State of Decay – Review

state decay

Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Bugger. Yet another zombie game has arrived to join the ever-increasing flood of the bloody things, which makes me wonder if the real goal of the videogame industry is in fact to bring around the zombie apocalypse by means of turning all of us gamers into shambling, vacant-eyed droolers that sit around waiting for the next title to feature the undead brain gobblers. Mind you, I may be being paranoid. It’s not that I have anything against zombies, but good grief how many of these things do we need? Maybe somebody should make a game where you play as a zombie trying to not get killed by the angry gamers running around with guns. Anyway, State of Decay, previously know as Class3, comes to us from UndeadLabs, but does it manage to impress to justify the huge price-tag?

State of Decay doesn’t make a good first impression. Clumsy controls, horrendous clipping, a stuttering frame-rate, zombies getting stuck in walls, an awkward user-interface, awful car handling, rough graphics and various other problems and glitches all wait to greet and frustrate you within the first hour or two of play. If I was to be brutally honest I’d say that State of Decay should not have been released in its current state, a black mark against Undead Labs. Sure, people can and will say that it’s a work in progress, but while it’s very true that many of its problems can be fixed with patches, we can’t have double standards: if one game get’s derided for having problems on launch, then so should State of Decay, and the sad fact is that as it stands the game is in rough shape, making it that much harder to believe that it has been in development for a few years. Nobody would blame you if you downloaded the trial, played it for 30-minutes and then laughed at the massive 1,600MSP price-tag.

God damn it, I got myself caught in a cliche again.

God damn it, I got myself caught in a cliche again.

But stick with the game, slog through the first hour or two and accept its many, many problems and underneath it all you’ll find something special, a free-roaming, open-world survival game that pits you against the zombie hordes and doesn’t show a hint of remorse. This is DayZ for those without a PC capable of running, and for those that want a purely singleplayer experience. And yes, DayZ comparisons are somewhat inevitable, though you won’t find them here because I’ve barely played DayZ. Plus, State of Decay manages to set itself apart with a few good ideas of its own, which we’ll get to later because there’s a fair few not so great ideas to cover first.

At the start you’re unceremoniously dumped into the world next to a few zombies and hastily introduced to the game’s bloody simple melee mechanics: a tap of X swings whatever weapon your holding (or your fist), while a tap of B lets you dodge attacks or break free of pesky zombies chomping on your face. Get a zombie to its knees (don’t get your morbid hopes up) and you can hold down RB and Y to initiate a brutal execution move, while holding down RB and tapping X gives you a more powerful but stamina draining strike. And yes, stamina plays an important role in your survival – push yourself too far or swing your baseball bat too much and you could find yourself in a spot of trouble, but we’ll come back to that later. Melee combat  feels more than a little clumsy, mostly thanks to it being rather tricky to target specific zombies when you’re facing a crowd, but it’s also fairly satisfying to splat a zombies head with a baseball bat. Still, splat-satisfaction aside combat is rough and frankly no fun at all.

Killing zombies is oddly stress relieving.

Killing zombies is oddly stress relieving.

Despite how clunky it is hand-to-zombie combat is  preferable over the guns blazing approach, because firstly guns and ammo are harder to find that good old heavy sticks, and secondly because loud noises attract the undead hordes like a free pizza buffet attracts the overweight. Still, sometimes things get desperate and guns are a handy thing to have when the situation begins to look bleak, or should I bleaker than it already is. Again, like melee combat, ranged combat is clumsy at best, something made more problematic by the fact that only headshots are truly effective at putting down zombies quickly. Shotguns at least solve this problem by the simple expedient that if you get in close to a crowd of undead shufflers, you can  pull the trigger and enjoy the carnage. The one thing I could say in the favor of guns is that the often awkward aiming at least reinforces the idea that the characters in the game are normal people just trying to survive, and therefore probably aren’t the greatest when it comes to handling guns. Mind you, that’s no excuse for some of the survivors you can play as who do indeed have gun handling skills.

