The highly anticipated sequel to the 2013’s cult hit State of Decay 2 feels like three steps forward and two steps back. Baz Macdonald reviews.
It’s a time-honoured nerd tradition to discuss the ways in which you would survive a zombie apocalypse. Some opt for the assault approach, equipping themselves with an arsenal and holing up in an urban centre; others would head for the countryside and rebuild a community there.
Personally, I’m jumping in a boat and heading for one of the many conservation islands surrounding New Zealand that has walls to keep out predators. Genius, right? Slam-dunk, safety from zombies, all good.
State of Decay allows you to put some of these hypothetical survival approaches into practice. The first game came out in 2013 with little fanfare, but quickly became a surprise hit as early adopters discovered just how satisfying the survival simulator could be. Five years later, developer Undead Labs and publisher Microsoft have released a sequel that takes that experience and attempts to scale it up, blow it out and make it a triple-A or close-to-triple A experience.
That experience is State of Decay 2 – like the original, a zombie apocalypse simulator in which you manage a community, accrue resources and handle a myriad of crises that are thrown your way. After a brief tutorial, the game plops you into an open-world sandbox and tasks you with the apparently simple task of surviving.
What makes this loop of crisis-survivial-crisis so satisfying are the ways in which you can personalise the experience. What kinds of people do you want to be part of your community? Assault-minded warlords? Humble traders? Or scientists and engineers who can help you build an epic base? You encounter people throughout the world who exhibit these traits and skillsets – you choose to invite them to be part of your community, or you leave them out in the cold.
What makes this particularly interesting is that each survivor has their own set of characteristics, such as being argumentative, meek, or even weird things like a tendency to speak in catchphrases – punctuating every action with lines like “That’s how you do that!”. This jumble of personalities makes managing your community about much more than accruing survivors with skills – it makes it an experiment in social engineering. I’m not embarrassed to say I exiled a handful of survivors simply for being obnoxious, especially those who exhibited overly macho personalities. As a result, my community ultimately ended up being a group of very humble, kind and incredibly skilled women – a matriarchal utopia amid an apocalypse.
One of the really cool things about State of Decay 2 is being able to swap identities with the members of your community and head out into the big bad world as any of them. There, you can help other survivors, complete community goals, such as clearing out larger concentrations of zombies, or simply explore the world. But mostly, you’ll be looting.
The looting is very similar to the satisfying loops of battle royale games, such as Player Unknowns Battlegrounds and Fortnite. You enter abandoned houses, businesses and facilities and search room to room for equipment, resources and weapons. However, unlike battle royale games, these resources persist and help to build up your community and base. Personally, I love the act of collecting loot, but I find it so frustrating in a battle royale game when that effort is wasted by a single sniper shot. In State of Decay, the act of looting is a core part of progression.
However, looters beware: the world of State of Decay is extremely dangerous and even more unforgiving. Get too bold and you might find yourself suddenly swarmed by a horde of zombies who will rip you apart without hesitation. What makes this particularly devastating is that once a member of your community is dead, they are dead forever. The more you play a character the more proficient they become, which means a death can be a real blow to the health of your community. More importantly, it will be a real blow to you personally. Because you have so much autonomy in deciding who is part of your community and how they contribute, you become incredibly attached to these characters – making their deaths evocative in ways that might surprise you.
I was particularly crushed by the death of my community’s leader, Bowen. He was a former soldier and a gentle soul who wanted to bring law and order to the chaos of this apocalyptic wasteland. Aside from having a personality which fit in well in my community, he was also skilled in auto mechanics – making his death a huge loss, as we could no longer easily repair damaged cars.
See, even though these character traits were randomly generated, I became attached to him and so his death is something that really stuck with me.
For those who have played the first State of Decay, this sequel doesn’t bring much beyond more of the same. Unfortunately, the changes it does make aren’t very welcome – they generally make the experience more frustrating. For instance, a big new addition are epicentres of zombie activity called Plague Hearts, which you are tasked with clearing out. These areas are incredibly challenging and dangerous; in fact, most of the characters I lost were in these areas. Irritatingly, they make many areas almost inaccessible, and when you do clear them out they offer little in the way of reward.
As well as introducing frustrating features, the game maintains some of the worst aspects of the first game – namely, the jankiness of the experience. The original game was infamously full of glitches and bugs, and regrettably this is also the case for State of Decay 2. My playthrough was consistently plagued by vehicles getting stuck in terrain, items like doors bugging out, and graphical glitches – including a particularly disturbing one in which a woman’s face was missing. It’s a real shame, because many assumed the extra support Microsoft offered on this game would give Undead Labs the resources necessary to create a stable experience – but, if anything, this game sadly feels even less stable than the original.
Another aspect people had hope for was the introduction of multiplayer. One of the most asked for features in the original was a multiplayer mode, in which you and your friends could build up your community together. Undead Labs have been hyping up the fact that State of Decay 2 has such a mode. Unfortunately, they completely missed the point with how they implemented this mechanic. What players wanted was the ability to have a shared community with their friends, but what we got instead is the ability to jump into a friend’s world to help them build their community up. While you can still gain some resources while helping them out, ultimately it is a waste of time for the person jumping into their friend’s community, because they get way less benefit than their friend.
My brother and I had fanciful dreams of building up our enclave, in much the same way that we had built giant worlds together on a Minecraft server. But, it didn’t take long to realise how unsatisfying it was going to be for both of us, and after a couple hours we gave up on the multiplayer all together.
Players should also be aware just how purposeless this experience can be. Though there are smaller community goals for character-specific missions, ultimately everything you do is just feeding into the loop of building up your base. But without a clear overarching narrative this process ultimately has no reward other than the enjoyment you get in building up your community. For some, this loop will be more than enough to motivate their time in the State of Decay 2; for others, it may not.
These aspects may sound dire, but ultimately the strength of the core loop means the game is still incredibly fun despite these flaws. Besides, for those looking to prove their zombie apocalypse survival skills, there is currently no better place to do so than State of Decay 2. You may have to suffer some bugs and an experience not all that improved from the original, but in return you get the satisfaction of creating a personalised community and base through which you can prove your survival chops. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t yet include any boats or conservation islands, so I couldn’t put my personal survival strategy to the test. Maybe State of Decay 3 will finally give me my shot.
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