State of Decay Review
LOVE AT FIRST BITE
Amidst the influx of zombie games for the past few years, there have been very few games that have truly captured the intricacies and finer details about what it might actually be like to survive through a zombie apocalypse. Left 4 Dead gave us a great overlying story, yet we were tied to the environments as they ushered us along through them. The Walking Dead was similar, but with an eye on keen storytelling, with the player guiding our protagonist along crucial and plot-changing decisions. Both were important (and revolutionary) game series for their time, but we were still missing the free-form gameplay and idiosyncrasies of surviving a zombie apocalypse. Some also might mention the Dead Island series, which came pretty damn close to satiating our craving for a perfect zombie adventure. The elements were there, but everything just seemed ever-so-slightly off.
The ARMA 2 mod, DayZ, finally gave PC players a pretty spot-on experience of how it might be to actually live through the days of our zombie overlords (and in constant danger of human-controlled bandits), but consoles owners never received that love. Left4Dead, The Walking Dead, Zombies mode (in Treyarch’s CoD series), Dead Island, Dead Rising, The Last of Us, Red Dead Undead Nightmare, and ZombiU – all amazing games in their own right – but yet they were all still missing that elusive something.
And all during this time, the developers at Undead Labs were sitting back, taking notes, and deviously smiling at what they had planned. Then one day, Undead Labs decided enough was enough, and they unveiled one of the most engrossing, deep, and satisfying examples of the zombie adventure genre yet. Welcome to State of Decay.
State of Decay starts off innocuously enough, with you taking control of average ol’joe Marcus, fresh back from a fishing trip at Mount Tanner. Marcus meets up with his friend Ed, who essentially tells Marcus that he would’ve been better off back in the water kickin’ back beers and hangin’ out the rod. They both go to a nearby ranger station, where a few survivors have taken refuge from the nightmares outside. And by nightmares, we mean the Zeds (it sounds waaaay cooler than just plain old “zombies”). Ed and Marcus both set out to look for supplies for the group, and on the way they rescue a woman named Maya from some Zeds who were getting a little too fresh with her. When they all get back to the ranger station, well, things start to get interesting.
And by interesting, I mean after a few pertinent story elements here and there, and the eventual departure of the trio to the Church of Ascension, the world becomes your sandbox, albeit a pretty darn bloody, gory, and dangerous one.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s an underlying narrative in State of Decay. But, you’ll be too busy finding survivors, capturing outposts, gathering resources, building watchtowers, expanding sleeping quarters, etc….oh, and running from the Zeds, to notice that there’s a story to progress. And that right there is the beauty of State of Decay: there’s just so much to do in the game, that the story becomes secondary, and survival and reinforcement the dominant concern. The emergent gameplay will grab you by the shoulders and chomp your neck down to the bone. It. Is. Brutal.
At first impression, especially in the beginning, State of Decay comes across as a pretty simplistic hack’n’slash. Right from the start, you can run around and club, slash, hit, or shoot Zeds with whatever weapons you have at your disposal. The fighting mechanics seem elementary at first, but you have a bevy of moves that you can do once you start getting into the game. Evading, stealth, finishers, melees, and shooting come together with limited endurance, stamina, wits, gun sway, etc. to make every battle with a Zed (or Zeds, as happens more often) a chess game. Even sprinting is limited as you get fatigued hitting and running from enemies. More often than not, you will be overwhelmed by a horde of zombies, especially if you’ve been thoroughly burned out after overexerting yourself by engaging a few Zeds.
There’s also a deep RPG mode built into the game, which revolves around finessing your characters’ stats (you can switch control between any NPC if they’re your friends), securing resources from restaurants, gas stations, homes, shopping centers, and other (usually Zed-infested) areas. You can build outposts after clearing out infestations, move your base camp to other, more secure locations if you have enough people, materials, and leadership attributes. You can trade with other survivors, build their trust, or take part in side-missions that run the gamut of familiar RPG quests, or just settle yourself on the occasional story component. I kid you not. Gameplay is King in State of Decay. Once you start playing the game, you realize just how deep the micromanagement goes and how involving it becomes, all in the name of trying to survive.