Stealth is also an option and is generally more advisable, though the rules surrounding when a zombie can and cannot see or hear you are a little inconsistent. Sneak up on a zombie and you can initiate a completely unstealthy stealth attack that instantly kills (again) your foe. Apart from the hazy rules there’s really no complaints in the stealth department, although it would have been nice if the default movement speed was a little quicker or if they had allowed you to hold down the “sprint” button in order to move faster while crouched but at the cost of stamina.

An hour or two into the game is when things begin to get interesting as you come across a community of survivors holed up within a church, a community which you shall become a part of and that shall form the beating heart of the entire game, driving your every move, unless of you course you decide to leave ’em to their fate, in which case carry on, but for now we’ll just assume that you’re not a heartless git. To keep the community ticking over you’ll need to head out into the world and gather supplies like food,  fuel, medicine and ammo, while gathering building materials lets you construct new facilities like gardens for growing food, workshops for putting together extra gear, sleeping spaces for when you take in new survivors and training areas for toughening up. Your initial home will have limited space, ensuring you have to put serious thought into what to construct and whether or not you want to bring more survivors into your community as they’ll drain your resources quicker. Happily once you begin to explore the map you’ll discover a few more locations that you can move your base to, giving you more space to do what you want with, but the developers smartly chose to make it so that no matter which location you set up residence in, you can’t build one of every facility, ensuring that you must seriously consider what is going to be best.

I don't think I've ever been quite so proud about  a garden. If only my actual garden got the same treatment.

I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so proud about a garden. If only my actual garden got the same treatment.

Of course you can’t just wander into a camp full of survivors and expect to start ordering people around and taking whatever you want out of the supply cupboard. There’s no money in this zombie-ruled world, but there is, in a sense, a currency system in the form of influence. To build something costs you influence, to take a nice gun and a pile of ammo out of the cupboard costs influence, to establish an outpost costs influence, to…well, you get the idea.  To gain influence is pretty simple: you do stuff. Slaying zombie hordes, cleaning out infestations, gathering supplies, helping out your fellow community members, stockpiling guns and much more  garner you influence. In theory the influence system is genius and I utterly approve of the idea, but in practice it feels somewhat redundant. Not once during the entire game did I ever come even vaguely close to running out of influence within the community, because practically everything increases your standing with your fellow survivors, rendering the system sort of pointless as I never once had to pay attention to it or worry about it.

On a side-note I’m not entirely sure what happens when you eventually run out of resources. The amount of stuff available is finite, so there will come a time when you simply cannot find anymore food, medicine or ammo within the many, many buildings which make up the world. For the purposes of this review it was of course impossible for me to gather up absolutely everything  and find out, so at this point I’m assuming you and everyone else just die eventually, be it from starvation, fatal wounds left untreated or having your head ripped off because you didn’t have any bullets left for your 9mm.

This...did not go to plan.

This…did not go to plan.

Your fellow survivors are both a source of endless frustration,  as their inability to tie their own bloody shoelaces without your help often leads them to going missing or to calling pitifully for your help, and of your continued playtime. You see, in State of Decay death is permanent. If you find yourself ripped to shreds by the shambling hordes that roam the eerily quiet streets then it’s game over for whatever character you were playing as. However, you can switch to playing as any other survivor that you are “friends” with, allowing you to carry on playing like nothing ever happened, with the passing of your previous character dropping the overall morale of the group a little. In fact, you’ll often find yourself switching between playable characters anyway, because exploring for too long without rest decreases your available stamina, progressively making survival harder. Each character’s basic skills can also be levelled up through continued use, so you’ll likely find yourself getting attached to a few specific characters because you’ve spent so long building them up into the ultimate zombie slayers, making their death a truly sad moment, if only because you’ll be mourning the amount of hours you spent building up their combat skills.

Venture out into the merciless world and stamina becomes a more fearsome opponent that the zombies, dictating your every move and forcing you to think carefully about when to tackle the hordes and when to go and hide in a bush, a tactic which seems to baffle the undead. A zombie or two is a breeze as the AI is about as smart as your average brick, though since they’re zombies we can forgive that, and fighting them off is remarkably easy, but as more and more begin to appear stamina drains terrifyingly fast. If it drains completely you’re unable to swing your weapon or run away, and death begins to look far more likely. It’s hardly a new or inspired mechanic, but it gives those pesky zombies a real sense of danger. Sure, you can handle a few at a time and feel pretty smug about it, but any more than that and things start to take a turn for the worse. It creates a palpable sense of tension, and I love that.

