At some point, anyone who has played video games for long enough conjures up images of their dream game—that one idea above all others they desperately hope might someday be released. For me, that dream game is the perfect zombie adventure. While “zombie games are played out” continues to be a much-expressed sentiment, I keep longing for that one project that’ll satisfy me in terms of survival, exploration, scavenging, and community building (should I get tired of going it alone).
I’d certainly never say that Undead Labs’ 2013 release State of Decay was exactly what I’ve always wanted in my dream zombie game, but it did tick many of the same boxes. The game dropped you into an open-world section of rural America, where finding a location to establish a base, searching abandoned shops and homes for supplies, and helping out other survivors in need were just as important as taking out roaming zombies hordes with a baseball bat, rifle, or the front end of a car. All of that was part of a larger gameplay focus of seeing how long you can last (versus carving your way through a complex storyline), which I’ve always thought lent itself better to the zombie apocalypse scenario. Then, on top of that, State of Decay delved into territory few previous games had attempted to tackle, most notably its concepts of building up a community, never having one central character, and the risk that—at any time—any (or all) of your group could die for good. Though I had beefs with some of the things it did, I really fell in love with the game—especially as an idea that could (and hopefully would) be improved and expanded upon in future iterations.
Which, of course, leads us to State of Decay 2. I went into this sequel not only as a reviewer looking to attempt to make a fair judgement on what Undead Labs had been working on over the last handful of years, but also as a fan wanting to see if all of that time would produce something that felt like a worthy advancement of previous ideas.
The good news is that if you enjoyed the original like I did, State of Decay 2 feels like a more polished and expanded version of what we played before. In fact, at times, it’s easy to think of this more like a reimagining of the first State of Decay than an actual sequel. Before pointing out any singular change or upgrade being offered up here, the one statement I could make that would sum up State of Decay 2 is that it has noticeably less jank. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who wouldn’t use “jank” in describing the original, and while there definitely still is some present here, there’s a noticeably higher level of quality to everything you’ll encounter.
One area where this is quickly evident is combat. While fighting zombies previously featured some amount of “mash buttons and hope things work out,” I not only felt like I was more in control and had greater options for dealing with any given situation here, but I was also having a lot more fun in the process. Your community’s members certainly still feel more like average, everyday people than action heroes, but their increased combat capabilities will result in fewer situations where you’ll proclaim a particular death or disadvantage as “cheap bulls**t.” (Let’s be clear, though: You’ll still absolutely be accusing the game of being that at times due to some of the ways you can get yourself stuck on the environment or enemies, which inevitably happens at the worst possible times.)
Though it doesn’t affect gameplay nearly as much as the upgrades to combat do, I think the improvements I most appreciate are those to your base. In State of Decay, my base felt like somewhere I went to drop off or pick up supplies—and that was it, really. It never seemed like there was much to see or do when at home, and the various optional expansion (like an infirmary or workshop) were always accessed through menus and not the physical areas themselves. While they still don’t offer as much function as I’d like to see, you’ll now be interacting with these areas of your base directly, and there’s better presentation in terms of them being used by your community members. One side effect of that—and building additions in general—is that your base can now also be a source of noise for attracting the undead (along with previous factors like fighting other zombies or honking car horns). It’s a logical change that will make you think longer and harder about what you build when, and I really appreciated having to consider that. Of course, there’s an increased amount of depth in what kinds of services you can add to your base and what benefits they’ll provide your people, along with the ability to add mods that further customize their capabilities. Funny enough, the single biggest addition that made me happy were the candles your survivors light once you’ve gotten properly settled into a particular location. After cursing how dark our first base was for the initial couple of days, coming home to find rooms lit in a soft glow made it feel like human beings were actually living there and trying to make a tough situation just a little better.
Another seemingly small change ends up having a pretty profound effect on how you approach the game: the need to refuel vehicles. Unlike the original where cars or trucks would run until you’d caused enough damage that they literally exploded, here they’ll also shut down once they run out of gas. What initially seems like an extra step to keep in mind becomes a life-or-death situation because—like me—you’ll eventually start taking this need for granted. Maybe it’ll come in the form of “I’ll just find gas along the way,” or perhaps “Eh, I’ve got enough left in the tank to make it home.” And then, that fancy sports car you’re driving comes rolling to a stop as a horde of zombies descends upon it. Like the noise your base now makes, gas is an addition that makes life harder for players—but in a positive and satisfying way.
