Review – State of Decay
The jaded gamer could well be forgiven for casually glancing at State of Decay and thinking ‘just another zombie game.’ And yet, Undead Labs have created an open world zombie apocalypse experience that is unlike anything previously released. Here is a game that is innovative, unique, creative, and one that challenges not only your assumptions about what a ‘zombie game’ can be, but the very way in which you choose to tackle the experience.
Let’s face it – the amount of zombie themed games on the market these days is almost as populous as the zombie fiends who feature within them. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say we have reached (and some would argue far surpassed) market saturation when it comes to zombie apocalypse games. We’ve seen shooter zombie games, we’ve seen strategy zombie games, we’ve seen popular games spawn their own zombie specific multiplayer maps simply to keep up with the almost unsatiable demand for zombie themed games. But, despite all these, there has been one thing missing – an innovative game which challenges you not only to defeat the zombie hordes set against you, but to survive in a world which has, to be brutally honest, gone to absolute hell. State of Decay is that game.
In State of Decay, you begin as Marcus Campbell, a store clerk who, luckily for the player, also happens to be a born leader. Returning from a fishing trip with one of his good friends, Marcus arrives back to civilisation to discover the world is in the grip of a zombie apocalypse. The story unfolds from there, as Marcus learns piece by piece what has happened and struggles with surviving in a world that has been turned upside down. The game itself is divided into main storyline quests, which progress the core story of State of Decay, interspersed with side missions that pop up randomly and require you to complete certain objectives. These side missions are entirely optional, and it is up to the player to decide if they wish to accept them, however they do provide rewards and completing them does net bonuses that make the main storyline that much easier to play. These side missions are a mix of scavenging, exploration, assisting allies in need and dispatching enemy zombie threats and they are a welcome addition to the main storyline. If you play for extended periods of time, however, they can become slightly repetitive, but this is a small criticism when it comes to the larger gameplay as a whole.
Survival is a huge part of the gameplay within State of Decay. During your time with the game, you will be concerned not only with your own survival, but with the survival of your band of survivors, and other survivors you discover during your exploration of the world. Keeping yourself rested and healthy is a key component of the game, and if you push yourself too much or try to take on too much in a short amount of time, your ability to fight zombies and explore the world will be hampered. In State of Decay, your health bar and your fatigue bar aren’t simply red and blue bars on your HUD – they are gauges for how efficiently you are surviving within the world, and how effective you are at navigating through it. If you do not pay attention to them, or if you take unnecessary risks, you will die within the game. But more on that later.
Within the game, you will be tasked with scavenging for resources that you’ll need to survive. These include food, medicine, ammo and supplies to fortify your home base and make improvements to make it more secure. State of Decay allows you to select sites to establish your home base, which is your (and your fellow survivees) santuary within the game world. A player may only have one home base at a time, but this home base is able to be fortified and improvements added to it to increase the health and effectiveness of your survivors. Outposts are able to be established around the home base to further fortify and protect your band of survivors, and wily players will take this into account when selecting a base to make their own. As your band of survivors grows you will be forced to abandon smaller bases and move into larger ones, and here strategy comes into play. The game provides you with a multitude of bases to select and it is up to you as the player to decide which is the best site for you. Each base has it’s strengths and weaknesses, and this is one of the many avenues where State of Decay allows the player to choose how they wish to interact with the game world.
Speaking of resources, the game world itself provides an immense area in which to explore. Almost every single house and building you see can be entered and searched for supplies, and the game world itself is massive. Simply exploring is a game in itself, as there are hundreds of buildings to search and scavenge for supplies. Thankfully, given the scope of State of Decay, the game provides visual cues to the player to let them know when they have exhausted the resources at a particular location. The player will be informed when they have discovered all there is to find at a location, and a small black cross will be placed on top of that building on the map. Whilst this sounds like a small thing, when you are driving through areas it is extremely helpful to see at a glance the places you have already scavenged so you don’t double back.
The scale of the world is not the only aspect that impresses – the small details that Undead Labs have included within the world give it it’s own unique feel. There are a myriad of places to explore, from farms to fields to small towns and residences. Upon coming across the landing gear of a plane on a road, I turned into a large field to discover the rest of the plane, crashed and smoldering, and I had to pause to appreciate the nuanced elements of the gameworld. State of Decay is truly an open world zombie apocalypse experience, and what an amazing experience simply exploring the world is.
