State of Decay

State of Decay
8 Overall Score
Gameplay: 9/10
Story: 6/10
Presentation: 8/10

In-Depth Gameplay | Fantastic Game Mechanics

Always-On World | Some Graphical Miscues

Written by on November 13, 2013 in [, , , , , ]

State of Decay is an open world third person zombie survival horror game by Undead Labs. Already this sounds cliché, with zombies being the “in” antagonist for a few years now. Plenty of developers have played their zombie cards with games like Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Resident Evil, and even the critically acclaimed (but poorly received) Zombii-U.

State of Decay is different. In a world where we generally only question what kind of zombie game it is (George Romero zombies or John Romero zombies?) or whether it is a serious or humorous take (Resident Evil zombies or Plants Vs Zombies zombies?) State of Decay takes a completely different angle.

We have an idea in our heads about what serious zombie gameplay is like. There’s a lot of killing of zombies while progressing through levels – either quickly or slowly – and that is the core mechanic of the game. While there is certainly plenty of zombie killing in State of Decay, the game isn’t really about that – it is about survival.

If I were to distill my thoughts on the gameplay of State of Decay for someone in a crisp sound bite, it would sound a little crazy.  It’s Left for Dead meets Civilization and SimCity.

State of Decay opens with you and your buddy Ed in a campground. Ed is freaking out because he’s being mauled by a group of, well, zombies.  You’re left without much information, really, other than the fact that you need to beat a couple of zombies into a pulp with a stick to save your friend. You don’t know where they came from or what happened, but you do know there is a ranger station over the next hill. You and Ed head there for safety.

State of Decay - Zed on the Hill

The game unfolds as you move along, providing contextual information as you go, showing you how to sneak through the brush to avoid the eyes of the undead.  A circle surrounds your character on the HUD mini-map which grows and shrinks with the amount of noise you’re making. Slide through the bushes and the circle is nearly absent – but run, and it can take up half the map’s diameter.

I don’t want to spoil anything about the story itself so I will be deliberately vague about the details, but it doesn’t really matter. I didn’t find the story particularly compelling other than its presence as a vessel to advance the game from location to location.  Eventually you will be forced to leave the ranger station to get help for a wounded comrade. You find yourself holed up in the town church with some other survivors, and this becomes your central hideout to begin.

It’s at this point where the complexity of the game’s mechanics really begin to shine.  In the post-apocalyptic world of State of Decay, there is no money.  Instead, everything is bartered in influence.  There’s a fragile, tense alliance between the survivors and every time you return with items from the town you can stash them in the hideout’s cache for influence.  This influence is used just like money, allowing you to do things like purchase other items out of the cache, or have others in the compound assist you on missions. If you are on a mission and you find more resources than you can carry, you can contact Lily (the radio operator) and pay some influence for a runner from the hideout to gather the resources.  You can even burn influence to call out on the CB radio for other survivors hiding out in the town.

It wasn’t until about 5 to 6 hours into the game that I realized just how deep the management menus in the hideout actually were.  Beyond simply this influence bartering, State of Decay allows you to establish a number of safe house outposts in the town outside the church. These outposts serve as locations where you can heal up and stash goods, and prove to be immensely valuable tools for gathering resources to build influence.

State of Decay - Locker Inventory

Speaking again of resources, the resources in State of Decay are categorized as construction materials, medical supplies, ammunition, and food.  Depending on the number of people you’ve brought back to your hideout, there is a daily cost draining each of these materials, so you have to keep replenishing them. Finally, you have the ability to spend resources to build or upgrade different buildings in your compound to provide additional benefits.

One of the advantages to having a large number of people living in the compound is that they also go out and gather resources (though never as fast as you, it seems). Another advantage is the ability to switch to one of these people when your character gets tired.  Everyone will tire eventually and this cuts down on their maximum available stamina until they rest.  This forces you to switch to another character and perform missions as them.

There are more good and bad things about the requirement to use multiple characters while you play.  Each character has a set of 6 attributes you can level up just by doing certain things in the game (the “Cardio” attribute levels as you run, for example). This allows you to have certain characters specialize in certain mission types.  You can also give characters a weapon mastery, which helps you decide what weapons to give who.

State of Decay - Skill Increase!

In State of Decay there is no saving and reloading.  Your game is your game. Death is permanent – die, and you return to your hideout as another one of your characters. If you can get to where your character died, you can reclaim their items.

Of course, having commune members die exacts an emotional toll on your team, and emotion is yet another aspect you need to manage to prevent your team from breaking apart.  You may have to take group members out on a zombie killing mission simply to blow off some steam.

As clever as this is, one mechanic that drives me bonkers is the “living world.” Yes, in a game where you need to monitor your team and their statuses, and your resources and their availability, for some reason Undead Labs opted to create a living world that continues while you aren’t playing. This can be a real problem for people that travel, such as a two week business trip, or a family vacation.

I’ve talked a lot about the mechanics of the game, which is truly its best feature. The actual controls of the game are also solid, if unremarkable. Driving is as simple as can be, running, shooting (primary and secondary weapons) work as expected. I haven’t run into anything that left me hugely impressed, but I haven’t encountered anything that angered me either.

Graphically, State of Decay is solid as well, with some reservations.  For a game that released on 360 very late into the console cycle and is releasing on PC just a few weeks before the new consoles are out, it’s got some obvious flaws. It’s an upgrade from the 360 version, but as with any open world game you’re going to run into some glitches – clipping is pretty common, for example. Even on my gaming PC with everything cranked to Ultra I saw a considerable amount of aliasing and polygon edges.

I should also note I originally started playing with keyboard and mouse, but switched to my 360 controller attached to my PC. I did ask around to get other people’s assessments of using keyboard and mouse and others really liked it. I’m willing to admit I’m merely more comfortable with a controller, but I can confirm it supports both input mechanisms, and I really enjoyed using the controller.

Honestly, though, these kinds of things are really just a side note to a very compelling game.  Undead Labs did an amazing job building State of Decay into an incredibly complex, multi-layered game that impressed me at almost every turn.  Even “meta” aspects like the fact that the game didn’t spell out all of its mechanics (It’s a survival game! Figure it out!) helped with the immersive feelings of desperation and frustration at lost opportunity. I did learn a painful lesson playing last night – even situations that seem central to the story may not turn out as you expect if you don’t act on them in a timely manner.

State of Decay has fantastic replay value as everything you do changes the game in unpredictable ways. While there are some obnoxious features the game is simply a joy to play, and everything I do is fun.  Losing my sanity and my hair trying to take down screamers and feral zombies is both nerve wracking and exhilarating. Unless the always-progressing world is a non-starter, you should heavily consider picking up one of the best zombie survival games of this generation.

A review code for State of Decay was provided to The Married Gamers for the purpose of evaluation and review.


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Author: Andrew Smith View all posts by

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