|Publisher||Xbox Game Studios|
|Platforms||PC (reviewed), Xbox One|
|Release Date||May 22, 2018|
Your community of survivors gets a desperate call from someone holed-up in a church in need of an evac. You’ve been out all night scavenging and are exhausted, but you’re the closest to them, so you go in. When you and your partner arrive, you find that the entrance to the church is blocked by a pile of mangled cars. You get out to hoof it past the dozens of red-eyed “plague” zombies wandering the churchyard, sneaking through the underbrush until you find the church surrounded by at least thirty undead. Very fortunately, your partner looted a grenade launcher from an overrun army outpost just up the road. She unloads, exploding a dozen zombies at a time, undead sausages raining from the sky. When it’s over, the horde is culled, so you cut down the stragglers with repurposed garden implements, kick down the door, drop a cool one-liner, and get the heck out of dodge with the grateful survivor.
But the explosions have attracted attention. The way you came in is now flooded with dozens more zombies, and you’re out of grenade rounds. The three of you sneak around back past a wrecked gas station, avoiding another horde as well as a freakish, roaring “feral” zombie that runs on all fours. Just as you sight your SUV, a “screamer” zombie spots you and lets loose a horrific howl, ringing the dinner bell for every freak in earshot. Your trio sprints through the pile-up of cars, sliding over car hoods like the Dukes of Hazard, as zombies close in. You burn rubber, plowing through half a dozen of them as you floor it down the abandoned highway.
To thank you for saving their butt, the survivor gifts your community a rucksack full of desperately-needed medical supplies that will help cure your friend who has contracted “blood plague.” The sun rises, the wind carries a zombie’s moan, and it’s just another day in Undead Labs’ State of Decay 2.
WHAT IS IT?
State of Decay 2 is a survival simulation game featuring combat, community and resource management, and base-building in the former United States that now belongs to the zombies. The game provides many customization options to make the experience all your own, but it has some latent bugginess that at times frustrates the experience.
Notably, State of Decay 2 has an overall fun and hopeful vibe to it (think Left 4 Dead) without ruining its survivalist aesthetic. In this regard, it’s basically the polar opposite of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series or the syndicated show of the same name. The game is serious without taking itself too seriously.
Rated M for Mature by the ESRB, State of Decay 2 features violence, gore, unsettling images of plagues and death, alcohol and tobacco use, coarse language, and a pickup truck emblazoned with an American eagle that shoots flames out of its bottom.
For a game that came out in 2018, State of Decay 2 could surely look better, but it doesn’t look bad given what it’s doing. State of Decay 2 doesn’t feature a linear-open hybrid environment like in The Last of Us or Resident Evil 2 Remake; it’s fully open. That means it’s not focused on impressing the player with cinematography or motion-captured facial expressions, and many building layouts and other assets are frequently reused, too. Even given these facts, the environments don’t feel stale, and we can all gloss over the fact that the characters are basically flat because this game isn’t trying to be Horizon: Zero Dawn with zombies.
State of Decay 2 excels most in sound design, particularly in sound effects, and this is necessary given the nature of the scavenging/surviving experience. Hearing a zombie’s raspy breathing from behind the door of the storage shed you’re trying to loot is tactically important when there are a whole bunch more zombies nearby that you’d rather not alert. As it turns out, decapitation isn’t the quietest thing in the world.
Musically, State of Decay 2’s score is reminiscent of the sad, ambient guitars and violins of The Walking Dead, though when the zombies show up, the music gets appropriately tense. Overall it does what it needs to do. It’s got some notable tracks for sure, but I wouldn’t call it Jesper Kyd’s most inspired work.
Overall, the presentation elements of State of Decay 2 are adequate without being standout.
It’s encouraging to see that State of Decay 2 seems to be well-supported by its development team. A major update was even released while I was playing it for this review, adding a new difficulty level, extra “bounty” loot (see below) and, I think, more zombies…I feel like there were way more zombies after that update. Maybe I’m just a weenie?
State of Decay 2 features five different open-world maps: Four new maps for the regular campaign mode, and Trumbull Valley—an updated version of the region from the original State of Decay—for the “Heartland” add-on campaign. There’s a lot of scavenging to do, a lot of areas to learn, and a lot of bases you could inhabit. There is also a multiplayer “gauntlet” mode where a squad of soldiers fights increasingly difficult waves of zombies for special currency you can use to buy cool stuff in the regular campaign.
