State of Decay 2 is a game about choices, and the ever encroaching atmosphere of desolate hopelessness as you scramble to adapt to a decision gone bad, or take stock in a brief, gratifying moment of respite when things momentarily go your way.
In its objective to channel the authentic zombie apocalypse experience, it succeeds with aplomb. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for the technical aspects of its design.
5 years on from the relative cult classic status of Undead Labs’ premier XBLA offering, we’re back in the world of Trumbull County, an indeterminate time after the original narrative and its post-launch DLC.
State of Decay was never a story heavy experience, offering just enough motivation for you to figure out the game’s systems, and in that sense they’ve doubled down somewhat. It’s more about the stories you forge for yourself rather than the prescribed tale of Marcus, and his gaff prone friend Ed, escaping the setting from the first game.
Straight off the bat you’ll select one of four set pairs, each with their own skill sets and social relationships (boyfriend/girlfriend, old buddies, brother/sister etc.), to play through a short tutorial. This section acts as an introduction to the ‘blood plague’ system, as your traveling companion falls afoul of a rather unique zombie bite.
Blood plague offers a limited, early to mid-game narrative structure whereby special zombies have the ability to infect your community. Neglect an infected survivor for too long and they’ll turn. You’ll gather the cure by destroying ‘plague hearts’; pulsating growths acting as zombie nests throughout the map. It’s a thoughtful addition, but plentiful cure resources and access to throwable explosives mean you’ll never feel at risk beyond the first couple of in-game days. It never really develops its potential beyond busy work.
Completing the tutorial rounds out your party to four and gives you the choice of which of the three maps to venture to. Each offers a decent amount of environmental variation with their own base locations, terrain and layouts, but none of them come problem free. More mountainous regions are plagued with geometry issues that saw my survivor, recently scaling high walls, unable to traverse a foot high rock, or my car stuck on a gentle slope for no discernible reason. It breaks immersion and the issues with trapped vehicles can potentially see you killed through no fault of your own, as you suddenly find yourself without transport, deep in infested territory.
In lieu of the tutorial, you can spawn randomly into one of the game worlds with three pre-rolled survivors in case you don’t fancy any of the standard offerings. With the prologue and a couple of set missions out of the way, you’re left to your own devices with a starting base and the basic goal of continued survival. You’ll want to prioritize building essential facilities and each base site offers a set number of building slots and unalterable pre-built amenities (the police station already has an armoury etc.). You can’t build everything, and it’s up to you to decide which HQ best suits your community.
After expanding your base, you’ll need to keep track of your constantly dwindling supplies of food, fuel, materials, ammo and meds. The vast world contains a finite number of resources and you’ll venture further and further away from home (and relative safety) with each supply run, as nearby areas are looted and stripped. This is the meat of State of Decay 2 and there’s an engaging sense of risk/reward to the addictive gameplay loop of preparing and carrying out expedition after expedition. The formula grows slightly repetitive at times but random NPC encounters, infestations, unique missions for certain survivors etc. offer a variety of options when choosing what to do next. Do you tempt fate with one more expedition to the abandoned clinic, half a mile away, before nightfall? Does your truck have enough fuel to make the whole trip, or will you find yourself stranded next to a horde of zombies without transport, as darkness sets in?
Speaking of darkness, nighttime is extremely dark. Where other games essentially give you day time with a navy hue filter, SOD2 ups the ante tenfold. You’ll struggle to see anything beyond a few meters and each characters’ personal flashlight does little to help proceedings. After-hours excursions are pure survival horror; terrifying as you spy the reddish glow of a dozen pairs of eyes and nothing else, realising too late that you’ve wandered into a horde and your imminent end.
Some unintuitive camera designs can make nighttime exploration of indoor areas a pain. The lack of visibility is understandable, an enjoyable spike in difficulty, but occasionally the third person perspective was entirely masked by a cabinet or zombie that approached me from just the wrong angle. Coupled with the darkness, these occurrences were a little disorientating as I struggled to regain my bearings.
A permadeath system ensures decisions carry real weight. If a survivor dies in the wilderness, they’re gone for good, and player control is reverted to one of your community members back at base. There’s real fear and palpable tension as your favourite character, with maxed out stats and some of your best loot, gets ambushed far from home. Tired and seconds from death, their rifle jams. It’s the thrill of overcoming these situations, and the panic when you succumb, that sees the game at its best. It nails the frantic desperation inherent to a good survival simulator.