And the best part about the game is that everyone is at risk. You can switch between characters on the fly (if they’ve befriended you) to allow them some reprieve to get rested up and their attribute gauges topped off. But, much like XCom: Enemy Unknown, those NPCs that you’ve been slowly leveling up can die at any point in the game, and consequently, all the hard work and effort that you’ve put into building their stats will be for naught. Because of this fact (and the stamina gauge), every resource expedition that you take part in becomes a tense and unnerving affair.
Overall, the gameplay is deep, engaging, and literally full of hundreds of choices and tracks you can follow at any given point and time. Even after 30 hours of playtime, I’m still salvaging resources, looking for better base camps, and taking on the ever-increasing threat of the Zeds.
Note to State of Decay newbies: Try not to go out at night, and never, ever, get stuck away from home without a vehicle. You can thank me later.
Graphics & Sound
State of Decay’s graphics completely belie the deep and immersive gameplay available to the player. This CryEngine 3-based game looks like a launch year 360 game; much better-looking than last generation titles, but just barely. You could easily dismiss the game for one of those generic 3rd party action games from some unheard of developer (though in a certain way, the simplistic graphics do complement the deep gameplay, and distances itself from the somewhat utilitarian visuals of Dead Island).
The cartoonish graphics do lend the game some charm, but the ever-present danger and desperation saturating the gameplay always reminds the player that this game is not a playful romp through the woods, but a pretty darn realistic excursion in a zombie-filled post-apocalyptic world.
The voice acting is competent enough for characters to be likeable, and believable enough for the player to connect with the characters’ emotions. The Zeds sound menacing, especially the “freaks” (special Zeds like the Feral, Screamer, Juggernaut, etc.). I can’t count the number of times, while searching a seemingly abandoned house for resources, that I’ve heard one of these freaks out in the distance; far away from the house, but close enough for me to drop what I was doing and say “That’s it. I’m outta here!”
The soundtrack, though, is exceptional. The acoustic guitar and synth riffs infuse the music and relay appropriate feelings of dread or safety, responsively to the situation at hand. And why shouldn’t the soundtrack be awesome – it’s composed by Jesper Kyd, whose musical accomplishments span the Assassins Creed, Borderlands, Hitman, and Darksiders series.
Finding issues about a game that has had me utterly absorbed for over thirty hours will be hard to do. If I were to really pick at the game (and Undead Labs: I’m really trying here), is that the game doesn’t have you going up against bandits and other ne’er-do-wells. Outside of the story, there really isn’t that much conflict with other survivors. Being able to get in trouble and engage the locals, would’ve added a completely new dimension of gameplay to this already amazing game.
Outside of that, State of Decay is a singleplayer game through and though. Not that it’s a bad thing. Undead Labs made the right decision of concentrating on the absorbing sandbox world they created. Maybe in State of Decay 2 (I have no doubts that this will happen), we can hope for at least some splitscreen or Live co-op action.
Longevity is the name of the game here. The gameplay is immersive and engaging enough to have you playing for hours on end, discovering new locations, potential bases, new weapons (melee and otherwise), interesting characters, and enjoying the never-ending charm of world itself. No other additional modes are included, but there’s talk of some upcoming DLC that will allow the player to tough out the world in a free-roam sandbox mode, unshackled from the constraints of the story.
State of Decay is a crowning achievement in the zombie genre, and more importantly, the survival genre. Undead Labs’ magnum opus hits all the right RPG-ish spots, with a deeply fulfilling post-apocalyptic world, base customization, elaborate character attributes and world effects, and a constant sense of permeating dread and urgency. This is a true zombie-apocalypse simulator, folks. The fact that this game is available for a third of the cost of full priced title just blows my mind. Do not let this one slip under your radar.