Score: 6.5/10 Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), Windows PC Developer: Undead Labs Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios Release Date: May 22, 2018 ESRB: M
I had precisely 24 minutes to find the resources necessary to concoct a zombie Blood Plague cure for Sergio, who had taken several bites from infected undead while on his last foraging mission, and the clock was ticking.
The key ingredient was medical supplies, of which I had none on hand. And I knew I’d already cleaned out the local veterinary clinic of any worthwhile items. That meant I’d need to venture further abroad in the zombie wasteland to find what I needed, which would take more time and be more dangerous.
I started by radioing the network of survivors that had formed over the 15 months since civilization fell, asking if anyone knew where I might be able to scavenge some medicine. Then I headed to our community’s supply locker and made sure the character I was currently controlling, Carmen, and her partner Kinsey were well stocked with knives, guns, painkillers, and gas. As we headed toward the car word came back over the radio that we might be able to find the supplies we needed in one of a few locations in a town about a kilometre away. I noted the spots on our map and put the pedal to the metal.
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Hurtling through small hordes of zombies that bounced and splattered off the car’s hood like sacks of rotten meat, we pulled up to the first location — a deserted nail salon — and quickly cleared it of infected before ransacking the place for supplies. No luck. A similar scene played out at the next location, an abandoned garage. Time was growing short. Thankfully, the third location — a nondescript house — held what we were looking for. I filled a rucksack with medicine while Kinsey fought of a pair of zombies that suddenly burst through the living room window. We jumped back in the car and headed home. Just eight minutes remained as I entered the infirmary, crafted the cure and saved poor Sergio’s life.
These are some of the best moments in State of Decay 2, parts of which play almost like missing scenes from an episode of The Walking Dead. Community is paramount. Choices have consequences. You can’t save or satisfy everyone. People will die. These are key themes that run throughout the experience, backed by a bold “permadeath” feature — meaning any survivor who dies in your community (even heroes you’ve spent hours cultivating) stays dead forever. It does an admirable job of capturing the stress and minutia of living in a world in which zombies vastly outnumber human survivors.
However, other parts of the game are a little less enchanting.
It’s a zombie survival simulation, with an emphasis on simulation. As you build up your community of survivors you must attend to their constant needs — almost Sims-style — by ensuring they have adequate food, beds, fuel, and ammunition, and that their injuries and exhaustion are properly attended to before they collapse. If you fail to appease these needs they’ll grow demoralized, begin to starve, get into fights with other people and could eventually abandon your home, never to be seen again.
What all of this means is that your scavenging and exploration efforts will be largely focused on supply runs. You’ll investigate a neighbourhood, clearing it of zombies and gathering everything of value that you can, then head back home to top up your supplies — only to realize that another key resource stockpile is dwindling and needs attention, which inevitably leads to another supply run. And then another.
Surprisingly, this intense repetition takes a while to grow old, thanks largely to some satisfying zombie combat and the inherent thrill of exploration, not knowing who or what you might find behind each closed door. But it does eventually become stale. I found myself wishing for greater diversity in locations (there are entirely too many cookie cutter laundromats and convenience stores), as well as a slower clock that would let me spend more time doing some of the game’s more interesting activities, such as meeting, helping, and getting to know other enclaves, many of which provide us with reasons more satisfying than simple supply runs to keep exploring the world — such as one group that’s trying to collect stuff necessary to create a still but which repeatedly puts our survivors in danger by scavenging while impaired.
I also wish the writers could have given us a little more of a narrative. The characters, while diverse and often likeable, feel a bit flat, lacking much in the way of grander goals beyond the community leader’s specific objectives to improve his or her enclave’s lot in this awful new world. I realize it must be tricky to build a story around characters any and all of whom could die permanently at any moment, but the lack of a meaningful throughline is noticeable.
Know, too, that State of Decay 2 is plagued with technical problems, from a shoddy frame rate to a tendency for characters to get stuck in environmental architecture to a bug I encountered in which one of my favourite survivors refused to be satisfied even after I delivered the supplies she said she wanted and left the community. The game’s release was delayed several months so that the developers at Undead Labs could polish it up, but it still feels like it could have used a little more time in the oven.
Despite its obvious problems, however, I’ve felt myself drawn back night after night. I want to grow my little community, expand its influence and see each member’s objectives, however mundane, completed. There’s something about the authenticity of the simulation — even though that authenticity sometimes gets in the way of having fun — that I’ve found oddly compelling. It might be the closest the game industry has yet come to imagining the mix of tension and monotony of routine life in a world of undead.
If that sounds as fascinating to you as it does to me, State of Decay 2 might be worth investigating, warts and all.