To my utter dismay there's nothing cool hidden in this wreck, mostly because you can't actually get inside it. Damn.

To my utter dismay there’s nothing cool hidden in this wreck, mostly because you can’t actually get inside it. Damn.

A compromise, then, must be made between stamina and your desire to spill blood. And compromise a theme that runs throughout the game: do you load up on guns, allowing you get out of trouble more easily but limiting mobility? Should you take plenty of gear with you, or save the very limited rucksack space for anything cool you find? Do you use the fast search function and risk making enough noise to draw the horde to you or do you search containers at normal speed?; do you focus on building one person’s skills or do you spread your time across other characters as well in the eventuality that you meet your fate at the decayed hands of the horrid hordes? Should you head out and find that twerp that’s disappeared for the millionth time, or should you pick up another rucksack full of building materials with which to upgrade your defense before the next zombie horde comes knocking? It’s a game that encourages careful thought and planning, encourages you to think like a real survivor would have to, and yet at the same time there’s enough give in the game’s mechanic’s to allow you to just round around like a bit of an idiot every now and then and have some fun. Personally I recommend hopping in a hefty truck and mowing down some shamblers.

Speaking of getting around I do have to briefly detour into the realms of vehicular carnage. There’s a fair number of cars scattered around in State of Decay, any of which you can just hop into and take for a spin, presumably meaning that everybody very conveniently left their keys for you. The downside is that while they’re obviously pretty invaluable for getting around the fairly substantial world, and for running down zombies when you can’t be arsed with the combat, they do handle terribly. There’s just no joy to be found in driving  them, which is a real shame.

As for the world, not only is it a decent size but it’s also running in “real-time”, so even when you turn off the console and wander off to get a cup of tea and amuse yourself on Youtube the world just carries on spinning, which as it turns out is both awesome and utterly infuriating, mostly because of a rather controversial feature of the game that’s currently in the process of being fixed by the developers, but we’ll get back to that in a second. You see, while you’re away your fellow survivors can go missing, and in some extreme cases die, so when you turn the console back on you’ll usually find that you’ve got to head out and hunt for whoever the hell is gone this time because people disappear at a distressing rate, even if morale is maxed out and your base has the best defenses. A common cause of people disappearing is the aforementioned controversial Infestation system. An Infestation is essentially when a building is taken over by a large amount of Zombies that require clearing out. If there’s Infestations near your base it causes morale problems, instilling a sense of fear within the community and thus making it more likely that people will do a runner or end up dead. It sounds like a good idea on paper, but the current problem is that Infestations anywhere on the map drops morale, not just the ones near, and only the ones that are close by are actually shown on the map, while the rest need to be hunted down, which is done by literally having to check every damn building on the map.

As you can see from the helmeted gentleman on the right, zombies come in a few different flavors.

As you can see from the helmeted gentleman on the right, zombies come in a few different flavors.

Even without the Infestation problem, people disappearing while you’re not there can get irritating. Logging back in to the game only to have to hunt down yet another survivor or two by doing the same mission over and over again (go in to the marked building, person not there, search the surrounding buildings) get’s incredibly boring, yet if you don’t do it then obviously your numbers will dwindle quickly. There’s also been some reports of players not playing for around a week and turning the game back on only to discover everyone is dead. Equally annoying is that you might turn the game back on only to discover a tonne of the supplies you worked so bloody hard to acquire have vanished, all because you had to go to work in the real world and didn’t have time to check back in every 5-minutes to make sure that everything was going well. It’s a mechanic that’s likely going to divide opinion. On the one hand it does bring a sense of realism to the game, but on the other hand can be damn irritating. Personally, I’m not a fan of it in its current form and would have been much happier if it was optional, that way if I simply don’t have time to play the game then I’m not going to feel like I’m being punished for that, or if the rate of disappearances was dropped. I’m honest to God afraid to turn the thing back on because it has been a few days. Maybe they’ve all been infected.

