Given our collective obsession with the Zombie apocalypse, it’s a wonder it took this long for something like State of Decay to arrive. The household over-beers-discussion of “What would you do if there was a zombie outbreak?” hasn’t been satisfyingly addressed by videogames. Sure, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty: Zombies, and whatever twin-stick shooter is out on XBLA this month all let you face off with zombies in the immediate sense, but don’t bother with the concerns readers of The Zombie Survival Guide will know. Even open, RPG-slanted variants like Dead Rising or Dead Island relegate most questions of long-term survival to scripted storyline material, easily brushed aside by players. By virtue of taking the zombie scenario to the lengths these games haven’t dared to, State of Decay wins a lot of points, rendering its sandpaper-rough execution forgivable.
State of Decay starts without narrative ado, which is a good thing. You don’t need a stupid motion comic with infection symbols popping up on a US map to establish the zombie apocalypse. Giving you control of a hitchhiker with an AI buddy, the game’s opening teaches you how to beat down or shoot zombies and collect food and medicine, necessary to keep stamina and health bars nice and full. Having trotted around in the woods, recruited a lady with a handy rifle, and learned some rudimentary stealth mechanics for an hour, your now three-man-crew jump in a truck and drive south, towards a more organized group of survivors contacted over walkie-talkie.
Until this point, State of Decay could be mistaken for a basic, open-world slash-em-up. Individually, the combat, RPG elements, or driving mechanics haven’t proven interesting or challenging, and even neat touches like gunfire attracting zombies haven’t properly factored in. Then your trio of survivors rolls into the aforementioned group’s base. In the following hour, the complexities come down like a load of bricks: There isn’t enough of anything to go around. You have some ammo, but most of it is for firearms you don’t own. One of the survivors needs medicine. Three others are fatigued, and will remain so for a while because you haven’t built proper sleeping quarters.
Zombie infestations are amassing quickly in the local suburb, making scavenging runs risky. You might venture into the local gun store (critically, almost every ingame building has a detailed indoors explorable without loading) and - thank God - there’s a shotgun. But you’re too loud, so the undead bumrush you, leaving a pile of organs and one of your playable characters perma-death’d away from your crew. Now morale among survivors is even lower than the medicine shortage had already made it. Oh, and some guy is unhappy and needs a pep-talk.
Though the game has a few “story missions” and an ending, most of your time will be spent with the constant trickle of side-quests, all of which will disappear, hurting base morale if not tended to quickly enough. Typically, these involve hunting down special enemy types or finding a missing community member. The “main” questline isn’t too involved or lengthy, but it doesn’t matter. The best story in State of Decay will be that which happens dynamically through the mechanics. Because these mechanics align precisely with the aspects of a typical imaginary zombie scenario, the iconic scenes appear one by one.
The climb to a rooftop above a sea of undead, the ammo-starved last stand in a house where you board up the windows, then the desperate escape to the car parked in the driveway, with a tiny stripe of health-bar left. Where other games use explicit orders and glowing objective markers, State of Decay elegantly pulls the player into situations in-which zombie fans daydream about, using only game mechanics. These systems, which range from combat, to base management to driving, to stealth, are rudimentary, but they come together like clockwork. It doesn’t matter that the melee combat is a repetitive button-mash or that the stealth mostly involves hiding in bushes and not holding down LB to search a cupboard faster and louder, when you’re doing it all at once, it’s too much fun to notice.
It’s also possible to screw up to the point of having to restart from scratch, making for brilliant tension. Reinforcing this, you can only keep a single savegame, which overwrites constantly, including when a character is killed. Thus, my first run quickly left me with only a single, hurt to the point of constantly stumbling, playable survivor, no community influence (a currency for how much gear you’re able to borrow from your base’s storage), and only a low-damage shovel for a weapon. Admittedly, the excitement wears off a little after the first five or so hours, when your whole crew isn’t tooled up with assault rifles and a food stock to fill a supermarket . State of Decay, like most survival-something games, shines when you’re closest to crashing and burning.
The game’s ambitions would be considerable had it been a full console release. As an XBLA title of under 2 GB, there had to be sacrifices on the technical front. Major environmental details are visually rendered far slower than the top speed of the average in-game vehicle, leading to baffling collisions with overturned buses or garden fences which only pop out of invisibility seconds later. Several times, I witnessed scripting errors causing characters to jerkingly repeat the “getting-out-of-a-chair” animation during entire cutscenes. It’s tough to take someone’s argument seriously when it looks like they’re teabagging a ghost. Missions will sometimes abruptly end, remaining zombies vanishing in front of your eyes, as an NPC congratulates you. Driving along the game’s country roads, foliage springs up around around you like you’re some kind of automobile god of nature. Still, with some suspension of disbelief, these hiccups can be ignored.
Harder to ignore are the holes in the game’s more narrative side. For example, the mechanics for the happiness of the survivors in your colony could (in an ideal world) have been a Mass Effect-style tree of interaction with complex, widely different results depending on how you treat them. Instead, any sadness, anger, or fear among the group is cured by taking the subject out for a recreational zombie-killin’ trip, complete with the same two canned in-car conversations (“I understand your frustrations”), repeated for every character.
Yeah, despite having distinct back-stories and personalities, which they relate to you upon first recruiting them, all their little problems are fixed by taking a golf club to some undead skull. Even more weirdly, the game sets up story hooks left so unexplored you’ll wonder why the developers even bothered in the first place. Specifically, a few hours in, another group of survivors claiming to be The Law and demanding local “civilians” hand over their firearms is introduced in a manner that screams FORESHADOWING, then brushed aside completely. Also, who survives or not goes entirely unmentioned in the ending. Again, hardly Mass Effect.
State of Decay feels like a rough-around-the-edges first entry in an eventually successful series. It gets essentials right where the competition doesn’t. In the end, characters glitching through walls and the melee animations resembling Robot Chicken don’t really detract, there’s a good 20 hours of fun here you won’t find elsewhere.