Xbox 360: June 5, 2013; PC: September 20, 2013
Lots of things to do/maintain | Scavenging to survive | Emergent gameplay keeps it interesting
Average visuals | Occasionally repetitive
State of Decay doesn’t waste any time getting itself going. You’re thrown right into the thick of it from the beginning. You start the game as Marcus, whose friend is getting bombarded by zombies during the first moments, but this isn’t just his tale (more on that in the Gameplay section). After exploring the camping area that you start out in, Marcus and friends branch out and meet up with a group that has taken refuge in a church. For me, this is where the story truly begins.
As I mentioned, State of Decay isn’t simply the adventures of a single superhuman death machine plowing his/her way through an undead apocalypse like so many other survival horror titles. It’s about a group of normal survivors with human faults struggling to survive in a world that’s been overrun with ghouls. If you dig into the character descriptions in the menu, you’ll see that each character has their own quirks, personality, and talents. As in real life, sometimes these quirks might lead to situations that threaten morale on a group-wide scale. Someone might be afraid of a rise in infestations nearby while another person may need to go out an blow off steam to suppress the rage they’re feeling. It’s your task to figure out how you’ll deal with this. Will you kick the grumpy members out of your group (or at least try)? Will you let sick survivors stay with you in hopes that they’ll get better or will you take them out to a secluded area and put them to rest to ensure everyone’s safety? It’s your choice. What’s especially interesting is that these situations are all dynamic content so things that happened in my game might not necessarily happen when you play it. In essence, the story evolves and reacts to your actions.
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Dynamic elements aside, there’s also the main storyline to contend with. This will usually have you teaming up with or searching for survivors in the rural area that the game takes place. You’ll meet groups of unsavory characters that resort to bullying to get resources from whoever they want and military personnel that were sent in to try to contain a situation that’s beyond FUBAR, to name a few. To avoid potential spoilers, I won’t go into too many details, but suffice to say that it’s a very rough and messy journey. Like I said, this isn’t your typical zombie survival game nor is it a game of simple black and white solutions to problems. You’ll be desperately living in the gray for the 20+ hours that you spend in this living and breathing world, fighting to make it to tomorrow in every moment. By the end, I was fairly emotionally exhausted yet extremely interested to see where Undead Labs takes the series with “Class4“, assuming they make it (I really hope they do).
This is where State of Decay truly shines. Initially, it might be a little difficult getting used to everything playing in a persistent open-world entails. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, it means that the game world continues on even when you’re not playing it. If you shut the game off with low resources and morale, it isn’t going to be a pretty picture when you get back. You might find your group missing a member or two or have to help a friend cope with fear so that they can finally get some rest. It’s overwhelming at first, but once you figure out how you have to delegate your time to effectively make everyone’s life a little better, it becomes much more manageable.
That’s not to say that your game life will get any easier though. On top of your character’s own health (I’ll get to that soon), you have to worry about the morale of the entire group. This is affected by things such as the amount of resources that the group has stockpiled, how many infestations have popped up in the vicinity, and when members of the group go missing or get injured on missions, to name a few. Since this is a world that’s constantly moving forward, don’t expect the resources that you’ve gathered to sit by idly when you stop playing. Your ammo, food, building materials, etc. diminish at varying rates (the rates get reduced if you don’t play the game for more than 3 days) so you’ll have to keep that in mind while you’re out exploring cabins and houses if you want to keep your community satisfied. Luckily, assuming you have enough influence from completing missions, you can call in runners to help you pick up resources that you don’t have enough time or strength to gather or even set up a few outposts to extend your community’s safety net a little bit further.
Building materials will be especially useful since you can use them to upgrade your base or build facilities like a garden, library, or medical center that should help alleviate some stress. For example, having a garden allows you to grow your own food, lowering your need to constantly scavenge restaurants and grocery stores. These facilities each have special abilities too, assuming you have the resources and people with suitable skills. You could have someone that’s a great cook whip up a meal for everyone in the group, which could lend a stat bonus of increased health and stamina to the community. Be aware that these actions take time and are subject to the occasional hiccup (broken spoon, not enough wire, etc.) so they aren’t instant fixes.
When you’re not worrying about the group, you’ll have to make sure that you think about yourself too. Like I said in the Story section, you don’t play as just one character. After gathering friends, you’re able to switch between characters on the fly. In fact, you’ll have to swap characters because of the way that State of Decay is. See, after exploring and searching for a while, you’re character is bound to get tired. If you push the character too hard, they’ll get so tired that they’ll eventually get a debuff that reduces the maximum amount of stamina that they have. This can happen with health as well. Sustain a severe enough injury and you’ll be considered hurt, lowering your health meter considerably. You can recover, but it takes a certain amount of time. If you want to see that character make it through another night, you’ll want to rush them home and switch to a different, healthier character. Otherwise you should expect to see your community’s population go down since State of Decay features permadeath. Similar to Zombi U, when a character dies, they die for real. There’s no coming back and no do-overs. The only thing you can do once that happens is go pick up their backpack and move on without them. I lost a few characters along my journey, and each time it became more and more devastating.
Let’s not forget that there are hordes of zombies out in Trumbull County that you’ll have to do battle with. You’ll be able to employ melee weapons and firearms to dispatch the zeds, and there are some brutal yet satisfying finishers to perform on downed enemies. The melee combat can be a tad repetitive at times, but if you use it too much, you’ll run out of stamina anyway so it’s best to find a balance between the two. Just be careful because gunshots attract the undead so a stealth approach is recommended. It’s even beneficial to your characters to use all available skills equally because you gain levels based on the things you do. If you sprint a lot, your stamina will go up. If you focus on melee a lot, you’ll become a powerhouse.
Along with the run of the mill ghouls, you’ll also have to deal with special enemies like feral zombies and screamers. They can also band together into formidable hordes. If you come into contact with a horde, you better hope that you have enough firepower and a hefty amount of stamina or you could be looking at another rucksack to gather. I’d recommend using my personal favorite tactic which was running to the nearest car and driving through them. Make sure to hold X to open the driver side door and hit stragglers (coolest feature ever!).
Long story short: there’s a lot of game to be had here, and State of Decay has a bit of something for everyone.
Graphics / Audio
If there’s one area that the game struggles, it would be in the audio/visual department. State of Decay isn’t the best looking game out there, but it does have its moments of beauty especially in regards to the environment. Even though most of your surrounding tend to impart a sense of despair and degredation, there are also times when the sun will be rising over the mountains. At points like this, I couldn’t help but stop, take it all in, and feel a small sense of hope that things in the game world might be normal again some day.
The character models are sufficiently detailed but can’t compare with other games that use CryEngine 3. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting given CryEngine 3’s reputation. There’s quite a bit of draw distance and texture pop-in which can be distracting from time to time. The biggest problem that I faced while playing was enemies glitching through walls and, even worse, rucksacks of fallen comrades falling through floors so that I couldn’t retrieve their items. Luckily for people playing now, there’s an update out now that addresses this issue and offers a few other fixes.
During most of your time with State of Decay, you’ll be listening to either the sounds of nature, ever-present moans, or radio chatter from base. The voice acting was done well enough, but I wouldn’t say it was remarkable. I was moved more by what happened in the game to the characters than by their performances. The game sports a soundtrack that was composed by Jesper Kyd, the man behind the Borderlands and Assassin’s Creed (before ACIII) soundtracks, but the moments that you’ll hear it are usually subtle and few and far between. Basically, the sound does the job it has to do by making you feel like you’re living in a world during a class 3 outbreak without having much that makes it stand out.