You finally reach shore after a long fishing trip on a lake in the mountains with your buddy. You decided to go dark and have no communication with the outside world so you could enjoy your vacation. Unfortunately while you were gone the world has gone to hell in a hand basket like it tends to do during the zombie apocalypse. Your first inclination that something is amiss is when your buddy Ed is fighting off the cannibalistic undead while you were finding your land legs. You are Marcus and you are the player’s entry point into the recently released State of Decay.
Undead Labs developed State of Decay to be the game where players can make up their own zombie survival plans and manage both the fruits and consequences of their labors. State takes the open world approach of a Grand Theft Auto title while tossing in base and group management and uses that to create a world where resources dwindle but zombies keep spawning. With only a small spattering of story-laced missions to push the game to the next level, NPC and mission generation is largely random turning the game into a rather ambitious sandbox title with no strong central narrative only available on XBLA and eventually PC thanks to a publishing deal with Microsoft Studios.
State of Decay’s basic premise is the day-to-day survival of a group of survivors forced into a new way of life. As mentioned before, players start as Marcus and eventually end up joining a group holed up in a church. Bringing other survivors into the group and building relationships to the point of being friends gives players access to playing as other survivors in addition to Marcus. At this point you aren’t really playing as a particular person but as the group while managing their resources. With a vast array of characters to play as, State of Decay seems like it would be prime for some awesome co-op action but alas it is only single player. The lack of sharing the experience with friends feels like a real missed opportunity.
The world of State of Decay takes place in a 16 square kilometer mountainous area. The world is filled with a varied environment of a state park, small town, and a small city along with the appropriate in between areas. As soon as you get out of the beginning area, you can travel almost anywhere in the area though you will likely want to stay close to your homebase. Like any good patch of American land, there are a large variety of weapons laying around –melee and ranged variety — and they will all be needed because zombies litter the map randomly wandering around and sometimes forming zombie hordes or infesting a location.
The gameplay is a strong mix of stealth, melee, and ranged combat with a healthy dose of exploration. Unfortunately the game can end up feeling tedious even with a wide variety of random missions. Most of the time you will enter a structure, eliminate the threat, and then start looking in various glowing containers for hidden loot which I guess is actually a pretty accurate portayal of the zombie apocalypse. Noise management and line of sight play a big role in how the zombies react to you. Shooting off guns or rushing the loot process makes you louder and attracts the undead threat. It all comes down to the type of experience you can survive — guns a blazing or a nice game of avoidance picking off the solitary zombies.
Group management is the key to doing well in State of Decay, because death is permanent. There is no reloading a saved game or pausing it at the right moment and dashboarding. The game autosaves as soon as you die. This might turn some players off but you can’t deny that State of Decay is a game where your choices truly matter. Food, shelter, ammo, and medicine are all needed among the other dwindling resources. Do you make a supply run or help a friendly group of scavengers? Do you save another group from getting over run and then allow them to join your group? In a normal video game world, you would do anything and everything to help others because that is usually how you are rewarded. In the State of Decay, helping scavengers might lead you into the death trap that kills your highly skilled character you have been building up or allowing more to join your group will be too much of a drain on the group’s resources and send your group into a downward spiral that you can’t recover from.
State of Decay has its technical issues with dips in framerate, massive amounts of clipping, horrendous AI pathing, and the ability to get stuck trying to run around invisible objects. Most of them can easily be forgiven because the core game is just that good but I have to admit that the getting stuck while trying to run between a fellow survivor and a tree is extremely frustrating. Graphically the game is functional; zombies look like zombies, people look like people. Things look like things but there is nothing in the game that will make you think wow and that is ok because as gamers we have accepted that as a standard in graphical fidelity of open world sandbox titles. That does not excuse some pretty awful voice acting though. There is a huge amount of dissonance between the quality of acting between actors in both the story and random mission dialogues.