On your first playthrough, you’ll be sent to one of the four main maps randomly. From there, you can research the locations of the other maps and relocate your entire community to one. That’s right: You can take everything you’ve done in one map, pick it up, and move to a completely different map for a fresh start.
On new playthroughs, you can choose which map you’d like to start in. There’s plenty of incentive to replay the game in new regions or to really draw out your main campaign by setting up shop in every available map over a long time.
There’s a bounty man who looks like the Texan from The Simpsons. He offers you additional challenges and incentivizes you with special loot, like silly outfits or powerful guns. You can only pursue three bounties at a time and there are seasonal and special event bounties you’ll need to prioritize before they go away. This is a fun way to reward players and to keep things fresh.
I did not play multiplayer for this review, but there is a multiplayer option, and it’s cross-platform compatible between PC and XBOX 1. With a friend, I imagine this could be a lot of fun. With randoms on the internet, I imagine it could be frustrating and you might get your loot stolen or your game sabotaged by people who think that sort of thing is fun.
State of Decay 2 does a lot with its simple toolkit of managing your resources and base, customizing and kitting characters, gathering and maintaining vehicles, engaging with NPCs, and of course, grinding zombies into the world’s worst sausage. As your community continues to grow and time passes, more and more zombies begin wandering the abandoned roads, buildings, and forests, forcing you to reach deeper into your skill and resource pools to withstand these increasingly deadly threats.
The game does a great job of recreating the “the world is this way now” feeling that the middle seasons of The Walking Dead manage to capture so well. Zombies are a constant, looming threat and can always be either heard or seen, even if they’re just silhouettes shambling in the distance while you’re searching for bags of Cheese Doodles in a derelict greasy spoon. Yet they are not the only thing to fear in this world that’s been conquered by the dead.
Necessary items are constantly whittling away. Without a supply of construction materials, your base will fall into shambles. People get sick or injured and need time to recover afterward. Trucking through a horde of zombies with your modified “smash wagon” is cathartic, but it also means you’ll need to repair your car afterward—you’d better have a mechanic in your group! All of these considerations are important in how you play the game, and you must take them into account as you scavenge materials, hotwire vehicles, expand your influence, and clear out infested areas.
The best part of State of Decay 2 is the (relatively) unscripted nature of its challenges, similar to what I narrated at the start of this review. While you can work to avoid certain threats or prepare for others, you’re never completely sure about what you’re going to face out there.
NPCs and Trade
State of Decay 2 features other groups of survivors who can be traded with, allied, brought into the fold, or who attempt banditry against your group. Working with people provides tertiary benefits like trade discounts and alliances, while choosing to act like Negan is also possible and yields immediate material benefits at the expense of being despised. A squad of heavily-armed human NPCs cornering you on what you thought would be a routine supply run introduces the right brand of chaos into the cycles of side missions, supply runs, and base management.
Your base in State of Decay 2 is upkept through building materials, fuel, medicine, ammo, and food, all of which deteriorate over time and require you to replenish and manage. Every character has the option to train in a skill that improves the home base, such as farming to grow food or mechanics to maintain cars. The potential size of your community is limited by the physical space as well as your standing with NPC survivors, so you have to be smart in choosing who to recruit, what skills to teach them, etc., if you want to open up as many avenues as possible for effective base management.
Because your space is limited, not all options are open to you. If you choose to build a garden, you might not have room for a shooting range. If you’ve got a power generator, you might have to sacrifice that desperately-needed watchtower.
If you have too many construction projects going on at once, it makes a lot of noise and will attract hordes of zombies to your base. This is more often fun than aggravating, as your community bans together, equipped with the specialized gear you’ve chosen, to fight back the meat horde in montage or glorious butt-kicking.
Character customization options are a lot of fun, and over the course of the game, you can unlock both cosmetic and skill options as you expand. Personally, I try to make every character look unique, and the game provided plenty of ways to do that.
