Few games have ever created basic needs of food, water and shelter as a game changing mechanic however with State of Decay, Undead Labs have hit the nail on the head so many times you can forgive them for building a somewhat ramshackle structure. State of Decay is a 3rd person, action survival game set in an open world where players must quite literally survive and escape. Not only that, but if there was ever a game that shamelessly (and quite rightly) takes its inspiration from the TV series, The Walking Dead, this is it.
The game begins abruptly with giving the player control of a character who is immediately thrust into action, smashing zombies with his stick to save a friend. Without spending too much time discussing the reasons why zombies have suddenly attacked and taken over their camp site, the player and his friend progress through what could roughly be called a tutorial session that introduces character swapping, looting and fighting.
After this, the player is essentially let loose on Tumbull Valley to set up home base, explore, scavenge and search for survivors of the apocalypse to save and recruit. While there is an over-arching storyline, the main narrative of the game is driven by the player’s choices and decisions. Given a home base and survivors to provide for, the player’s foremost objective is surviving till the next day while secondary objectives are to find more survivors and find a way out of the valley to safety. The developers have cleverly weaved a number of features into the game to make it compelling, tense and enjoyable and behind the dirty curtain is a wealth of great content.
The game play mechanic for staying alive is conducted through a management system that directs the finite resources (food, medicine, ammo, materials and fuel) you scavenge into a deep and complex base sim. Resources you gather are all consumed in varying quantities based on the number of survivors in your camp and the buildings and outposts you have built to defend yourself. Constructing watch towers and sniper posts will help spot zombies further away giving you advance warning, however costs the community materials to build and ammo to maintain. Something the player has to source! Consumption rates will vary largely as you play so you are constantly managing and changing your priorities based on what your home base requires. Fail to provide adequate security and you may get over-run, fail to feed your survivors and they’ll leave. While this is all starting to sound like a tower defence game, its the fact that you can control any one of your community at a time that makes it fun. The player can swap between any character at any time in order to take advantage of a specific skill or trait the player favours for a given situation. If you’re going out at night, you may wish to take your more nimble woman with high stamina then the big burly, wrench wielding beef eater; for example. Every survivor you find and rescue will have a different set of traits, personality and up-grade tree (rpg style).
Where the game gets deeper is how the survivors interact with the world around them. When not controlling one of your survivors, the others mill around and generally maintain the base. They’ll go out hunting for resources if you’re low, look for food if you’ve not enough or run away if they don’t get along with some one else. There is a complex system of keeping your resources at a high enough level to keep every happy and progressing through the story and foraging for every day items such as snacks, ammunition, and weapons just to keep you going in the field. Neglect your home and everyone will leave, neglect to scavenge and you’ll get caught off guard and killed.
The next game-play feature is the scavenging, foraging and game world exploration. Its a deep and rich experience that has players warily searching through buildings in search of precious and finite resources. Searching makes a certain amount of noise that nearby zombies will be attracted to; make too much noise and you have a ruck on your hands. Thankfully the combat is solid and satisfying and genuinely the strongest and most flawless part of the game. Melee weapons strike with a thud or slash depending on the type and you can physically watch zombie limbs sever and heads cave in. Its not gruesome or in anyway glorified when there are a dozen of them running at you and panic sets in. Additionally the guns are well designed, hard to find and short on ammo making their use nothing short of a last resort. Firing a weapon typically calls the hordes so players are forced to maintain strict use of firearms unless they want to be over run. The characters, being only human survivors, are also realistically slow and clumsy with the weapons meaning you won’t see any military grade reload speeds or accurate fire until you’ve got some experience.
The final and most significant feature is the fact that when a character is killed, they are removed from that play through permanently. This applies not only to player controlled characters, but also AI ones and other survivors who might call on your aid. Playing recklessly will get you killed, forcing you to continue your game with a different character. Run out of survivors in your base and its game over! Similarly, ignore too many survivor’s calls for help and they will be over-run and slaughtered. While this doesn’t feel like a huge issue to begin with, sticking together is the essence of survival and by letting some characters die, you could be killing off entire quest lines or support features you never knew where there. The weight behind death makes State of Decay a game that’s hard to stay alive, but one in which you really scrape the barrel trying!
Considering these are by no means all the features the open world game entails, these are the most bright and enjoyable. There is more depth in upgrade systems, support options, survivor quests and side missions that we could get into but there is little point when it all serves to what is already a great experience. That all being said however, the game is very buggy. There are a plenty of graphical hitches and AI failures that will detract from the fun and sometimes break your home base model but considering how much the game achieves for a downloadable game, its easily forgiven. You’ll often see zombies popping through walls and doors; quests won’t reset or won’t start, vehicles will bump and flip randomly on smooth roads but for the most part you can look past it. I must have encountered several dozen bugs but none severe enough to break my world, just restart the game and pray for a quest reset. I had to do the final mission 3 times because of a bug! There is also a frustrating lack of information about your home base, especially when it comes to resources. Given that these drive your ultimate survival, its annoying that you’re never sure how to maximise your consumption since it is never clear where your resources are going. Consumption will randomly fluctuate causing you to panic and re-strategise on a regular basis but there is no way of knowing why or stopping it. Hopefully with title up-dates already in progress it should be an even better game in the weeks to come than it already is now.
Regardless however, State of Decay is a big game within its Xbox Live Arcade rivals but can even compete with the retail releases. Its a very large and varied game and well worth the price considering you can get 10-20 hrs per play through with plenty of reason to play more than once.