Of course, there’s also a number of “back of the box” type upgrades in State of Decay 2 that either improve upon what we had before or which offer something new. Your community’s survivors can now specialize in the various attributes (like Wits or Shooting) that each character has, and their individual personality trails (say, gardening) can provide benefits to your group or open up base upgrades that wouldn’t be possible without them (like raising higher-yield crops in a garden). And, unlike before, you can now assign someone as leader of your crew, versus just role-playing as if there’s one. Depending on what style of leader they are, specific base additions and campaign missions will be available. Dealing with other NPC survivor factions has expanded as well, as relationships can improve or worsen depending on what you do to help (or hurt) them.
That, I suppose, brings me to one of the two biggest things players will find new in State of Decay 2: co-op. The ability for up to four friends (or strangers) to work together in taking on the zombie apocalypse has been heavily hyped by Undead Labs, but I’ll be honest in saying that it is the least-exciting piece of the game for me. I just don’t care all that much about co-op in games like these—and never once thought I’d like to see the mode added when playing through the first game. Now, that said, my time teaming up fellow EGM zombie slayer Michael Goroff was admittedly fun, as I helped him look for materials for his base while he aided in my desperate search for medicine. One of the biggest concerns about this feature has been that it only lets you get a limited distance away from the host player before snapping you back to their location, but in practice, I didn’t really find that to be a serious concern. Sure, guest players can’t just run all the way across the map on their own, but the allowed radius is big enough that you shouldn’t really feel hampered by the boundaries.
Finally, State of Decay 2’s headlining, love-them-or-hate-them stars are the plague zombies. Scattered throughout whichever of the game’s three maps you choose to inhabit are giant, pulsating “hearts” that turn normal zombies into far deadlier plague zombies. Unlike your regular foes, plague zombies can infect you through prolonged contact and bites, and if the plague builds up too much in a particular character, a timer will literally count down how much longer they have to live. At that point, you’ll need to either administer the plague antidote, keep them in your infirmary until you can, or put them out of their misery before they turn. I’m now going to contradict myself by saying that I both love and hate them. On the upside, they provide a really interesting escalation of threat that, honestly, all zombies in the game could offer. On the other hand, they don’t have as much of an impact as one might hope, and once you’ve taken out a handful of plague hearts, the thrill can start to wear off.
I suppose that leads me into the bad of State of Decay 2: It feels like a more polished and expanded version of what we played before. No, that’s not a mistake—the exact same sentiment is both the success and failure of what Undead Labs has given us here.
The harsh reality is that, having gone back to replay the original again for a handful of hours before jumping into State of Decay 2, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing a new expansion to State of Decay with a fresh menu system. Get into the rhythm of the standard gameplay loop—explore new areas, search for supplies, build up my base more, take out some zombie threats—and the familiarity can at times be overwhelming. One example of how this hits especially hard is when it sunk in that a large number of the buildings I was exploring were built upon the exact same structural models that were used in the original game. I was finding the same houses, the same bars, the same fast food joints, the same clinics, the same garages. It seems like there’s been a definite increase in the amount of buildings and structures you can enter overall—which I definitely appreciate—but seeing places I’d long become familiar with pretty disappointing.
More than that for me, however, was a bigger lack of a sense of forward progression. While I know a decent amount of that disappointment comes from my being a fan of the original game and having a lot of personal hopes for its sequel, another cause was something Undead Labs itself created: State of Decay: Lifeline. After the first game and its initial expansion Breakdown set the tone and level of expectation for what players would be getting, Lifeline (the second and final DLC) came along and shook all of that up. Instead of being out in a countryside sparse with civilization, we found ourselves downtown in a major city. Where as before there was more focus on shallower dynamic storytelling events, suddenly we had a deeper narrative there when you wanted it. Lifeline felt like a tease of the bigger ambitions the team might have with a more robust budget and deeper development experience under its belts, and that was incredibly exciting to me.
And yet, State of Decay 2 came to remind me of recent-era Apple and their handling of macOS. As someone who’s been using their computers since the Mac Plus, I’ve been frustrated as it’s increasingly felt like the company is concerned more with OS additions that make for good marketing bullet points while core features stagnate or improve only at a snail’s pace. As nice as things like plague zombies or co-op are, I wish we could have gotten more quality of life improvement to strengthen the game from the bottom up.
