I’m hurtling down a country highway in an old, beat up station wagon; a pack of ravenous undead cling to the outside and try to claw their way in, all while the vehicle is engulfed in flames. They break in and quickly rip out this poor survivor; the car rolls into a tree, a blazing inferno. Four, five, six, maybe more of the “reanimated” pounce on the driver – this is not Ed Jones’ day. Suddenly, a bright and glorious flash of orange incinerates the attackers granting them their second death. Ed stands up – he still has two legs to do so – and surveys the wreckage: what was seconds ago his coffin on wheels, now his saviour. He’s nowhere near unscathed, but he’s still breathing and that counts. Time to head home.
This is just one of an infinite possibility of harrowing scenarios in Trumball Valley.
State of Decay might just be the Zombocalypse game you didn’t know you were waiting for.
A gently plucked guitar sounded in my ears upon one of my first arrivals back to home base after a day of scavenging and killing. A warm respite from a day’s unthinkable work. I’ve earned this, I think to myself.
This theme reoccurred more times than I cared to keep track. Surprisingly, it didn’t grate. Even after losing a group member it crept in and cut through the sombre mood – some have died, but some still live. State of Decay has these little moments; environmental moments that caught me off guard. An abandoned car placed just a certain way is an implied story of hope lost, or maybe gained. The sun obscures and dawns; perception is transformed, but perception was always unreliable; fear awakens in the night, but a pipe wrench is no less effective. Artifacts are preserved – a change of state is witnessed, however small.
There’s this truck, jettisoned on the side of the road at the edge of a valley. It has a story to it, but I’m not sure how to explain it. I’ll try.
My first thoughts after seeing the credits roll are “no, why!?” and “more, more!” Like the Undead’s insatiable hunger I can’t let go of this world, I want to keep gnawing at it and taste every juicy bit. It’s made me zombie-like, see? That’s where I was going.
State of Decay hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed– it’s sold one million copies— but still it somehow seems to have gone under the radar. This could be because it released one week before The Last of Us; while the two games are entirely dissimilar and fill completely different voids they’re both lumped under the “Games with Zombies” banner. The few times I’d heard it mentioned the title brought a vague awareness but not much more. Well, after playing it I’ll be remembering it for a long time. “Fills a void” would indeed be a key descriptor I’d bestow. I haven’t played every apocalypse/zombie outbreak/end times game in existence, but of what I have I can say nothing compares to State of Decay.
Today many can be witnessed saying “I’m so tired of zombies and the whole genre in general,” etc. Yes, maybe it’s overkill (yuup) but with such a declaration some reading between the lines is in order: the real sentiment behind such a shot is “I’m tired of mediocrity.” State of Decay is deathly allergic to mediocrity, let me tell you. If you’ve read reviews and shied away because this game sounds like a special team at Bethesda was formed whose sole purpose was to extract every bug and quirk from all their games and turn them into their own game, One: that’s a pretty strange but ambitious project, Two: that reviewer has led you astray, Three: run on sentences, whew. It’s true that the game is what you’d call “rough around the edges” but so is a lot of shit. Take Madden NFL, for example: it’s got to be one of the top 5 franchises in the game industry, maybe top 2 if you talk about iterative releases every year. I’ve been watching football for as long as I have memories and I consider myself a die hard fan of the sport, and I’m comfortable saying that Madden is by far the worst of any sports franchise I’ve played. It’s worse than NHL, it’s worse than NBA Jam, and it’s a fuckton worse than MLB The Show and FIFA, the two exemplars in my opinion. Objectively, it’s just terrible all around, consistently too. If you ask the lead director of Madden what sells the games every year they’ll probably tell you that their goal is to replicate that Sunday Presentation, top to bottom. They fail miserably. The commentary– arguably the most integral part of transferring that experience– is supremely pathetic. I’ve been winning games by 50+ points with minutes left in the fourth quarter and Phil Simms questions decisions I make. Really, Phil? Dolphins-66 Patriots-13 (lulz!) and you’re giving me the business because of a play-calling decision I make when all my backups are in the game playing for shits? Also, on probably 7 out of 10 touchdowns your player’s celebration will involve running through the back wall of the endzone only to reappear seconds later, physically untormented from their experience. I had heard video games had great physics technology and all, but wowzers!
