Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, 360
[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]
It goes without saying that zombies are in at the moment. Between the success of AMC's The Walking Dead TV series, and a slew of zombie infested movies and games, the flesh-eating undead are perhaps the most lucrative concept for developers and publishers. What's surprising is how diverse they've managed to stay; Dead Island, DayZ, Left 4 Dead and Telltale's The Walking Dead game have all taken the same monster and come up with something different from a gameplay perspective.
Mechanically, State of Decay is perhaps most comparable to DayZ, albeit in third-person; after the opening you're given free rein on where to go. Sure, the game is happy to nudge you along for the first couple of hours if you like, but after a quick tutorial, you're essentially on your own. This highlights one of the great things about the game, as well as one of its flaws. On the one hand, it captures the sense of a zombie apocalypse perfectly; you're left to work things out on your own, which does add a sense of immersion. At the same time it leaves you fairly bewildered at the amount of options you have, as you're left trawling through the game's menus.
Survival then, is Undead Labs aim with State of Decay. Rather than tying you to one specific character, the game allows you to flit between your rag-tag band of survivors, each with their own skills and abilities. Need some zombie's heads bashing? Best bring in your powerhouse, who likes swinging that sledgehammer. Doing a run to pick up supplies? Have that ex-fitness trainer do it, she'll be able to run for longer. Of course, not all the abilities are positives, having a psychopath in your group isn't to help matters for example, and will likely cause a drop in your group's morale. These RPG-lite elements give your survivors a sense of character, making them more than just blank avatars, and trying to balance your group out with the right set of skills, while keeping an eye on their downsides, makes for some fun gameplay decisions.
Undead Labs doesn't leave it at that. On top of nurturing your group you also have to set up a base in one of several locations. Again, the game leaves it up to you to decide where to set up camp, with some locations being larger but requiring more materials. Along with the character skill-building, there's an incredibly addictive element to this. As you see your base slowly come to life by adding a farm and setting up a workshop, you can't help but grin at what you've accomplished.
In contrast to all this the actual combat mechanics are rather basic, but reasonably effective. You can tackle any situation the way you want and, at least to begin with, there isn't an obvious answer. Shotgunning zombies left and right will have them dropping like flies but will inevitably create so much noise that you'll quickly be overwhelmed, as more corpses come shuffling in from nearby streets. Also, guns are relatively scarce in the beginning, meaning there is more of an emphasis on melee combat. Still, they've nailed the difficulty pretty well; one zombie will never be a problem, even for the weakest character, mash X a few times and it'll go down. When there's a herd of them though, the tables will quickly turn and you'll find yourself on the back foot.
The actual meat of State of Decay's gameplay comes from its non-scripted, random series of events. Zombies hordes will show up, buildings will suddenly become infested and, most importantly, your survivors might go missing. In one sense, this is the game at its best, nothing will ever go according to plan, you'll have to drop what you're doing at the worst moment in order to go rescue someone, or head back to base to fight off zombies. The game doesn't have a story per se, you write your own. However, after a while it can become something of a drain. The events become repetitive and you begin to notice patterns in the events that crop up. What's more, despite the game giving you freedom to tackle how you deal with encounters, once you've favoured a few strategies there's very little incentive to changing them. To its credit, the game does offer a few variations on the ordinary zombies, with some being faster, bigger, tougher, what have you, but it still never forces you to break out of your comfort zone.
In addition to the constantly changing game world there are also several main quests to tackle, which usually involve coming into contact with other groups of survivors, such as the remnants of the army. Whilst these are fitted with a rudimentary plot, there isn't anything too interesting here, and the missions themselves don't vary all that much, if at all, from the free-roaming quests. What's more the game suffers from several glitches, characters will quite regularly get stuck on bits of scenery and the game suffers from a stuttering frame rate when it's required to load a lot of things at once. Unsurprisingly, this is especially prevalent whilst driving and can occasionally lead to outright freezing. Since the game auto-saves, this will typically mean having to repeat a part of the game.
Overall, State of Decay is a game built from a few great ideas; the constantly changing world, the RPG/survival elements, and a high level of freedom. However, they aren't explored as well as they could have been. As result, many of the game's best aspects, such as the base building, while incredibly addictive to begin with, are actually rather shallow once the novelty has faded.
In many ways State of Decay comes across as a game that is testing ideas, rather than exploring them to their full potential. It's actually rather reminiscent of playing the original Assassin's Creed, where you could see what was trying to be done but the technical limitations at the time meant that there was still a lot of room for improvement, and nothing had been fleshed out properly.
Of course, that comparison isn't entirely fair, since State of Decay is a XBLA title rather than a retail release. As a downloadable game, State of Decay is good value for money. If you can get past the technical issues, and aren't too bothered by the repetitiveness of the gameplay, then it's worth taking a look.