Undead Labs’ State of Decay is an irresistible exercise in resource gathering and allocation for both long time zombie fans and system-heavy game enthusiasts alike. While zombie culture in games largely obsesses over the horde meat grind, State of Decay embodies a rare and underserved trend in zombie games: authenticated open world survival. Because of this, State of Decay should be the best zombie apocalypse game by various standards; and to its credit, it succeeds on many levels that other similar games don’t. Unfortunately, there are enough questing hang-ups that set the entire game’s pacing into limbo. Also, there exist several technical and design issues that can completely ruin your play experience.
Though the opening mission extends a guiding hand into this zombie infested world, it’s very effective in informing you just how harsh this desolate place can be. Combat is taxing, in a very literal sense. Every encounter with a zombie comes at a cost, which encompasses weapon durability, ammunition, non-regenerative health, and stamina. Medicine, stamina boosters and new weapons alleviate these survival expenses, but not without the risk of scavenging for them in the undead wilderness. Fighting zombies is Dark Souls’esque in its rhythm as there’s a constant positional consideration needed to help you ensure that you don’t find yourself overwhelmed, all while keeping an eye out for a path to retreat to once your health, stamina, or both, get too low.
RPG factors come into play in the form of simple unlocks for your character, many of which have a significant impact on your combat capabilities. All of this made me appreciate my survivor’s mortality even more, especially when facing the threat of perma-death. Unlocking the ability to round-house kick a zombie in the face for an instant knockdown in place of repeated, weapon degrading and stamina draining blows to the head was one of the greatest rewards State of Decay ever delivered.
Soon after your rude awakening in this zombie apocalypse, you will be tasked with the responsibility of managing an entire community of survivors. You control the day to day mundanities such as the supply of food, medicine, material, ammunition, all of which are consumed on a daily basis. Still, sustaining consumable resources is less stressful than spending it. Any location that your community settles down in the open world can be expanded and upgraded, sometimes by necessity, and sometimes by convenience. If members of your community are sick or sleep deprived, consider building a medical and sleeping area. If you’re looking to continuously resupply your survivors with consumables for stamina and health, consider carving out space for a garden and growing your own food. Very few games put such emphasis on the idea of fortification under the guise of a zombie apocalypse, despite how much sense it makes. The considerable amount of time State of Decay has you spend away from squishing rotten skulls like watermelons can be a stand-alone game in and of itself.
Considering the amount of system-monitoring that State of Decay tries to intimidate the player with, outside of the exception of when I was using resources such as materials and fuel for construction projects and special orders, I never really got a sense that I was in any kind of danger when my assets were depleted. Even if I was in danger, this wasn’t explained very well, much like the rest of the game itself. This pervasive lack of transparency may very well be a turn off for some, as it was certainly a source of frustration for me. At the time of this writing, I still don’t understand why my cars aren’t being repaired even though I built a workshop and park my cars in the parking spaces as instructed. State of Decay does make an effort to present lengthy overviews of menus and custom options, but they’re shallow in comparison to what the rest of the game has to offer.
Spending time in the field and gathering said resources is the other side of this survivalist coin. While the process is almost as complex as managing your home base, it’s tangibly intuitive and strangely hypnotic when you’re managing the checks and balances of multiple mechanics on the go. Every piece of equipment, tools, and weapons gathered from abandoned buildings and residencies are treated as physical items that quickly fill up your inventory. Backpacks and vehicles expand your carry-on capacity, though having both never feels as if you can wipe an entire town bone dry. Scavenging also presents you with constant survival decisions, many in which include:
• Securing an empty house with boarded windows and closed doors, or making quick, unprotected sweeps.
• Lugging around heavy stamina-punishing rucksacks for resource sustenance, or picking at their individual contents.
• Running over hordes of zombies at the expense of your smoking vehicle, or trying your luck out on foot.
These risky but extremely rewarding trips inevitably come at a considerable price, since they gradually deplete your character’s max stamina to the point of exhaustion. You’ll end up having to return each survivor home to recuperate while taking control of another in their place. While I was never tied down to a single character, recognizing their impermanence and cycling through all of the survivors personalized each of them as more than mere avatars, but as individuals contributing to a community. This all became a part of an oddly effective form of emergent story telling.
Scavenging doesn’t only provide you with the tools needed for survival. Supplying your community increases your worth in State of Decay’s “Influence” driven economy. Influence strangely oversimplifies your social status among peers to a monetary value, but it’s an interesting system nonetheless. Each time you complete a mission or contribute resources to your community (this even goes as far as physically placing items in your home base’s supply cache), you gain a bit in Influence. On the other end, equipping items, ordering construction projects and even requesting back up survivors all consist of you “taking away” from the community, thus costing you Influence. Depending on how much you take advantage of the tools at your disposal, sustaining a sufficient amount of Influence proves to be a true test in your budgeting skills.