When it comes to character skills, some characters come pre-loaded with unique skills like “pinball” (they have a boost to ranged shooting skill gains). Others are blank slates and you can customize utility skills by finding how-to books out in the world. When a character maximizes a certain type of skill, you can further customize them. Characters maxed in fighting can specialize in bladed or heavy weapons. Characters maxed in “wits” can be extra-stealthy or can become better scavengers.
Combat is not terribly complex and is more about strategy than training your hitscan accuracy. It’s adequate and satisfying considering the nature of the gameplay without being inaccessible to vast swaths of players.
One of State of Decay 2’s standout selling points is its replayability. Once you complete a standard campaign, you have the option to retain any members of your community—skills, equipment, and all—and feature them as the members of a new community. So the “heroes” from your original campaign become the founders of a new community. Your “second-in-command” from your previous campaign, who would have led differently if she’d had her way, now no longer answers to your previous leader.
State of Decay 2 lets you choose how you want to live in the apocalypse in almost every way. From the vehicles you fuel and upgrade, to the people you recruit or oppress, to the leader you elect, to the skills you train in, the world is your undead oyster.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT
State of Decay 2 is loads of fun, but there are some areas the developers need to or could possibly flesh out to improve the experience.
No weather effects. It would be interesting to have weather effects that negatively or positively affect your base condition (rain = better garden yields, but it also damages structures, requiring extra materials; snow muffles sound, making it easier to sneak, but requires more fuel to keep the base heated and comfy). Right now, we only have a day-night cycle. Speaking of:
The option to rest overnight. While I totally get that the developers created a day-night cycle and we wouldn’t want to deny players the challenge of navigating the environment in the dark, the truth is, most people in a zombie apocalypse wouldn’t be dumb enough to go out at night unless it was absolutely needed. The developers should find ways to incentivize players to go out at night without forcing the matter.
Easily the biggest problem with State of Decay 2 is its bugginess. I don’t think I had single play session where there wasn’t some bug that seriously or minorly annoyed me. The most common bugs include:
- Hordes of zombies spawning inside map assets and clipping through them; this usually happens with clefts in rocks. Now your AI-controlled companion is wasting ammo trying to kill them and is only hitting the game’s invisible walls.
- At one point, I switched characters inside an outpost and my AI companion disappeared. I had to return to the home base to get the disappeared character to reappear.
- The player or the player-controlled vehicle getting stuck or wedged into spots they can’t escape from. There’s an in-game command that will respawn your character/vehicle nearby, but it happens so much that they had to put the command in at all.
- Characters getting stuck in a sprint animation. This most often happens in the middle of a battle, so that’s fun.
- Zombies falling down in places where the execute command causes your character to trip for some reason. Often, this is next to a vehicle or in a doorway; another interactable seems to cause the issue.
- The environmental interaction button and talk button share a key binding, so there are times when you’re trying to open a door or open some loot, but you accidentally talk to another character. This is annoying when your base is being attacked and you were trying to decapitate a zombie, not have some water cooler chat.
The list of frequent bugs is not small, but the game still managed to keep me interested enough to just deal with them, and nothing broke the game. That’s saying a lot.
The meat of State of Decay 2 isn’t found in its plot or in its attempt to prove Roger Ebert wrong about video games being art. Rather, the game’s meat is found in the simulated experience of living day-to-day in a world that is literally out to eat you. It’s the kind of game you can learn by playing for a couple of hours, then leave it for a few days or even a week before coming back to it. There aren’t important plot points or characters to remember, and available missions are easy to navigate and simple to understand.
State of Decay 2 is a great floor, and I don’t think we’ve come close to the ceiling of what it could do. I would love to see an update to this game or a third installment that takes everything that worked here, improves on it, and adds new content and challenges as well. The developers are apparently working on a big update for fall of 2020 and are using the play data from the new green zones (basically Weenie Hut Jr. difficulty) for that project.
At $30, State of Decay 2 has already filled over thirty hours of my time. If you really got into this game or found some friends who wanted to play together, I imagine you could sink a hundred hours into the post-apocalypse. That’s more than can be said for Resident Evil 3 Remake…and for half the price.
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The Bottom Line
State of Decay 2 is a huge improvement over its 2013 predecessor. The game will appeal to fans of survival simulation and zombie games, but its bugginess and grindy-ness may turn off gamers without a lot of time to spare or those with little interest in these subgenres.