I could rant about how much Madden sucks for three hundred years, but hey, during football season I play it every week. Failures and all. I still put up with Simms’ bullshit because I love football for idiotic reasons that developed when I was five- or six-years old. Love is kind. And stuff.
There’s a lot that’s wonky with State of Decay; you could call it a AA Fallout 3/New Vegas type of experience. (Actually, to be honest, I think it has fewer problems than the Fallouts.) My point is that I’ve been hitting this game as hard as my mayor’s been hitting the crack pipe for one reason: I love good games. God, do I love good games. Sometimes you’re in a funk and don’t even realise (you’re welcome, Brits) until the Souls games come and slap you in the face. It’s a grand statement if I don’t say so myself (what does that even mean?) but State of Decay is Souls-esque in that it ignites my love of quality gameplay with brilliant fervor. Quirks and all. It transcends its technical shortcomings, I promise you that.
“But what is the game itself, you blathering idiot?” First, let me confirm your accusation: it’s true, I am a blathering idiot. Oh, especially an idiot. But especially blathering.
The game starts off unsuspecting enough, though with sharp humor. The screen fades in to two friends enduring their first attack by some “crazies.” You begin by controlling a fellow named Marcus, who with his pal Ed were on their yearly escape from the grind. Yes, doing a little bit of camping and fishing up in some lovely park in Trumball Valley, a collection of small, relatively isolated communities. I immediately begin inspecting the game’s UI and perusing the various nooks and crannies of each menu (there are many). A few things catch my eye. Marcus is a natural athlete and a born leader; those seem like two good qualities to meet the world’s end. Indeed, these qualities play into character stats: his athleticism lends him a trait called Powerhouse which will undoubtedly come in handy when shit hits the fan; likewise, his leadership skills should help to quickly earn trust among encountered survivors. Ed, on the other hand, may not be so useful. His highest starting stat (level 6 of 7) is Reality Show Trivia. I shit you not. The zombies are coming, and Ed has watched a lot of American Idol. Great. His starting weapon: a table leg. Its description reads “the dinner table made the ultimate sacrifice.” Two minutes in and things are already incredibly promising!
After an introductory series of events teaches you the basics (and conspicuously, not a lot more) you’re whisked off to meet up with a group of survivors who raise you over the radio and who are now, for better or worse, your end-of-days house mates. What State of Decay does quickly and relentlessly is establish a consistent mood of tension. I remarked a few days ago to my penguin-murdering arch-nemesis Gregg that the game had me feeling a sustained level of stress, but in that good way. I also made a lofty comparison: that it reminded me of the 1994 X-Com – juggling management of your home base with deciding which vital tasks to complete next. It’s an area where the game excels, particularly in the early going.
However, unlike X-Com, you’re not exactly a proxy for some invisible director – this is not a tactical squad management sim – No, the single most important resource you’re tasked with managing is people. This is where the game’s strategic depth is fully realized. Yes, initially you’re in control of one guy from a third person perspective; by the time you arrive at what is your first home base you’ll in all likliness be in control of a second character. Gradually, as you complete tasks with other survivors, the various group members will be more trusting of you; “you” being the invisible proxy; once a character reaches a certain level of trust they will be unlocked to control. Some characters will unlock almost immediately after you meet them (likely if it was a situation where you saved their life – in which case they, understandably, give you their full trust), and others will progress a bit slower. There are several characters who are tied into some scripted events so I don’t think it’s ever possible to play as them (though I can’t say for certain).
As for the characters you are able to play as, the pacing seemed spot on to me. I never felt like I had too little manpower, and I didn’t feel that I had too much until very near the endgame. (More on that in a bit.)
It’s a fine line that introduces difficult choices. The game uses The Elder Scrolls’ method of leveling skills: do more of something, hone your skills; but without the unbalanced sprawl which, in fairness, suits TES games – each character typically has between four and six skills that are leveled up, most of which occur naturally through the progression of gameplay (fighting, reflexes, wits) while a few will require more focus on careful training (shooting, cardio). The rub is that training up anyone’s skills requires your time – something which has become scarce. When your game begins the outbreak of undead is in its first few days – no one is well stocked or well defensed. There’s not a moment of rest to be had, again adding to the stress element – infestations in nearby houses will rise up, wandering zombie hordes will eventually make their way to your front door, and supplies dwindle by the hour. This is where your choices are vital: what’s the most pressing issue at the moment? Is it the house full of zombies just three doors down from your own home; is it the swarm of the dead spotted off in the distance slowly closing in on you; is it the medicine that your friend Ed– and soon others– will desperately need if a death within is to be prevented; or is it another group of survivors, heard over the radio, offering other valuable resources to be bartered?
