For those after a zombie-killing fix, or Xbox fans thirsty for an ‘exclusive’, State of Decay 2 has promised to be a madcap slice of survival life.
Unfortunately, State of Decay 2 is a bit of an abject lesson in how to mangle together various forms of systemic gameplay without the joyously unexpected results we’re all after. A zombie glitching through the wall is unexpected, yes, but hardly joyous. Nor is a car randomly exploding, the game refusing to launch, or the UI disappearing. To call it ambitious would be reaching, but State of Decay 2 is probably a game too far beyond the capabilities of a tiny team like Undead Labs. They’ve tried their heart out, but the resulting game just doesn’t mesh together in a hugely enjoyable way.
As ever, the purpose of a sequel is either to improve upon on the original or to at least continue the narrative journey. State of Decay 2 doesn’t really do either. It’s a self-contained story separate from the original game, although calling it a story is a bit of a stretch. It’s a loose framework within which to place a supposedly randomised cast of characters, together with procedurally generated fetch quests and an army-load of zombies littered about. The fetch quests are farmed straight from the Skyrim ‘ambient’ quest school of design, usually revolving around heading somewhere, killing the zombies, picking up an item/rescuing a person, and then heading back. That fetching is what it’s all about though, and State of Decay 2 is a game that thrives on the concept of loot. Lots of tedious loot that’s needed just to keep a group of survivors alive. It involves dozens, potentially hundreds, of forays out into the surrounding towns and countryside, battering a few zombies with a baseball bat, grabbing the supplies and heading back. Rinse, repeat, snooze.
The thing is, it sort of worked in the first game. At the time it felt relatively fresh and ambitious, but five years later it doesn’t really wash. There’s an abject lack of new ideas. Having played the Year One Survival Edition of State of Decay only a few months ago to refresh myself, the gameplay is so fundamentally unchanged that it’s hard to justify the sequel’s existence.
State of Decay 2 isn’t the seismic leap we’d been hoping for. The visuals have been improved dramatically, however. It’s a marked step up from the rudimentary look of State of Decay 2, although it’s unlikely to trouble the AAA behemoths. It does the job though and conveys the necessary threats to the player while creating a relatively cohesive world. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend so far as immersion. Considering it owes its existence to the zombie horror trope, State of Decay 2 is absolutely devoid of chills. The cut and paste visual design and randomised time of day don't lend themselves to the well-crafted art of horror. Its plodding pace coupled with equally pedestrian zombies don't generate a single decent scare. It was probably never Undead Labs' aim in the first place, but zombies are a horror movie staple for a reason. These meatbags are there to be battered, not terrified of, and it robs zombie survival of perhaps its most crucial element.
One of the neatest additions to State of Decay 2 is a new fuel system for vehicles. Vehicles have a limited amount of fuel in them and need to be refilled with containers found out and about. This lends an interesting dynamic to the usual formula, forcing you to make a judgment call over whether to run somewhere or take a vehicle and risk running out of fuel. Vehicles aren’t only faster, they’re also safer and allow players to store multiple packs of supplies to take back to base. On foot, you can only carry a single bag of supplies, so vehicles and fuel quickly become the most precious commodity.
Vehicles themselves have been marginally improved, although the handling is still more akin to a tin car than the roaring four-wheel drive it’s supposed to be. They can turn on a dime, stop instantly, and good luck hunting for that sense of speed. There’s no degree of consistency to the detritus that litters the world, and seemingly tiny objects can stop a car dead. It makes cruising around a bit of a pain, probably just as it would be in a post-apocalyptic world, but it doesn’t translate into an enjoyable experience. There’s no skill to navigating with a vehicle, slow and steady usually does the job. That is, until some insane quirk of physics sends a vehicle whirling through the air, or open a gate on a car causes it to blow up, losing its contents and precious fuel forever.
Which is typically a crying shame because a player’s entire existence in State of Decay 2 relies on keeping tabs on a series of ever decreasing bars, each representing vital elements of a functioning society. You’ll need to keep your band of survivors fed, watered, and rested, as well as stocked with ammo, fuel, medical and building supplies. Each and every day, these resources tick down depending on many survivors are in the base and what the player is doing. It then becomes a matter of identifying the resources which are going to be in short supply first and heading out to find them. All the while you’re doing this, the bars are ticking down and unrest is rising in the encampment. It rarely feels as if you’ve got total control of the situation, and that’s part of State of Decay 2’s schtick. Whether or not you’re down for this type of spiraling spreadsheet management is going to dictate whether this is the game for you.
At some point, everyone will turn a corner though and State of Decay 2 reaches a point of quiet calm. The water tower is keeping the thirst sated, the resident doctor is an expert in treating ailments, and the garden is providing plentiful food. At this point, State of Decay 2 loses its fundamental reason for existence, and the push is on to destroy the Plague Hearts and move onto the next map, to start the process all over again. Plague Hearts are best destroyed using explosives, and each one you destroy makes the next one a little bit harder, but it never results in having to alter your tactics. Simply craft away some molotovs, throw everything you’ve got at a Plague Heart, then high-tail it out of there.
But for all the negatives of State of Decay 2, the core of the original game is still intact. There’s an undeniably satisfying and relaxing rhythm to checking off lists and keeping meters filled, but a capacity to zone out and pick up collectibles can be found in just about any open-world game.
Combat is perhaps the most curious beast in State of Decay 2. It’s basic. Very basic. The majority of the time is spent swinging various blunt instruments at a mass of zombies, while there’s also an array of weapons that inevitably results in yet more zombies flooding in. Using melee weapons is a necessity to keep things quiet then, although the collision detection leaves much to be desired. The original game was fairly generous in connecting swings and punches with the zombies, but in State of Decay 2, it feels as if you always need to be a little bit closer than it looks. Almost invariably, my first hit would be a swing and a miss, giving a zombie a cheap chance to get in for a cheeky nibble.
Perhaps the biggest downside is that Undead Labs hasn’t taken the opportunity to open up the interesting dynamics that can occur from a random group of people living together. Just like the first game they’ll fall out, get tired, and have arguments, but for the most part, you can just leave them to it and none of it really has any effect beyond being extra lives to use. They are very much rigid NPCs rather than what you’d hope them to be, which is characters which actually exist in this world.
Ultimately, State of Decay 2 has proven a disappointment. Undead Labs laid the groundwork with the original, but it’s failed to build upon this to any noticeable degree. It’s a much prettier, just as buggy, State of Decay 1.5. To some, just having more may be enough, but it would’ve been nice to see them push the boat out just a little bit more. Perhaps they should’ve done that MMO zombie survival game after all...