I picked up State of Decay on the Steam Summer Sale this year, and it was the first game I installed and booted up from that haul. Developed by Undead Labs, this is a game that promised an involved zombie surviving experience. Did it deliver? Let’s start with the good:
Alright, let’s kick this off. What is the first thing you would ACTUALLY have to worry about in a zombie apocalypse? The obvious answer is resources. You could have a fortified house, all the guns in the world, but if you don’t have food and medicine, things could get dodgy real fast. To this effect, State of Decay does a great job of making resource management engaging and important. Players must scavenge through their neighborhoods for food, medicine, ammo, and “supplies” (used to fortify their safe house). These supplies are consumed every day and so it’s a constant struggle to make sure you stay topped off. Eventually players either have to move their safe house, or travel further and further away, as their immediate surroundings become a resource wasteland. It was awesome to see Undead Labs respect and recognize this aspect of zombie survival.
Safe House Customization
The above wouldn’t have worked as well if not for the ability to customize your safe house. Supplies were used to add facilities (A house would have only so many rooms, and these rooms were used for different purposes: Get more survivors? Make more sleeping areas. Need more food? Make a garden in the back yard). The ability to relocate your safe house was very cool as well. I mean, again, it’s features like these that are true to how a zombie apocalypse would actually go down that make this game engaging. You -wouldn’t- just stay in one spot the whole time specifically because of the “resource wasteland” problem. As such, these were my two favorite parts of the game.
Multiple Survivor Groups
Another nice touch was the fact that your group wasn’t the only group. On top of this, the multiple groups throughout the cities behaved very different from each other. Where one group might be trying to maintain the power authority figures held before the zombies came(police / judges / etc.) another might encourage you to make your own rules in this new zombie infested world, recommending you pillage other survivor groups for their supplies and simply take whatever you need by force. It made the world more believable.
Being Noisy is Bad
Now getting into the zombies themselves. Something that is all too often ignored in zombie games is sound. Anyone played Left 4 Dead? Anyone else find it odd that you can fire guns into the air all day and zombies 5 feet away won’t attack you? Well, that’s not the case in State of Decay. Noise draws zombies like a candle draws moths. For example, if you drive through a neighborhood, park your car and go loot through some houses, when you return you can usually expect a dozen or more zombies around your ride, simply because they followed the sound of the engine. Most importantly, this, coupled with limited ammo, is a very organic way of making guns a last resort. Just like it should be.
Combat Felt Appropriate
So guns aren’t used tremendously often. What does that make combat? Well, I’ll break combat down into 4 fundamentally different situations. First, when you’re traveling alone through a lightly zombified area, the game is very much about stealth. Sneak through bushes, around fences, and try not to get anyone’s attention. To this end, you can instantly kill single zombies by getting them from behind and smashing their heads. Second, is traveling alone and openly fighting a large group of zombies. As you imagine, doing so is appropriately terrifying. It’s very easy to run out of stamina (which regenerates quite slowly). It’s easy to get pinned down, and you’ll be using a lot of meds and snacks (which regenerate stamina) in order to survive. Third is open fighting with a group, which Undead Labs made a beautiful contrast to fighting a horde alone. When you have a group of people with you, it’s almost effortless to mow through very large populations of zombies with ease. This really did a great job of driving home the “safety in numbers” dynamic, again, in a rather organic way. You really wanted friends with you because it just made things so much more safe. The last combat situation is when even a group isn’t enough and you’ve got to pull out all the fancy guns you’ve found. Maybe there are too many zombies, maybe the zombies there are a more powerful breed, either way, you’ve got to use more firepower, but doing so burns through your limited ammo, will draw more zombies from the surrounding area. Since reloading is actually a rather lengthy process, these situations can feel almost as dangerous as fighting hordes by yourself.
In the end, Undead Labs made different combat situations stand out from one another in really interesting ways.
So what sucked about State of Decay? Well…
For a game that seemed so focused on being a zombie sim, these felt a little out of place. I mean, couldn’t we have achieved the same effect with normal zombies, if there were just more of them? Isn’t the horde what makes zombies fundamentally different from other… myths? Vampires and werewolves are individually powerful… for a game that up until this point has seemed rather true to form, this seemed like an incredibly conservative move. Like the developer was saying: “We don’t trust our sim portion of the game to be interesting enough to keep people playing, so lets just add in some special variants that everyone has seen before: ie the extremely mobile / high damage zombie, or the extremely large, unstoppable tank/juggernaut zombie”.