In exploring the world, you’ll be able to choose which of your survivors you wish to play as. As soon as you work up enough influence with a survivor, they will become playable and you will be able to swap between them, completing missions whilst taking into account each survivor’s unique skills and abilities. As you explore the game world as a particular character, you will level up their skills – complete an action, such as scavenging or fighting zombies, and you will improve the related skill. In this way, the exploration element perfectly compliments the skills enhancement as the more you complete a particular action, the better you get at it. You are able to improve a large amount of skills, from fighting and cardio to leadership and firearms, with each skill tied to an action in the game world. The game clearly shows you when you have levelled up a skill to the next level, but if you ever wish to check on each of your survivor’s skill levels, you are able to use the in game journal to check.
This journal is perfectly structured, and is an essential resource to peruse if you wish to keep abreast with events in game. State of Decay operates in real world time, meaning the game continues even when you are not physically playing. Upon starting up your save game, the first thing you will want to do is check out what has occured during the time you have been away, and the journal has been perfectly designed for this. Your journal will let you know about in-game events, in addition to providing you with information on each of your survivors, your homebase, and your supplies. It’s essential reading if you wish to stay up to date, and Undead Labs has done an incredible job not only of integrating it into the gameplay, but of making it so easy to understand and refer to.
Another area in which Undead Labs have excelled is in the core gameplay – State of Decay is all about survival, and to be completely honest, if you’re playing this game as a zombie shooter, you’re playing it wrong. The focus of State of Decay is on surviving: stealth, evasion, distractions, bartering for resources and survivor community management are all core activities you will need to engage in to survive. The actual zombie combat is secondary to this. In State of Decay, you’re able to manage your survivor community, to put your survivors to work to scavenge supplies, find new home bases or pick up supplies discovered by you. As the player, you choose how you engage zombie enemies, and sometimes the best option is to evade or distract rather than attack. Believing yourself to be untouchable is a sure fire way to get yourself killed, as I discovered to my horror during my playthrough.
During a particular mission I, as Marcus, chose to take on one of the harder enemies in the game. I chose a ‘balls to the wall’ frontal attack that ended in me watching poor Marcus be ripped apart by the enemy I was attempting to kill. Whilst this was horrifying in itself, what was most unsettling was the fact that as a result of that skirmish, I lost Marcus forever. Any death in State of Decay is a permanent death. As a result, if one of your survivors dies, you lose them and all their skills you have patiently spent levelling up. Realising this was an incredible blow to me, not only because I had spent so much time with this character, but also because I had invested a great deal of time in levelling up his skills. And because of my unthinking action, I had lost him.
It is hard to describe what I felt at this realisation – the closest I can come to is the feeling you have when a beloved character from a novel is horrifyingly and without warning killed by the author. I’m not ashamed to admit I grieved over the loss of Marcus. The game is designed so that you cannot simply reload a previous save and go back. Nor can you start a new game without wiping all your previous progress. If you lose a character, you lose them forever. And this was devastating for me.
As a result, I had to decide whether to continue on without Marcus, or start a completely new game from the beginning. I chose the former, vowing to remember Marcus’s sacrifice, and deciding never again to be so reckless. Because of this, my experience with the game changed. The way I interacted with the gameworld turned on its head – I no longer took risks because the consequences of failure were so high. I stopped going out on raids at night. I stayed closer to my homebase. I no longer engaged with enemy zombies, preferring to stealthily grab what I needed without attacking nearby zombies. One event in game made me re-evaluate the way I played, and for this I must applaud Undead Labs.
This is the clearest example of the innovation that Undead Labs have achieved with State of Decay. To be able to alter the way in which a player approaches your game is not only impressive but something that Undead Labs should be applauded for. Undead Labs have showcased innovation and creativity within a genre that has stagnated and become mundane. State of Decay is the zombie apocalypse game that stands head and shoulders above all its competition. It is the pinnicle of the genre and an experience that should be embraced by all those feeling let down by recent zombie offerings. If you enjoy world exploration, challenging gameplay, strategy and freedom of choice, State of Decay provides all these within the setting of a zombie apocalypse. And whilst the visual aspects of the game might suffer from glitching and pop in every now and then, this is once again a small criticism to level against a game that excels in all other areas.
For those of you who have yet to play it – download it now. At 1600 Microsoft Points, it is an absolute steal.
State of Decay scores a 9 out of 10. For more information, head to the official website. And if you happen to hear about a Survivor Grieving Anonymous group, let me know? I still miss you, Marcus.