The game occasionally tries to vaguely provide some sort of narrative that ties together what’s going on, but at best it’s laughable and at worst it’s enough to make you cringe. The very worse moments come when the game attempts to form a connection between you and your fellow survivors, all of whom have the personality of a brick with a smiley face painted on it. These sections come in the form of missions where you have to deal with a moral crisis, something that occurs when a persons morale drops low enough. To help them  deal with these deep-rooted fears and problems you go to a nearby house with them, kill a couple of zombies and exchange some of the worst dialog I’ve heard since somebody brutally forced me the watch The Room. It’s a real waste of an opportunity to form a genuine connection with the other survivors.

Despite the game’s very own best efforts, though, State of Decay has an astounding narrative, and that’s because it’s one that you, the player, craft. Much like Skyrim, or DayZ, there’s also a story to post on the forums, like that time you were searching a house and almost got killed by a zombie hiding in the shadows, or that other time you were cornered by a horde and somehow fought your way out with an axe before leaping into a car and nearly killing yourself when you accidentally drove off a cliff. The emergent gameplay that comes from having all these different mechanics interacting form brilliant tales of survival, heroism, stupidity and humor. One of my own favorites is when I was sneaking along a street when all of a sudden a zombie tried to get to me by leaping out of the second floor of a building and landed face-first in front of me, almost scaring me to freaking death. You’ll even form a strange connection with your hollow, idiotic AI companions and I can’t even explain why.

I need to stop picking up hitchhikers.

I need to stop picking up hitchhikers.

I’ve got to address the various missions briefly, as well, if only to say that they’re terrible. Dull escort missions and repetitive designs mean I pretty much dreaded doing a mission.  But, and it’s a big but, that’s fine because as I said this is a game where you make your own narrative and your own, far more interesting, missions. Sure, it would have been nice if more effort had been put in t creating them, but as it stands you’ll be more than content to ignore the missions in favor of simply building your community and surviving. Scavenging for gear, tackling the zombie hordes and escaping by the skin of your teeth are all infinitely more satisfying and rewarding than ambling through pointless missions.

It’s not a looker, mind you. Considering this is an open-world game one would hardly be expecting breathtaking graphics, but State of Decay looks like something from the days of the original Xbox, with the animations to match. It’s not too bad when you’re standing still, but once you start moving around the problems begin, starting with framerate which chugs along like it’s having to drag a protesting Iron Man behind it, and some of the worst screen-tearing and clipping problems I’ve seen in a long time. I honest can’t tell you how many times the threat of the undead masses was rather spoiled by the fact several of them were stuck in walls. Zombies, cars and entire houses frequently just pop in to existence like they’ve been hanging out at the mall and remembered at the very last second that they had somewhere to be. And then there’s the frequent random glitches that show up to surprise you. Gameplay comes before everything else, but the presentation here really could have done with being spruced up.

There’s some other problems and things worth talking about, too. At first I was disappointed that I couldn’t take AI companions with me, because as we all know going solo is never too smart, but that disappointment quickly vanished when I learned during missions that the AI often refuses to do stealth, even when you’re trying to, often forcing you into massive fights for no reason and putting you at serious risk. The user-interface is also a painful mess  of a design, having seemingly been put together merely to confuse us all.

Behold, some stuff.

Behold, some stuff.

There’s no denying that I’m conflicted about State of Decay. It’s a rough package plagued by technical problems and some questionable design choices, yet buried beneath all of that is a game that’s sure to find a following, a survival game that sits in the land between realistic and arcade, creating an experience where you’ve got to be smart to survive but also one where you can have plenty of daft fun, provided you’re willing to forgive the problems and accept it as it is. With Undead Labs already working on updating the game there’s a lot of potential here for improvement and expansion, but as it stands definitely check out the trial version first to see if you’re willing to accept its many problems at such a high price.

The Good:
+ Surviving.
+ Having  a community provides a sense of focus.
+ Sizable world means the game will last ages!

The Bad:
– Lots of bugs, problems and rough edges.
– Fairly clumsy gameplay mechanics.
– Expensive

The Verdict: 3.5/5 – Good, bordering on great.
So rough around the edges that it arguably shouldn’t have been released in its current state, State of Decay somehow still manages to provide a meaty zombie-survival game that shows little remorse while still maintaining a sense of fun.

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