Cars Are STRONG
This is where the balance starts to fall apart. Remember all that I said about combat before? About how if we wanted to list scenarios from safest to least safe, we’d probably say: Group > solo stealth > overwhelmed group > overwhelmed solo? Well throw all that out the window if you have a car. Oh and you will have a car. They’re everywhere, and with one you can easily run over horde after horde of zombie with very little threat to yourself. They eventually break down, but since they’re everywhere you just hop out and pick up a new one. Despite trying to narrative and mechanically dissuade the frequent use of cars (the engine noise draws zombies and NPCs overtly bring this up in the beginning of the game) they’re still just way too good not to use. They offer ultimate safety, the pinnacle of offensive power and the ability to transport a tremendous amount of supplies easily… They’re just the “do everything” tool.
The Failure of “Influence”
Influence is one of the game’s core mechanics. The idea is that if you don’t pull your weight in the group, people will not like you and won’t help you. Take too many supplies from the group cache without bringing anything back? Ask people for help without helping them in return? Well then you won’t be able to take what the group brings back, they won’t go on missions with you, and you won’t be able to perform any of the special commands that game offers (calling in backup, relocating a home base, establishing an outpost… etc).
So where does this fall short? Well there is a fame mechanic that governs how much maximum influence you can have. Fame not high enough (which you increase by doing missions)? Well, you could bring back all the supplies in the world, but as soon as you ask for one favor, you’re down near 0 influence again. Talk about some fickle damn group mates… There was nothing more irritating than listening to people gripe about how they didn’t think I pulled my weight after I had just returned with a cornucopia of food, medicine, and weapons the day before. This leads right into…
Characters Were Generally Unlikable
I kind of despised my own team. They weren’t very interesting people, they were sort of all jerks, and they didn’t really do much to help. Lily was the worst, as she would make ridiculous demands on me while never herself leaving the safety of our HQ. That is NOT how the zombie apocalypse works, lady. If you’re going to freeload, then you’re going to take whatever you can get and be happy about it.
A number of times throughout the game I wished I could just pick up and leave my group (taking maybe 1-2 people with me) and join another one of the survivor groups. The people at The Grange seemed cool. Even being able to join the Wilkersons would have been a pretty interesting and different way to play the game. I think Marcus, Maya and Karen were the only survivors I didn’t dislike by the end.
This has a lot to do with why the survivors are so unlikable. Undead Labs has tried to set up this scenario where what you bring into the group influences what you can ask of the group (their whole influence system) and that’s great. That’s a great idea. Why then do these other people get to do nothing and demand stuff of me all day? On top of that the missions are often stupid as hell. the worst of the worst is “zed hunting”. There is nothing worse in the game than getting a call from someone only to have them tell you: “[I know we’re just trying to survive, but…] I’m trapped somewhere because I was trying to hunt down some super zombies by myself. Come save me.”
Why on earth would you ever do that?
There are thousands of zombies out there and you went two cities over just so you could kill a super zombie that wasn’t bothering anyone? Now you’re trapped and need rescue? Jesus Christ….
These rescue missions happened all the time too. People were constantly getting themselves in trouble for no reason at all. Having to baby sit a group of incompetents during the zombie apocalypse wasn’t what I signed up for.
The game ended up being much shorter than I expected. It just sort of… ended all of a sudden. You’ll be doing mission stuff (which is FAR more likely to be saving dumb allies than actually doing things with other groups. I think the Police / Judge group gave me literally 1 mission throughout the whole game) minding your own business, and then you’ll get a call from the military to do a mission and all of a sudden… game’s over. What I’m trying to say is that the missions had no pacing. They didn’t really wind up to a conclusion. There was no proper “engagement curve”. It was just sort of a sim game that was peppered with aggravating missions that forced you to interact with their special infected (because, again, they didn’t trust their sim part to be engaging), and then when they ran out of ideas, they just said “Well… you’re done!”
In the end, State of Decay had a lot of potential. The good was very good. However, the bad was pretty bad. I think Undead Labs backed out. They didn’t have faith that they could make the parts of the game that were interesting and new fun enough for the average player and so they copped out and added a bunch of bland content that we’ve all seen a hundred times.