Undead Labs have been working on several zombie survival games, as their studio name implies it’s sort of their thing. State of Decay is the first result of their undead obsession, a game that has had a long and seemingly uneasy development. Originally planned with co-op in mind, a fast easily apparent while playing, the finished product is a strictly solo affair. Finally it has seen a release on Xbox Live Arcade–albeit in a slightly different state than originally envisioned–but this is true of many games so we just have to roll with it.
Upon booting up State of Decay (and waiting for a very long load), you will be immediately dropped into the world with very little explanation. It should be noted after that initial load the game almost never has to do so again during gameplay. You take control of a random guy who has apparently just come back from a long fishing trip with his buddy. As such, both characters are entirely unaware that the world has changed a tad since they left. Zombies here are very much just a means to an end, what story there is does not focus on them or their existence. Survival is the name of the game (it’s actually State of Decay, shush) as you’ll need to beat the ever loving crap out of any zombies in your way, lest you get eaten and lose a survivor.
While you do start as a specific character, it quickly becomes clear that things don’t work as you might expect here. As you play through the game, you’ll recruit more and more survivors. Essentially the survivors become like lives in a Mario game, though in this case you have the ability to switch between any of the playable characters. Some caveats apply: you’ll have to be near the home base, for example, as will the character you want to switch to. They may be off scavenging for supplies, in which case you cannot assume direct control. Each character also has his or her own unique stats and level, meaning you will want to switch regularly to keep everyone around the same level. Inventories are also unique, so you can setup one character as a sniper while another might just run around with a backpack full of machetes. It’s a pretty smart way to allow experimentation with the games different play styles, and while the characters’ personalities are minimal it can be interesting to see how each one interacts during more narrative-heavy missions.
State of Decay houses a fairly large number of different gameplay systems. You can use melee attacks, shoot guns, drive cars, jump fences and even… search toolboxes. On top of those more direct systems there are also things like your influence, which is essentially your currency. You’ll earn this nebulous currency by doing the various story and side missions. Influence can be used to procure things like guns and consumables from supply lockers scattered around survivors hideouts. As mentioned earlier, supplies play a major role in the game, and must be scavenged either by yourself or a non playable character. These supplies come in various types: food, building materials and ammo, to name a few. You’ll use them to upgrade your home base, such as a medical centre to help your injured survivors heal faster, or possibly more sleeping quarters as your numbers grow. Some of these extensions will also unlock abilities you can use: a well-equipped kitchen will give you the option option to cook a large meal for everyone, increasing their maximum health.
Emergent gameplay is a term many loathe, but it’s one that can be used a lot in reference to State of Decay. When you have so many different gameplay systems working together there are a lot of chances for glitches and bugs, of which there are plenty here. However it’s also a recipe for some truly remarkable and impressive moments to occur. For example, early on in my playthrough I was driving back to base with another survivor I had just rescued. As I sailed down the road I saw a zombie horde directly in front of me. Being the part-time badass that I am, I of course just drove right through the middle of the horde. This backfired ever so slightly when our car flipped, throwing us out onto the road and right in the middle of quite a large number of zombies. My survivor buddy and I fought admirably for a good few minutes, backing up into a nearby diner as smashed zombies skulls. Eventually the numbers were just too much and my new friend succumbed, before he did though he shouted a loud insult at the horde and then promptly exploded, seemingly using a grenade to make his last action count. Another, more disturbing encounter came when I lost my first survivor. After a long battle with a zombie horde one of the game’s many special infected, the huge Juggernaut, showed up. It grabbed my character and started pulling her this way and that. I mashed buttons for dear life, trying to loosen it’s grip. But my character was weak and low on health, and so the Juggernaut ripped her in half, literally. It was a shockingly violent moment in a game which is generally more cartoonish in its portrayal.
Moments like these make me want to love State of Decay, being shocked and surprised (especially by violence) is something so few games manage without heavily scripted events. Unfortunately the truly great moments are few and far between, and in reality you will spent most of your time doing the same three or four errands to keep your camp of survivors happy. Playing quickly becomes tedious as systems which once seemed interesting and unique begin to seem designed purely to limit the amount of progress you can make. Too much of what you do seems like it’s trying to make the game longer, and while you could argue this is a survival game and perhaps shouldn’t always be about instant gratification, what you’re doing should at least be interesting. It’s because of this tedium, alongside a myriad of technical issues, that State of Decay falls just short of greatness.