How do you think you’ll handle a zombie apocalypse? Will you see the march of the undead as an opportunity to take advantage of a lawless, broken society? Will you find compassion in the human spirit and work together with other survivors to keep calm and carry on? Go alone or find safety in numbers? Whatever the choice, you’ll get the chance to test your mettle against the zombie menace in State of Decay 2, a sequel to the 2013 game from Undead Labs. Developed exclusively for the Xbox One, this open-world zombie game challenges the player to juggle resources to maintain a community of survivors as they try to fight back their plague-stricken homes.
To get it out of the way first, I’d like to point out that I did not play the original State of Decay. After spending hours with the sequel, I never once felt like I was missing out on anything. To begin with, there’s isn’t a story in the traditional sense. There are objectives and errands to complete as various playable characters but the overall focus is the simulation of survival. Instead of weaving a story of human triumph (or misery), State of Decay 2 challenges the player to develop partnerships, establish trade partnerships, and earn allies in the fight against the sources of the zombie plague (or “zeds” as they are colloquially known) that’s capable of infecting living humans. The impetus, then, for exploring the world is the search for Plague Hearts and eradicating them. These calcified concentrations of infected evil are what creates monsters capable of passing on the infection to humans and jeopardizing their lives. Eliminating them isn’t easy as remaining Plague Hearts grow stronger each time one is destroyed. You’re going to have to prepare for these assaults and the only way to do it is to explore the area and scavenge for resources.
State of Decay 2 is a survival/management game that doesn’t pull too many punches. For better or for worse, time is your most feared adversary. As days go by, you’ll have to tend to the needs of a growing and hungry band of survivors that’ll tear through your supplies like they were going on sale. This is where the exploratory portion of the game plays a large role. Set in a fictional Midwestern America-looking area, you’ll have to infiltrate homes, grocery stores, auto body shops and gas stations to acquire supplies and other materials needed to build, upgrade and sustain. Once these structures are picked clean, you can either move onto the next place, return to home base and drop off the goods, or use them to set up an outpost by spending Influence, the game's primary currency. Outposts offer a boon to the survivors and creates a small safe zone that the zeds will usually stay away. Securing numerous homes or businesses close to each other is a great tactic for giving yourself a little breathing room as you run out on missions and supply runs. Keeping your base well stocked is the best way to keep your survivors happy, a condition you’ll work hard because of how often the game throws out random problems.
As you search homesteads and destroy Plague Hearts, you’ll be alerted to various random events that typically have a negative impact on your base. In one session, I lost a few units of fuel because some idiot smoked near the gas canisters. In another, looters sneaked in and took some of my food and building resources. Immediately after that, another survivor chimed in to say that some food had spoiled. You never actually see these events happening in real time but rather as on-screen pop-ups displaying radio messages. Because there's a finite amount of usable goods in the game, you’re compelled to feel for every loss. Survivors will also get into fights and express other emotionally crippling problems that have an overall effect on morale, another meter that has to be kept in check lest your people grow despondent enough to get up and leave, which would be a big problem for you.
People are what make communities thrive and certain base facilities, like water catchers, workshops and gardens, require a certain number of personnel to build and maintain. Lose them and your odds of survival decrease. Morale can be improved by addressing the needs of the community, building essential facilities, and performing errands for your people. As for the zeds, you’ll need to be aware of the increasing number of infested locations. These are structures - homes, warehouses, convenience stores - that Screamers have called home. These armless creatures draw in other zeds by emitting a large scream when they see you. Killing Screamers and other zombies in the area will clear the infestation and improve morale but won’t halt infestations for good, unless you’ve secured the building as an outpost.
The zombies in State of Decay 2 are an ever-present force that cannot be tamed. The pantheon of zeds is split among your average, shuffling dumb corpses, specials and Plague Zombies. The regular zeds can be killed with repeated attacks and also be sneaked up on for a quick, one-hit kill at the cost of a large chunk of player character's stamina. All zombies react to sound and to practically everything you do, from walking to slamming through locked doors, create a sound that will attract anything nearby (indicated by a “ping” that emits from your character’s position on the mini-map). While many of the standard zombies can be found isolated from others, larger packs and hordes wander aimlessly looking for people to eat, and unless you’ve got power in numbers, it’s best to stay avoid them. A step above the regular zombies is more advanced specials, like the aforementioned Screamers. Bloaters expel noxious gas when killed and Juggernauts can turn your body to mush with a swing of its huge, brick wall of an arm. The presence of these creatures is more than enough to throw a wrench in your scavenging plans as the ensuing battle is more than enough to draw additional unwanted attention.
