State of Decay 2 comes as a follow up to the 2013 Xbox Live Arcade Game which received the obligatory ‘remaster’ treatment in early 2015. In stolid acceptance of the fact that the Undead genre has been done to death, State of Decay 2’s tagline is ‘survival redefined’; unfortunately, however – and particularly when compared with the ‘Year One: Survival Edition’ of the original title – surprisingly little has changed.
In this, as in the original game, players take control of a party of survivors, in a post-apocalyptic imagining of rural America. There is no named protagonist as such – or, at least, there is no named protagonist which will be common between all players; instead, there are rag-tag bunch of procedurally generated characters, each of which has a modest set of skills and personality
disorders traits; the former (such as shooting, cardio, and gardening!) are improved over time, whilst the latter simply become wearing.
Keeping your little community alive, whatever the cost, is the sole objective in State of Decay , and the perils they face are as you may expect (or, if you’ve played the previous title, those you have already faced) given the genre: scarcity of food (and resources in general), attacks from zombies and/or rival factions, ever-declining morale (in game), and creeping boredom (in real life).
As well as ensuring that you have stockpiled enough food, medicine, and other materials to meet the group’s basic needs, you will also need to maintain a healthy level of morale back at the base; lest one of the shallow, vacuous conceptions of human beings the game calls ‘survivors’ starts a coup. As survivors lose morale, they become petulant, throw tantrums, start fights, and may ultimately leave the group – dead or alive.
The majority of your time will be spent collecting vital resources and ensuring minimum thresholds are met. This is achieved by fleeing from location to location, searching for supplies to take back to your base of operations. Materials found along the way can be used to develop the based, by installing facilities such as: an infirmary, to treat your sick and wounded soldiers; watchtowers, to guard against zombie attacks; and gardens to provide a steady supply of food.
Whilst you will appoint a leader of your community along the way – and work towards their ‘legacy’ goal(s) – there is very little in the way of meaningful narrative; the direction – such as is it is – comes via requests from your community members, or the members of other ‘enclaves’. Often, these requests will be to clear out locations that have become infested with zombies, or ‘plague hearts’ – which are essentially infestations on steroids.
As well as the standard fare of relatively placid brain-eaters (‘Walkers’), there are plague zombies – essentially quicker, more aggressive Walkers, who can infect players with the ‘blood plague’, and a number of other special variants:
- Bloaters, filled with noxious gas that saps health and stamina;
- Screamers, whose irksome shriek acts like an undead call-to-arms;
- Juggernauts, who can soak up an unbelievable amount of damage, and dish out more than their fair share; and
- Ferals, the fastest and most ferocious of zombies – guaranteed to ruin your day.
Those who played the first title, FIVE years ago, will be all too familiar with these variants, and it’s unfortunate that Undead Labs couldn’t breathe new life into the roster.
In State of Decay 2, death is permanent, and is an ever-present risk. Whilst traversing one of the three set maps, it’s all too easy to find yourself stranded, with too little fuel to get yourself home, and no bullets with which to clear yourself a path. Fortunately, there are some very basic stealth mechanics to fall back on (consisting in crouching and generally making as little noise as possible), and Walkers – for the most part – are very, very dumb. Many is the time you’ll find yourself crawling hundreds of metres through the dark to get home (or at least to the nearest functional car).
Stealth and subterfuge is generally the way to go, as – whilst the gunplay and melee combat are satisfying – limited ammo supplies and a miserly stamina gauge mean that facing down zombie hoardes is generally ill-advised; though with that said, players generally only face overwhelming numbers when attempting to take down a plague heart – in which case proper planning can stack the odds in your favour. Other survivors can be recruited and brought along to assist, and can increase the chances of success, or – if all else fails – act as a distraction whilst the leader escapes.
Despite employing permadeath, the stakes never feel particularly high in State of Decay, as the game fails to make players care about the protagonists. Perhaps the game dealt me a dud hand, but my survivors were either vapid or obnoxious, and the only time I came close to worrying about the loss of a character was when my expert gardener was afflicted with blood plague. I had invested resources in him, by giving him access to the last of the consumable skill books, and his loss would have meant finding a replacement quicksmart – untended, the garden would have a poor food yield!
By far the most frustrating thing about State of Decay 2 is its unfulfilled potential (second is the awful visibility; in close quarters, flashlights and third-person cameras is a recipe for disaster). The marketing promised an immersive experience, with emotional and technical depth, but unfortunately what has been delivered is a survival simulator which – whilst competent in many areas – is generally a joyless experience.
It is unfortunate – because it is where the sequel really falls flat – that almost none of the game mechanics are unique to State of Decay 2; they have been lifted wholesale from the first game. The team took ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ to a whole new level, by changing almost nothing about the original game’s formula. Unfortunately this was a fatal conceit, because on paper I should have loved this game, but in practice I simply couldn’t.
In many respects, the game feels more like a remake than a sequel to the 2013 title. It doesn’t feel new in any way. If you’re going to make a sequel, you can’t simply rehash the original material and stick a few modern bells and whistles on it. Imagine if – instead of writing new episodes every season – TV shows were simply re-shot periodically. Would it be enough that the picture quality was better, the scenes having been shot with new and improved cameras? Would it excuse the fact that the actors had gotten older, fatter and less attractive? Would it excuse the tired, played-out script?
Though it isn’t a bad game per se – insofar as there isn’t anything that is manifestly wrong with it (bugs aside), the lack of originality and a narrative makes it a hollow, repetitive experience; such that, by the end, it felt like I was stuck in a toxic relationship. I kept going back to it, day after day, but I knew deep down that it wasn’t going anywhere, and that I wasn’t getting anything from it. I knew it was better, for both of us, that I just walk away. I really, really wanted this to work, State of Decay 2, but you proved too hard to love.