It’s an incredibly refreshing system. Where a more, dare I say, relaxed game like The Walking Dead asks you to make difficult choices by clicking A, B, C, or D (don’t get me wrong, I love what it accomplishes), State of Decay forces you to act, immediately and relentlessly. Your actions represent your choices, and what you choose will continually change the balance in your group. If you choose to build up the skills of only one or two individuals you’ll on one hand likely have a small few who are more combat ready with sharper wits, but at the expense of the overall group’s preparedness. An experienced survivor may be able to push their limits for close to an hour of real time, but as the guiding hand you need to know when to call it a day – it’s as simple as heading back to home base (there is no fast travel in Decay; it simply wouldn’t be appropriate) and asking another group member to take over. But forego that limit for the chance to grab some extra medication or weapons, or to clear out an extra infestation and you risk injury. Depending on the state of your medical facilities, as well as if you have someone trained in medicine (I never did – the beauty of randomly generated stats at work), an injury to one of your powerhouse characters could be devastating.
One of the earliest recruits into my community was a chef – because of this I focused on constructing a kitchen to properly cook meals and a group dining area to improve camaraderie; everyone’s morale and vitality went up. Likewise, because I never came across anyone with advanced medical knowledge I was never able to fully upgrade my medical tent; injuries and sicknesses lingered longer than they should have. This introduces another key element of strategy – sometimes the chef is the most able bodied to go out and scavenge for supplies, but get caught in a bad situation and lose him? There goes your kumbaya meal time. (I have yet to mention – death is, as in the real world, quite final. If someone in the group dies there is usually a one line eulogy by radio gal Lily, then it’s back to the grind.) Sometimes the only person well enough to undertake a long trek could be your best marksman, leaving someone less qualified– or no one at all– in your watchtower. When a zombie horde approaches and you’re relying on someone with a shooting skill level of 1 to pick them off before they hit your gate it’s not going to go well. You get the picture.
Choices permeate every bit of State of Decay. On macro and micro levels, every decision will impact how you continue to play the game. There’s only so much space to build in each home base (of which, by the way, there are about 6 to 8 potential sites, I forget exactly): do you build a garden instead of a training area? You’ll not need to scavenge for food anymore, but you’ll have a much harder time improving anyone’s cardio. If that’s the case you won’t last as long in battle when a horde overcomes you, whether you’re alone or have brought someone along. It will change the way you fight. Less effective will the heavy, devastating weapons be because they’re unwieldy after a few swings; a sharper (perhaps literally) approach may be necessary: if you can’t rely on crushing blows you may want to focus on decapitations to keep your stamina up. Swing wildly when completely surrounded and you’ll find your stamina quickly depleted; without which will render your character useless. Try to run and they’ll stumble away climsily, easily opening up to a brutal, potentially life-threatening attack. Stamina management in combat is key – did you take the tedious (and precious) time to run around the yard to train, or do it as much in the open to push yourself while on missions, or were you too busy fighting off infestations, knowing you couldn’t sustain more injuries because of your lacking medical facilities? At least you have a garden. Everything trickles down.
On combat, I learned over time that it is incredibly nuanced – something easily overlooked when your first two weapons are a table leg and a branch. Again, in a Souls-esque way, you’re not explicitly told everything there is to know. I had hints turned on (confidently turn them off if you like, I recommend it) but I don’t think the game once told me that LB + Y would perform a one-hit-kill on downed enemies, and at a cost of no extra stamina than a desperate flurry of overhead wailing would. I figured it out by accident and it changed how I play the game. Give the menus and “how to play” section a quick look, this too I recommend.
I went from, in the beginning, a madman swinging and smashing anything I could hold into zombies to, by the end, a careful and calculated instrument of re-death, doling out punishment to dozens of the undead at a time. It might have even become too easy.
