When Microsoft announced State of Decay, it seemed like they were ready to deliver the zombie survival experience that gamers had been clamoring for. Remarkably, Undead Labs have managed to realise their goal of creating one of the best zombie survival games on the market, though they do hit a few speed bumps along the way.
As a project, State of Decay is hugely ambitious. Open-world games are notoriously difficult to make, however Undead Labs have risen to the task, crafting an impressive experience that actually seems out of place on the Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace, largely because, at times, it feels like a fully fledged retail title.
State of Decay doesn’t open with a pre-apocalypse sequence, or give any hints as to what caused this mass undead outbreak. It simply thrusts you into the thick of things, allowing you to learn as you go before sending you out into the big bad world, where you’ll have to fend for yourself and your fellow survivors. It’s a bold move, but it’s one that makes sense, because remember guys, there are no tutorials when it comes zombie outbreaks.
State of Decay allows you to control multiple characters. So, if you meet a new survivor and befriend them, you’ll eventually be able to use them as a playable character. Each character has their own set of leveled skills, so the more time you spend in one person's shoes, the more of a zombie killing, survival expert they become. It’s a system that adds a realistic layer to the group dynamic. For example, as you use certain characters, you, and by extension your group of survivors, will depend on these few highly proficient individuals. A fact that will hit home once you lose one of these valued members to the hungry zombie hordes.
That’s right. State of Decay features a perma-death mechanic, meaning that if you lose a character they are gone for good. It’s a brilliant addition to the game, and you’ll genuinely feel remorse if a character bites the dust, especially if, as I mentioned earlier, that character is one of your group’s best members. Throughout my playthrough I had to watch as my group’s leading member was torn to shreds a mere 300 meters from safety. I then had to deal with that loss by leveling up other characters so that they’d be able to cope with the horrors of the undead nightmare, and fill the now vacant position of chief zombie slayer.
Make no mistake, nightmare is the appropriate word here, because death lurks around every corner in State of Decay. It’s impossible to avoid danger if you want your group to prosper. You’ll need to gather supplies in the form of food, weapons, medicine, ammunition, and building materials. These can be used to upgrade your base, ensure your survivors stay fit and healthy, and also give you enough firepower to get yourself out of some sticky spots. Resource management is a big part of State of Decay, and everything has a price. Whenever you bring back supplies, they will be added to the storage locker, and you can only take those supplies out again if you have enough influence. Influence points can be earned by completing various objectives, but basically, if you do something that benefits the group, you’ll get influence. It’s a smart way of ensuring you can’t just tool up to the nines and become an unstoppable zombie murdering deity.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to do all that scavenging yourself, you lazy sod. If you find a particularly juicy area ripe for pilfering, you can radio your base requesting a supply run. It’s a risky tactic though, as there’s no guarantee that your fellow group member will make it to the supplies and back in one piece. Later on in the game a lot of my survivors went M.I.A, which eventually started to get frustrating. Often, when I’d ask a fellow survivor for help gathering supplies, they’d get lost on the way back. Whilst I could understand inexperienced group members falling victim to the prowling hordes, it was baffling to see that my more seasoned group members would need rescuing just as often.
Making matters worse is the fact that when a group member is M.I.A you've essentially lost all of the items they were carrying. When a character dies you can retrieve their backpack from their bloody remains, however when a character is missing, they and their supplies are just that: gone. In the end, I have to sympathise with my missing group members though, because sometimes running away is the only option.
The zombies in State of Decay can quickly do some serious damage if you’re not careful. One or two won’t cause you many problems, but if you encounter a horde, or let one sneak up on you, it won’t be long until you’re fighting for your life. Using stealth to your advantage is key, and sneaking up on an undead delinquent before using the vicious insta-kill maneuver is the most effective, and satisfying, plan of action. Preparation will save your life; choosing what tools to take on certain missions, as well as planning your approach will ensure you live to see another day.
When you do clap eyes on State of Decay, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The stylized visuals aren’t ultra-realistic, however they are grounded in reality, adding a certain ‘gamey’ charm to a bleak world full of death and decay. Unfortunately, State of Decay seems intent on reminding you that you are playing a game at every available opportunity. Zombies will clip through objects, and at times actually walk through solid walls. You’ll experience texture pop in and every now and again even more bizarre glitches, such as a character sitting down in mid-air, rather than on the chair next to them.
These technical issues don’t stop the gameplay in State of Decay from being an absolute blast, and I was able to overlook these flaws and become addicted to the thrills of day-to-day post-outbreak survival. State of Decay proves that fantastic gameplay is still the most important feature of a game, and whilst it is by no means perfect, it’s still quite possibly the zombie survival experience you’ve been waiting for.
This review is based on a digital review copy of State of Decay, provided by the developer.