turn off your console, and when you’re away, your supplies are consumed and people’s moods drop. Even if you leave the game with plentiful supplies and a full morale meter, you can come back to it a day or two, or even a few hours later, and your supplies could be almost gone, morale will be low and someone may have even died. Well, excuse me for having to eat and sleep!
I can see what Undead Labs wanted to do here, and the idea is interesting to a point, but in practice it’s just wrong, and no matter how hard you work to get morale and supplies up, you’re always set back whilst you’re away. It’s annoying, and there should at least be an option to have the game stop when you do.
These issues are all important, but perhaps one of the biggest problems is not presentation or dodgy game mechanics, but is what it doesn’t even feature, and that’s multiplayer.
State of Decay is a game that simply screams co-op, either online or split-screen. Having two or more players working together to survive would escalate the game massively, making it a far more enjoyable title. It’s absence is a huge misstep in my opinion, and although Class4, the MMORPG project from the same team may well address this, it’s been confirmed that State of Decay will never feature co-op. This is a major let-down, and it should have been a primary goal from day one of the project. Poor show guys, poor show.
Still, and this may sound crazy despite all of the problems it has, State of Decay is a good game nonetheless. Yes, it’s buggy, glitchy and is missing a key game mode, but the sheer level of detail and complex survival gameplay creates a unique and absorbing zombie title that offers far more variety and replayability than most of its full-price stable mates. Clever additions like permanent death of characters carries weight, especially if you lose a person you’ve spent hours building up, and sneaking around at night desperately trying to avoid alerting a zombie horde makes for some great edge of the seat play.
If you can get past the rough edges, and put enough time into the game and learn its systems, what you get here is a zombie game that actually challenges you to survive a zombie apocalypse, not just to mindlessly run and gun to the end of a linear path. The level of realism and need for careful planning and tactics is something genuinely new to the genre, and for this Undead Labs deserves praise. Lets just hope patches can smooth out the experience.
State of Decay is available via XBLA for 1600 MS Points.
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