It came as a total surprise, but I blame no one but myself. I had managed to join a group of survivors and integrate myself so thoroughly with the group that my word was taken as the final one in most cases. If I didn’t like a trade prospect, it wasn’t made. If I needed to take guns and ammunition, it was mine. If I wanted to set up an outpost, it was set. When I managed to coax them out of the comfort and safety of a base that had proven reliable but had become too small for us, I decided upon the new location. I had managed to gain this trust through pure talent and skill. I was the one scavenging for food and medicine. I was the one they called to create distractions. I had risked my own skin to save many of them from certain death at the hands of the mindless, murderous masses roaming the town. My influence wasn’t given to me- I had earned it. Where was this talent when my life depended on it though?
It was a dumb mistake. I had just helped a neighbor out by lending a hand in clearing out a zombie infestation. It wasn’t a hard fight, but a long enough one that I had no meds or molotovs by the end of it. In any other case I would’ve headed back to base and restocked, but I was so far out from it that I thought it would be wise to check out a barnyard and save myself another long drive out here. I was hoping to come upon some building materials to start that library we needed. I drove the truck in real slow to make sure no shufflers heard me. The truck wasn’t what drew them- it- in though.
While I was looking through the place, I carelessly made too much noise. Before I knew it, I was being swarmed with zeds. I’d had worse scraps before and knew I could make it out of this crowd alive, even if I had a few scars. What sealed my fate though, was the Big ‘Un- the monstrous giant that took me between its hands and eventually snapped me in half like meaty drumstick. I don’t blame the monster. It didn’t kill me. My impatience did.
While dying at the hands of my own faults was a depressing (and, yes, a bit hilarious) event, it’s these emergent moments that make Undead Labs‘ State of Decay so fascinating. As I mentioned in my impressions piece, systems that I had no idea were in the game surprised me in both subtle and violent ways. Equally violent though are some of the game’s technical problems.
At first glance, State of Decay is a third-person action game using the tired zombie tropes that have been plaguing media for a while now. While the third-person action is there, it’s in reality a small element of the bigger picture. The game is in reality a fleshed out survival game that is often unforgiving. While part of this brutality is definitely by design (the permadeath of characters, for instance), some of it is the result of the unsuccessful execution of really high ambitions.
To enumerate every mechanic and system in State of Decay would be an undertaking whose scope exceeds this review, so I’ll focus on some of the more prominent ones. The easiest system to comprehend is the combat one, which is based upon a regenerative stamina and non-regenerative health meters. Players can fight zombies with either ranged or melee tactics, with character leveling opening up new options for both, like a forward facing swing that eats up stamina but dismembers, or better auto-aiming for guns.
The dynamic of the two combat styles is well though out, with melee being quiet but limited by stamina, and guns being deadly but causing lots of noise that will draw nearby zombies if a silencer isn’t equipped. The seams of the idea start showing though when put into action. Bullets seem to only cause significant damage within a low-range and melee becomes too focused on meta-gaming the enemies’ animations. The combat is passable and thankfully most of it is avoidable. The game has stealth mechanics that will allows patient players to sneak past many zombies, which ends up being a wise move in most situations anyway.
One of the more interesting aspects about the game is that players control a troupe of characters instead of focusing on one. Each character has their own unique traits that make them better at particular things (like shooting, sneaking, fighting) and are leveled up through use. Like the systems in the last two Elder Scrolls games, characters will only get better at the skills they use. As a character’s stamina capacity decreases over time without rest, the game encourages switching among them. The game also gives you tools to avoid trading people though, essentially keeping them running on coffee and energy drinks. Except for the few occasions when my character of choice was killed, I managed to stick with one throughout the entire game.
The leveling system in general is thankfully inoffensive and the skills gained from it are generally neat, though not vital. In fact, that’s kind of my criticism of the thing: it seems out of place and unnecessary. I never actively cared to improve anything, mostly just acting in accordance with what situations demanded. Even when I intentionally switched characters, the play style didn’t feel distinct enough between them to warrant an entire system based on trying to make them different. While the combat and lite RPG systems are mediocre, the game really shines through with the high level mechanics and the way they interact with other elements in the game.
Zombie murder is really only a tertiary activity in the game. What puts the game in the survival genre and not the brawler one is how it asks players to pay attention to resources, location, and facilities. Managed through a system of menus and often completed through third-person action, State of Decay is secretly a management simulator that takes place in the zombie apocalypse. The base players begin at has limited space for resources and people, both of which become a problem as the group grows and requires more. People need food daily, and use up ammo and construction material in defending the place. Fuel keeps the electric generators running and meds are required if you have a sick survivor. Bases have facility slots that can be filled with sleeping areas, farms, guard towers, libraries and more. Each one creates a different benefit, with farms providing a small amount of food, sleeping areas provide beds to make sure more survivors can get sleep.
Building things is accomplished by collecting construction materials, a resource that- like all the others- is scavenged from the world. As each facility has an upgrade associated with it as well, allocating what you want to build and what you need requires a completely different sort of attention than a game just about killing zombies would ask. Managing the base is an integral part of the game and one that is simple enough to not require too much high-level thinking, but is satisfyingly complex. It’s also through responsible stewardship of the base that ensures that fellow survivors keep on living and others are enticed to join.
State of Decay isn’t without its problems though. On the technical side, asset loading remained a problem even after the first patch was successfully sent out to users. Driving in a car often led to me outpacing the game world, with things sometimes appearing after I ran into them. The result was that it made it seem like my character was living in some sort of fever dream that was desperately trying to catch up with reality.
On the design side, the game suffers from a lack of communication. While the tutorial gives a good explanation of the basic third person actions, many of the game’s survival systems are never properly explained. They’re often pointed out quickly in some on screen text and then never mentioned again. The game might tell me that I surpassed the maximum capacity for resources, but it took a while for me to actually find that limit. The place where I give characters new skills and abilities is hidden as the bottom half of a page in the journal that requires scrolling. Outposts can be taken down to allow for new ones, but unless I completely missed it, nowhere on the management page does it indicate which outpost I’m taking out. I’m even still a little fuzzy on how medicine and sleep works for characters I’m playing as. It’s a real tragedy that these more complex systems aren’t articulated better as they are what make the game unique.
Combined with the open world, the variety of systems in State of Decay make for incredibly fun emergent events that I rarely see in games. While the game has a narrative string that pulls players throughout, the really great narratives rise up out of the convergence of moments that result in stories like the one I began this review with. It’s an imperfect game with admirably high ambitions, and while those ambitions sometimes go unfulfilled, it never feels like it was due to laziness. The game has a steep curve at the start due to some bad design, but once that curve is passed, State of Decay is an incredibly neat game that’s doing things few others are.
+ Complex systems
+ Engaging, emergent events
+ Adapts to gameplay styles
- Bad systems communication
- Asset loading is slow
- RPG system seems out of place
8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.
State of Decay was developed by Undead Labs and published by Microsoft Studios. It was released on June 5th, 2013, for 1600 Microsoft Points. A copy was provided by the developer to RipTen for the purposes of review.