Get too many people killed or fail to tend to the needs of the community and public opinion will turn against you. Unhappy survivors will start fights, question your leadership or simply abandon you, damaging morale even further.
SOD 2 builds upon the character development of its predecessor with a smattering of light RPG mechanics and a deeper progression system. Reminiscent of Skyrim or Fallout, you’ll increase a skill the more you use it (shooting guns makes you an overall better marksman etc.) and maxing said skill presents you with a couple of specialization options, further empowering your survivors.
Each character comes with special skills and passive traits providing ongoing effects to the community. You may find a mechanic, invaluable in their workshop expertise, who also happens to be a pessimist. He’ll slowly drain your followers’ morale as he rises each day to tell them, “You’re all going to die.”
It’s not prudent to recruit everyone and you’ll want to look at every stat before welcoming a talented doctor or hardy soldier. Vet your intake well and it’s satisfying to turn a new rookie into your go-to zombie killer as they learn to run faster, hit harder, carry heavier backpacks and get along with everyone at home. As their skills improve, so too does their standing within your community and you’ll eventually promote one of your survivors to lead the entire group in another new addition to the franchise: The Legacy System.
Upon promoting a survivor to the leadership role, you’ll pursue their “legacy”. Taking the place of a traditional late game narrative, each of the four options offers a unique set of missions and facilities available to that legacy alone. As a Warlord, my leader believes in peace through violent enforcement, with one mission pointing me to the neighboring communities demanding allegiance or death. NPCs can now turn hostile, adding a nice variation to combat, and may even surrender during a losing firefight. You can let them go or live out your David Morrisey fantasies, mercilessly shooting them in the head.
Some of my best moments with SOD2 have come from fulfilling my legacy and I wish they’d fleshed out what little story there is. As you drive around the world, you’ll hear radio messages from various groups (and some familiar voices for fans of the first game) that plump up the narrative somewhat. Again, it’s a nice thought, often fun to listen to, but they have no bearing on anything in the game. I kept thinking they’d culminate in a big story mission at some point and it just never happened.
With all the trappings of a solid zombie survival simulator, the much requested inclusion of online co-op multiplayer should be the game’s final flourish. Sadly, it only highlights the primary, glaring problem with State of Decay 2: technical performance.
Playing with others is a blast as you tear up the countryside with multiple vehicles, planning your next supply raid or assault on a hostile group of survivors. You’ll earn incremental rewards for helping out in a friend’s game and the oft-talked about ‘tethering system’ in many of the game’s preview content isn’t very noticeable at all. It caps out at around 400 yards but you’ll probably never get that far away without a conscious effort to separate.
It’s a lot of fun but chances are, as a guest in someone else’s game, you won’t be there very long. Dire rubber banding, lag and frequent connection drops kicked me from all but a handful of games in under 15 minutes. That’s just for the online portion.
In its current form, SOD2 is in serious need of post-launch love and a multitude of patches. Closed doors show as open, hit animations don’t register, cars suddenly explode, zombies fly through the air, SFX and music vanish without warning, the UI will suddenly show alternate letters only, texture pop in, clipping issues, severe frame rate drops, long loading times and the inclusion of an actual button in the submenu to move your character when they’re stuck in the geometry.
This isn’t a triple A game from a triple A studio but it’s still not good enough. I encountered many of these bugs within the first ten minutes of play and I can’t imagine the QA team had a drastically different experience. In the world of modern game development, it’s been proven time and again that consumers forgive delays if it means a polished end product.
With an already passionate fanbase, and a thin offering of first party titles for the Xbox in 2018, you’d think Microsoft Studios and Undead Labs would pull out all the stops to nail this launch. The occasional bug is common in video games, but here, they happen with such frequency and severity that I have to point it out. This isn’t so much, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ rather, ‘if it’s this broke, fix it and don’t ship it.’
State of Decay 2 is far from a bad game and, in spite of its technical odiousness, it’s just so much fun to play. Offering more of what made the series great in the first place, fans of the original will be more than satisfied. Newer players might be harder to impress though, as their truck somersaults gaily through the air and they ultimately quit in frustration.