State of Decay sets it up well – your friend isn’t long for this world. You decide it has to be done, so you drive him up to the nearest home you can find. The neighborhood has been ravaged by the zombie plague.
You lay him down, and hope he finds dignity in death. But no, he flees. Like a bat out of hell, your friend makes a beeline across the deserted landscape and you follow him, mowing down swathes of zombies in your wake as you try to protect him. But after a few minutes, it sets in – the doubt. Why am I chasing this guy for fifteen minutes when he seems to have no intention of turning back? Then, it hits you – you’ve just been spinning your wheels in what is another of the game’s immense bugs. You reload, and start the process all over again.
State of Decay was ostensibly crafted by developers Undead Labs to be the perfect simulation of what it would be like to survive as a community in the zombie apocalypse. And it manages to achieve some of this admirably. But for every tense, character-building moment, you also have a bug or a broken quest that completely breaks your immersion and takes you out of the moment.
You’ll find the original 2013 game and two add-ons (Breakdown and Lifeline), as well as updates that the developers have pushed since the game first came out in State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition. If you haven’t played the game before, the plot puts you in the midst of a community somewhere in the USA, and makes you work with a community to survive the zombie apocalypse. You’ll have to gather resources, food, explore your surroundings, and fight the undead when they get in your way. Mostly, you’d be better off not engaging any zombies at all.
Because it tries to be so many things at once, State of Decay reminds you of several other games. There are elements of Telltale’s Walking Dead series in the story and bits and pieces of other zombie-survival games. Even though you might feel like the game is more of an exploration based game, as you progress you’ll realize that the main element of the game is actually protecting your community and building a new life with them.
There are a few major characters in the story, and any of them can die during your journey. Once they’re dead, they’re gone forever. In addition, you will meet more survivors (randomly generated by the game engine) during your travels. You will lead this community through several locations in the massive world of State of Decay – abandoned churches, residential complexes, defunct factories and several others. While you are completing missions, you and your group will have to look for food, medicine, building material, weapons, bullets and other resources to help you get through the days to come.
The characters in the game are fairly generic – there’s the lovable tough guy and the quiet bad-ass woman, among others. To the developers’ credit, the interactions the different characters have with each other and the events that happen as a result lend them each a sense of personality. Even if the gameplay itself begins to lose its charm after a few hours, the character interactions continue to be a source of entertainment till the end.
How you progress through the story will largely depend on which members of your community are alive. Your group members will go out on supply runs and recon missions, and not all of them will make it back. This is fairly well done in the game, and it lends the proceedings some weight, because someone you said hello to in the morning could be getting ripped to shreds by zombies a few hours later. The game doesn’t really let you get to the point of panicking about your resources and ammo, but it comes fairly close. Resources once used are gone forever. Your trusty weapon? It might fail on you in the heat of battle. You can get to a relative level of comfort if you fortify yourself well and plan your resource gathering effectively, to the point where the challenge level is diminished significantly. By the time you reach the end, you’ll have more than enough supplies to fend off any zombie hordes that come your way without having to worry about tedious supply runs.
The key currency in the game is “Influence”. When you complete missions and supply runs, the game grants you this currency. You can leverage your Influence to call for help when you’re up against a particularly troublesome horde. You can also call for help from outside your community once your Influence level is high enough. For example, if you’re losing a life-and-death battle against some zombies, you can call in a SWAT team to help you with their trusty shotguns. The game makes sure you aren’t able to use these abilities too often though.
The vehicles in State of Decay have atrocious controls. Driving a car in this game is like trying to maintain a one-arm handstand on top of a rodeo bull. The actual fight controls aren’t too much better either, and while it gives more credence to the “You aren’t safe” theme, it can get annoying quickly. Especially if you’re stranded behind AI teammates who stubbornly block your path while some zombies are rushing you.
State of Decay’s Trumbull Valley is a weird place because it doesn’t feel like a cohesive world. There are elements from several different games that the developers have tried to recreate in different areas of the city. When the game is focusing on the plot and the repercussions of your decisions on the lives of you and your comrades, State of Decay is a wonderful thing. But unfortunately, the gameplay gets in the way too often. Ultimately, what you’ll be thinking of most of the time, is how the game could’ve been better. And that’s a sad thing, because there’s a lot of promise here.