Considering the difficulty, I think it was incredibly well balanced in the early going, and even as I had played for over 20 hours (keep in mind, I am possibly the slowest player of video games in the known universe – my 67-hour first playthrough of Mass Effect 2 is quite possibly a world record, based on statistics released by BioWare) the challenge felt good. A few hours after relocating to a new home base (a large warehouse, quite an upgrade from the dinky church) things felt tipped a bit too greatly in my favour. Granted, I had worked hard to earn the resources to be able to establish the new base, but from that point on the challenge seemed to wear off. Before the move I thought I could play the game forever. Well, that wasn’t the case.
[This section contains what I consider significant spoilers, particularly if you want to be kept in the dark while playing the game. Spoilers end two paragraphis below.]
Throughout your quest for survival there are a handful of missions I would consider the “main story.” Between a few influential neighbors, remnants of local government and some strange activity conducted by the military, a main story is comprised. This is, unfortunately, the weakest aspect of State of Decay. What begins as an intriguing power play by one family and evolves into a minefield of morality fizzles out suddenly and unsatisfyingly. Likewise, your first contact with the military and what remains of the local government promises the usual intrigue of old institutions trying to wield their power in a world where laws are abandoned. Again, both of these stories end anti-climactically, especially with the local law, as after a handful of communications you arrive at their stronghold at one point only to discover most of them slaughtered by a horde. That story snuffed out, just gone. It gives the impression that these main story beats were shoehorned in rather last minute, and considering how good everything else is I find myself not minding that much, as you’re not playing State of Decay to be told a story. Cliche, metaphor, blah blah blah, but you really do create an emergent story of your own.
The game itself, like these missions, ends anti-climactically as well – but it does seem to hint that Undead Labs is not done with this universe. Whether that means a rumored MMO or a single player sequel grander in scope, I don’t know. I do know that I want to be able to sustain a game for longer than I did – not because I felt short-changed (hardly!) but because the experience was so damned good. If that means “more, and bigger” I’ll take it in this case. I have heard that they’re working on something called “sandbox mode” in some upcoming DLC, which sounds like the game minus the story, which I would be totally okay with.
[Spoilers end here.]
I must admit I found it disappointing that in the end I was out doing what I figured were the last missions because the game of survival was no longer challenging. Does it spoil the overall experience I had? No, I would say it doesn’t. Before I hit that ceiling there was so much good – and for what it’s worth I think the game has a lot of replay value, essentially being a zombie simulator. Though another minor complaint I have is that there aren’t multiple save slots: if you have one game going and want to start a new one it’ll erase what you’ve got. I played on Xbox 360 days before the public release came out on Steam, but this may very well be something you can circumvent on the PC.
While not packing near the emotional punch that The Last of Us does, State of Decay thrives in other ways– I daresay more “old school” computer game-y ways– and as such it is side by side with the giant in a bid for my favourite game of this year. It’s an instant classic, for my money, and it goes without saying one of the best games I’ve played over this past generation.
Reoccurring themes.. they’re not always right there for you to see. Changed states, however, offer new eyes and ears.
I was crossing to the western region of Trumball Valley for just the second time, on my way to meet with a voice on the radio, someone who claimed to be a judge. That there was a safe place out there. We’re safe, I thought. The roads were strangely calm, a zombie here and there off to the side; it was dusk. The house on the hilltop, there are no gunshots. Powerlines without a purpose. There was a serenity to this particular drive. There was a truck. A pickup, four doors. Burnt to a crisp, its four tires had all disintegrated. It stood there, frozen in time, ownerless. Except that was my truck. I remember driving it away from the campgrounds where Marcus and Ed had their fishing trip. I remember arriving safely in it at the church for the first time. I remember driving it on this road to meet some survivors at The Grange; how a horde interrupted my plans, and how a particularly rotund zombie witnessed first hand that truck become a weapon; a weapon at its own expense. After its purpose was served it became a husk on the side of the road. An artifact, to be understood and remembered by no one.
More than any words that could be imparted, that image represented all the story I could hope for.
Developer: Undead Labs | Publisher: Microsoft Studios | Released: Jun / Nov 2013
Available on: Xbox 360, PC | Time Played: 25+ hours
Send your brains (and the juicy stories within) to the author of this review at firstname.lastname@example.org.