Zombies have always had power over me, and no matter how much the shambling disease bags have been overused in various media over the past twenty years, nothing has diminished that. It might be that my wife’s loathing, or in fact her borderline phobia of them has started to rub off on me, but they’re horrible, horrendous horror creatures that play on a whole spectrum of human fears. The fundamental thing that makes them so terrifying is that there’s a plausibility to their discovery – this is what happens when the antibiotics stop working, isn’t it? – and when we live in a world that seems to be creeping ever closer to some self-created catastrophe, perhaps we’re nearer now than ever before.
The original State of Decay was a plucky zombie survival simulation from Undead Labs, and one whose post apocalyptic vision immediately resonated with players, becoming a breakout XBLA hit in 2013. Its primary draw was its atmosphere, which was aided and abetted by a gameplay hook that focussed as much on realism as it did fear and fighting, but its success was in spite of its glaring technical deficiencies. So much of what made that first game special has now returned in the sequel, though it’s a shame that the bugs have come along for the ride.
You’re given a number of duos to choose from at the outset, and it’s their relationship that gives the game its early gravitas. As the pair make their way through the abandoned army base and refugee camp that serves as a tutorial zone, my chosen brother and sister team argue about why one of them wasn’t there when their parents passed away, and there’s an emphasis on their disconnected lives. It isn’t long before your sibling is bitten by a Blood Plague-carrying zombie, and suddenly it’s all you can think of, as you the early game becomes about staving off the infection long enough to find a cure. There’s certainly impact to these early proceedings, though later encounters begin to lose their meaning when it begins to feel as though there’s survivors hiding out all over the place.
Your primary concern is simply staying alive. Once you’re settled into your home base, it’s up to you to try and bring it up to specification, starting with creating a makeshift infirmary to treat your brother/sister/significant other and growing from there. Your base is integral to your survival, and you’ll need to make sure it’s well stocked with all of life’s essentials from food to medical supplies and ammunition. As you scavenge and build you will always paying attention to what your community needs, and luckily you can do so around the clock, switching between your surviving characters when one starts to fatigue or sickness.
It can be a difficult balancing act – too often you’ll find yourself scavenging for things further and further afield while tempers fray back at home – but you can utilise some items or actions to instantly improve morale, whether that’s capturing a coffee shop that’ll give people their morning boost or installing an original Xbox in the living room. I know which I’d rather have if I was going to be holed up at home.
The three different maps are huge, though the fundamental gameplay loop doesn’t change wherever you are. Undead Labs have aimed to introduce real human drama into everything that’s happening, and while some of that hits home – people dying that you didn’t get to fast enough, depressed housemates – there’s other storylines where it’s much easier to dismiss them as rote. Fancy hunting for an ancient missing mace, anyone?
One of State of Decay 2’s key strengths is the interplay between all of the systems that underpin everything. Part RPG, part simulation, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into, whether that’s maxing out a character’s different attributes by performing the same action and then choosing a stat-boosting specialisation, or upgrading the in-house facilities to allow for weapon repair or meal preparation.
You’ll likely be spending a lot of time within the slightly unhelpful menu system, but things do improve given time. Even once you’ve got a grasp on what it is you’re doing the menus just aren’t consistent enough, and you’ll find yourself searching time and time again for what should be a simple function. When you’re playing in four player co-op and you each have separate storage lockers, downtime is inevitable, though at least you have the fun, and the advantages, of playing with others.
In spite of the obvious increase in budget, much like its predecessor State of Decay 2 is gloriously shonky. Whether it’s iffy net code which sees other players floating through the floor when they crouch, to disappearing cars, people, or furniture, it’s hard to say. My favourite error as the host saw the car we were travelling in seemingly stop, before discovering it had actually been driven back to base by my teammate, parked in the same spot as another, invisible to them car, and then when the game realised something was wrong, both cars blew up. It sent both flying, with one landing permanently in the walled garden of my safehouse. It’s made for an interesting ornament.
Even with the issues, there is merit to the game in co-op. One player hosts while up to three others can join and bring a character from their community to simply help out. It makes things much easier to have extra human players to fight alongside, and there’s independent loot for all players when searching through buildings. There’s some nice rewards for joining a friend and helping out, giving you a boost with bonus resources when you return to your community, but you’re only ever really a visitor to these lands.
Despite the jump to Unreal Engine 4, there’s as many issues on the technical side as there were in the five year old original, with regular pop-in of textures and level furniture, an unstable frame rate even on Xbox One X (though a hefty PC can power through this barrier) and friendly AI that sees them more than happy to stand idly by in a doorway so you can’t get in or out. The game is fairly pedantic about where you have to stand to interact with things like gates or other people as well and at various points you’ll be likely be becoming quite frustrated with it all. To be honest, they’re all things that can be fixed by patches, but how quickly they can be rolled out is the question.
If you’re looking for a compelling and atmospheric take on the zombie genre that’s more Walking Dead than Left 4 Dead, State of Decay 2 is an imperfect but enjoyable sequel to the superior original. The gameplay loop of scavenging, crafting and killing can begin to wear thin, but the human element is capable of pulling you back in. Tackling the world with others in tow may decimate the game’s carefully constructed atmosphere, but those multiplayer shenanigans will probably be wild enough to distract from the host of technical issues that simply refuse to die.
Versions Tested: Xbox One X & Windows 10