Don’t expect to use missions as a main source of income for Influence, mind you. Not only are they stingy in their Influence offerings, but they are delivered at an unusually slow rate for an open world game, and this contributes to a much larger problem. Undead Labs seemed to have overestimated the challenge in preserving your community resources by allowing large gaps of down time in between each mission. Hoarders can easily over supplement their supply, thus leaving them with little to do in the frequent cycles of uneventfulness. This ultimately deflates the urgency State of Decay is constantly trying to suppress you with. For example, all of the side missions are timed and some involve saving an enlisted or potential survivor from probable death. However, I never felt motivated to come to their aid to avoid the risk of losing them forever, I only did so because I was bored.
But the issues regarding the ways in which missions operate don’t stop there. Part of the community aspect in State of Decay involves building relationships with other survivors by requesting their help (again, at the price of Influence) so that they themselves can gain enough experience to be added to your roster of controllable characters. But then certain missions disrupt these efforts by arbitrarily terminating your partnership and sending them home while the quest giver takes their place. This becomes even more infuriating when you’ve forked over 100 Influence to request back up, lose them at the start of a mission, and have to call upon them again costing you a total of 200 Influence.
This oversight in the mission design forced me to abuse a loophole which involves triggering a mission with the quest giver, and then going about my business while they follow. This method not only avoids the cost of any Influence, it also takes away the liability of potentially losing a fellow survivor. Keep in mind though, this approach disables the game’s ability to save which opens you up to the possibility of losing out on all the gathered resources and equipment until you complete their mission.
Having your partners sent home without any rhyme or reason can be dealt with in a reasonable fashion once you’ve identified which missions trigger this occurrence, or if you make use of the aforementioned loop-hole. However State of Decay’s final mission is the biggest offender of removing your characters against your will, on top of being an absolute technical disaster. This mission involves joining three randomly picked survivors from your community to hold off waves of oncoming zombies at a distant location. It’s by far the most difficult mission in the game as it was the first time I’ve ever died in State of Decay. When my first character died, after reviving as one of my weaker survivors, I sought to hunt down my second most capable character with hopes that I can switch to him instead. To my surprise, he was nowhere to be found before realizing that he had been selected as one of the three AI survivors waiting for me to start the mission. Naturally, we perished in battle again, thus I lost him forever as well. To make matters worse, the same mission crashed on me twice thereafter, each time leaving me with a weak selection of survivors in order to complete it.
What a shitty way to close a chapter on a well thought out yet deeply flawed survival RPG.
State of Decay: Year One Survivor Edition also comes packaged with two pieces of DLC: Breakout and Lifeline. Breakout is a stripped down version of State of Decay proper that cycles you through seemingly infinite survival trials where the mission is to establish a home base, and build your community until you find and fix an RV to vacate to the next level. It’s hardly a refreshing piece of DLC considering the fact that it adds very little to the formula except for extended replayability. While players of its original release might have appreciated Breakout more as it released months after the core game’s launch, it being packaged in this year one edition does very little favors for its significance.
Lifeline, on the other hand, feels more like a proper post-release piece of content as it’s a radical change from the original game in a number of ways. In addition to the fact that it takes place in a completely new location, much of the campaign is subverted by comparison. While State of Decay had you fearing the military, here you command them.Though the pacing in the original game was slow and often dragging at times, Lifeline has your military base under a repeated and constant increasing threat level that once it reaches level 3, it’s only a matter of moments before you must defend the base from a zombie siege.
The entire campaign revolves around these sieges, which is both good and bad. Here, Lifeline offers you far more Influence than any other version of State of Decay. This not only gives you the ability to request companions at your leisure, but you can call in supply drops so that you can rapidly build assets to your base. Since this effectively makes scavenging nearly obsolete, you’re instead venturing out for additional survivors to beef up your chances of making it through each siege, all in which offers a different type of collectable satisfaction.
The problem here is that, while Lifeline is more structured and better paced, it’s extremely repetitive without having to do much scavenging in between. It takes a while to come to terms with that since both Breakout and the main game at least gave the illusion that they demanded more from you. But Lifeline’s schedule of gathering survivors and prepping for the sieges becomes very explicit early on, and the story of saving remaining survivors drags on far longer than it needs to.
Despite its repetition, Lifeline could have been a great piece of DLC; yet it was with this bit of content that I ran into the biggest technical problems in the entire State of Decay package. The siege battles often got caught up in a loop in my play sessions which forced me to restart the game each time. But it wasn’t until (coincidentally) the final showdown before my men and women were scheduled to be extracted from the LZ that the game refused to progress past the first wave, effectively killing my progress in the campaign. Up until the publishing of this review, I am still unable to complete the Lifeline DLC.
What an even shitter way to close the book on this entire game.
State of Decay has all the makings of a great zombie game: an emphasis on inventory management, building a community of survivors, and scavenging in the zombie infested city for resources; these are features that (to use marketing terms) the “ultimate zombie game” would look like. And while all of these do present themselves in a significant capacity here, none of it can get away from Undead Labs’ constant struggle with its mission design to keep the player interested at all times, and, more criminally, their struggle to overcome some significant technical problems that have down right terminated my time with State of Decay.
Plagued by Problems
Ending the zombie apocalypse against your own will.