For example, being offered the choice of three very sizable maps sounds great on paper, but all three of them return us to that “out in the country” scenario with only minimal differences in the surroundings. I’m tired of spacious surroundings—give me instead one denser, more complex city map that shakes up the gameplay in fresh ways. Or, take the deeper relationships that we were promised. When you start the game, you’re given the choice of four character pairs to initially play as. I picked an on-again-off-again couple, and throughout the tutorial, the pair bickered about how to survive, how long they’d actually been broken up, and what to do next. It made for some great moments of personality between the two—but as soon as I got to the game proper, that mostly went away. An occasional random line would pop up that had the two talking, but there were next to no signs of them having any deeper connection than any of the other characters had. Then, I got one of the women killed in a moment of overconfidence, and from her ex-girlfriend came—nothing. The history that selection screen talked about, the relationship I saw flashes of during the tutorial, it was now gone without much more than a shrug. And, if you’re hoping to be able to build up relationships with the other survivors you meet along the way past that initial duo, you still only get two main options 95% of the time when talking to them: recruit them to tag along with you, or switch control to them. Of everything that Undead Labs has build in the State of Decay series, there’s nothing making it stand out from everything else out there more than its community aspect. I’m not asking for The Sims 4–levels of relationships and emotional expression—in part because even that game doesn’t go far enough—but there’s just so, so much untapped potential here for making something really special. (That increased human element is especially needed in a game like State of Decay 2 given there’s so little structured storyline to speak of.)
There’s also a handful of smaller things that the dev team could really improve for a better overall experience. The game can really be bad at times at explaining what’s happening and why, with things like stamina and health penalties sometimes being way too cryptic. It doesn’t help that the game can also be bad at conveying what’s going on. For example, directly telling characters to rest in bed is an important part of having them recover faster, but when I did that, I never actually saw the character resting—which at first made me think that choosing that option had no real meaning beyond swapping control to someone else. There are also numerous technical issues that can occur, from parts of the environment simply refusing to load, to character models and your flashlight’s beam distorting in some freakish ways when engaging in multiplayer, to framerate drops if you’re inhabiting certain bases when zombie hordes show up, to zombies literally falling out of the sky when they load into the game. Keep in mind that I was playing a pre-release build of the game, so I’m sure some of these things will be fixed in the first couple of patches that hit. But, you know—it just wouldn’t be State of Decay without that jank I talked about before, so I won’t really be bothered if they aren’t.
When trying to condense all of that into a singular opinion about how good or bad State of Decay 2 is, there’s two things that come to my mind. First is that, a long time ago, I was taught to review the game that you got, not the game that you wanted to get. The other is that, as I talked about in my Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice review, the video game industry has seen a drastic reduction in the number of mid-tier games that exist between indies and triple-A projects—and it’s nice to see games like this that still try to fill that hole.
In sweeping aside everything that I wish State of Decay 2 was, and focusing solely on what it is, I can’t help but have a deep appreciate for it and Undead Labs’ efforts. Given how engrossed I got into the first game despite its faults, getting a better version of that experience with some new additions, fresh takes on previous elements, and a change of scenery really can be enough to satisfy me on a certain level. And yet, I can’t ignore the fact that this doesn’t really feel like five years of progression, even when remembering it’s not something that’s trying to directly compete with the big boys. New players who crave some zombie-slaying satisfaction should have a lot of fun, longtime fans will likely get sucked in again while appreciating the improvement, but both may likely find themselves where I do—unable to stop looking toward the horizon, wondering how life might be better in the next city down the road.
|Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: Undead Labs • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.22.2018|
State of Decay 2 builds upon Undead Labs’ original cult classic about surviving a zombie apocalypse, and in many ways, it’s bigger and better than its predecessor. In other ways, however, it’s too similar to said predecessor, resulting in an experience that often feels like it could have been deeper or more ambitious.
|The Good||An improved and expanded version of Undead Labs’ engrossing mixture of zombie slaying, resource scavenging, and community building|
|The Bad||Some part of the game still feel way too shallow; a surprising lack of narrative beyond what players create for themselves|
|The Ugly||WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE SO CALM ABOUT BEING BITTEN BY ZOMBIES?!|
|State of Decay 2 is available on Xbox One and Windows PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|