Learning when to run is a good skill to develop as your survivors are unable to take a whole lot of punishment. Getting caught in the middle of a horde of zeds or specials is a real pain in the ass - though no more so than the Plague Zombies which infect humans with their every strike. When the infection meter fills up and reaches maximum, it’s only a matter of time before survivors turn. Curing the plague is a matter of synthesizing medicine from plague samples dropped by Plague Zombies and Plague Hearts, making the most dangerous enemies in the game also the most sought after. The samples, however, aren’t a guaranteed item drop, making it possible for you to make the difficult decision to either exile or euthanize your compatriot for the greater good. And because of the game’s permadeath rules, the only way a survivor left for dead will come back is when turned into a zombie, a fate worse than death.
If you play your cards right by managing resources, developing characters and collecting outposts, there’s a chance you’ll clear out all the Plague Hearts and “win” the game. Your reward will be the creation of a Legacy, which allows you to start a new game by bringing in survivors from past communities. Character management is a key component to achieving the Legacy victory condition. Knowing how far to push characters is essential for a long and healthy life during the zombie apocalypse. Each randomly designed character starts the game with certain traits (like combat, marksmanship, cardio, strength - all the key traits that determine their efficiency in the field) that evolve as you use them. If a trait earns five stars, you’ll choose a specialization for it that offers helpful advantages. This makes it easy for you to establish different roles among your survivors. It’d be prudent to specialize characters across different traits like, for example, Cardio which makes a character sprint longer and more effective at running into places, grabbing supplies, and rushing out.
Though your need for supplies and materials will always be high, it’s important for characters to rest when they need it. Getting tired or repeatedly injured affects their health and stamina levels, causing them to decrease over time. It’s good, then, that the game lets you swap characters whenever you reach an outpost, so you can carry on the mission as someone else. Taking care of your people is just as important as maintaining your base. Making friends and partnerships with other survivor enclaves earns allies and trading opportunities, though be warned, ignoring or antagonizing other humans may cause them to turn against you in the end.
I found State of Decay 2 to be both fun and stressful to play, though for all the right reasons. The idea of going out to explore and gather resources reminds me of how much fun I had with a similar game, Dying Light. I loved exploring all sorts of different places, fighting or running away from the undead to complete missions and find resources. The base management component is nice because you get to determine how those resources are spent to upgrade, heal, and rebuild. State of Decay 2 doesn’t quite have the location variety or great sense of traversal as Dying Light, though. No matter how many communities you manage, you’ll always be in the same Midwest-tinged valley, scouring the same houses for goods. New sessions do offer randomization for supply caches, vehicle locations, and other odds and ends.
State of Decay 2 has a lot going for it but the game isn’t without its problems. It looks good, though I wouldn’t call it “pretty,” especially with my comparison to Dying Light. The textures look a little flat in spots and I also noticed loading/pop-up as you close the distance between yourself and buildings. Though made for Xbox One, it sometimes felt like I was looking at a remaster of an Xbox 360 game. It still looks good, though maybe not as good as I had expected. The character avatars are nice despite being totally randomized in their designs. They are surprisingly easy to get stuck on the environment, though. Climbing over a wall got me stuck on the terrain. Trying to run across boulders got me stuck. One of my AI characters was trapped in a running animation against what looked like an opened door, only the game had registered it as closed. All these situations help to explain why there’s an in-game radio command labeled “Unstuck” that teleports you about ten feet away. I’m glad it’s there but something tells me the issue should have been taken care before making it to the retail strictly because it’s an annoyance that really ruins the momentum of the action.
There are lots to like in State of Decay 2 and if managing people and finite resources against an environment that wants to eat you alive is your thing, you’ll likely have a blast. And with its online co-op that allows you and three other people or friends to play together, it could even be more fun to shoot the shit while bashing in zombie's heads together. Other the other hand, the game will test your patience. Maintaining your compound and its various facilities occurs in real time (the longest I’ve had to wait for something to finish was about forty minutes) and you can’t skip it. Nighttime is incredibly dark, making things hard to see but you can’t skip it to the next day. People bitch and whine about the littlest things and you’re expected to nip it in the bud before it drags everyone else down. Influence can be hard to earn fast enough to secure outposts. Still, all this is a test to see how well (or poorly in my case) you can keep people alive. While it doesn’t have the irreverent humor of Dead Rising or the swiftness in movement like Dying Light, what State of Decay 2 offers is the pull that will have you saying, “Oooh, what’s in there?” every time you walk down a neighborhood cluttered with burnt-out cars and piles of dead bodies.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.