Platform: XBLA (PC version TBA)
Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Zombies, zeds, infected, walkers, revenants, rots, call them what you will - but our love affair with the undead continues unabated despite the torrent of terrible knock-off games in which they star. Download services teem with lazy, rehashed and unambitious affairs that genuinely believe that zombies can sell an awful game by simply turning up. Frankly, we're getting a little fed up of the whole thing.
State Of Decay is something else entirely, something better. Though the familiar setup of whacking zombies with scavenged weapons remains reassuringly intact, this recklessly ambitious title throws you into an enormous open world teeming with possibilities and tough decisions, tasking you with leading an entire community through hell and out the other side intact.
For 1600 Microsoft Points, Undead Labs have delivered what could (and probably should) be one of this year's biggest sleeper hits.
Best buds Marcus and Ed find their fishing holiday rudely interrupted by the end of the world, an infestation of 'Zeds' (that's what we're calling them this time) turning picturesque Trumbull Valley into a bloodsoaked nightmare. Within seconds you're fighting for your lives with scavenged weaponry, beating the marauding zombies into pulp with simple one-button melee strikes and powerful firearms limited by scarce ammunition. It's a brief introduction to the incredibly simplistic combat, which features few complexities save context-sensitive instant-kills against downed targets, but you'll quickly realise that State Of Decay's subtitles lie elsewhere.
Zeds can quickly overwhelm Marcus and co. in large groups, hunting primarily by sound. Since supplies, painkillers and even weapons themselves are in limited supply, you'll quickly learn that stealth is usually the smarter option, crouching and sneaking through bushes to avoid detection while silently picking off stragglers. Should vehicles be available, they make for effective battering rams as well as transportation, though tend to attract an inordinate amount of attention. Using all four gameplay pillars at the right time is the key to survival, underpinned by an RPG-lite experience system that gradually improves character skills as they use them (making the occasional Zombieland reference for good measure) and an ability to switch between certain survivors to allow fatigued comrades to rest.
Armed with this knowledge, you're summarily thrown into a truly gigantic open world filled with towns, houses, farms, trailer parks just itching to be explored. Usually crawling with Zeds. The ferocious sun beats down on the dusty pastures by day, while the cool night brings little fresh terrors and reduced visibility. There's some semblance of an overarching storyline and a few vaguely interesting subplots to follow involving the army and other factions, but to focus on that would be missing the point.
See, State Of Decay isn't really about your story, rather, it's about your community. Within a few hours, you'll find yourself leading a growing group of desperate survivors and attending to a surprisingly detailed simulation. Collecting resources becomes your overwhelming priority, whether it's medicine for your wounded, food to keep everyone healthy, ammo, fuel or building materials to expand your home base. Scavenging is one of the most tense and stressful aspects of State Of Decay, in that quietly looting objects is slow and leaves you intensely vulnerable, but speeding up will likely attract every Zed in the area to your location like ringing a dinner bell. Looted resources are permanent, requiring longer and longer trips to keep the supplies coming in.
Survival means attracting more people to your cause by gaining their trust in optional dynamic missions. Some of them can be directly controlled and boast useful skills like medicine or mechanical know-how (not to mention humorous personality quirks), but supporting them requires more space, resources and beds. Everyone needs defending. A place to sleep. A weapon. Knowing when to expand, when to set up outposts or when to move venue completely is tough, and fraught with peril along with the potential rewards. Survivors will also go out on missions, giving you the opportunity to join them in taking down dangerous feral threats or save their sorry hides, else risk morale taking a hit. Angry or terrified characters need to be taken out on cathartic field trips to avoid tensions boiling over in seriously unpleasant ways, adding yet another layer to this deceptively complex sim. Some hokey voice acting and oft-repeated voice samples betray State Of Decay's humble budget, mind.
Every decision and action comes at a cost, both in terms of resources and time. You simply won't be able to accomplish everything in your limited timeframe... or save everyone. After all, a potential new recruit is yet another mouth to feed. Heartbreaking triage is a part of daily life in Trumbull Valley.
Creating and defending your own little piece of safety in this uniquely hostile environment may be difficult, but it's incredibly rewarding. In fact, it's one of the most thoughtful takes on the tired zombie apocalypse formula we've ever seen since progression revolves around constantly making difficult decisions and seeing the consequences unfold through gameplay. Crucially, there's always something to do; whether a scavenging run, dynamically-generated mission, favour for a friendly faction or a desperate defence against a ravenous zombie horde headed towards your front door. Expect upwards of a dozen hours of gameplay here at an absolute minimum, beyond sixteen if you're more diligent.
Sooner or later, you'll run into State Of Decay's attitude to death, which will ultimately dictate whether you have a long-term future together. Perhaps a simple mission becomes complicated by the arrival of a horde. Maybe you'll roll your car at the most inopportune time. Ammo runs out, as does stamina, weapon durability... and health. Once it does, your survivor is dead, forever, made permanent by an IMMEDIATE autosave.
Many players will find this approach too punitive, but it forces you to feel real panic, real terror and real attachment to your fragile crew. Compared to some recent survival games that dance around the issue with inconsequential checkpoints, death is your constant companion - and in our opinion, a welcome one.
[A note on updates: a new patch will prevent player characters being 'killed by the simulation.' This means that plenty of your community members can and will die from various causes, but your critical controllable characters should only be slain by Zeds. The patch is currently in certification.]
There's no easy way to say or sugar-coat it, so here goes nothing: State Of Decay is rough enough to file your nails on. Drab texturing, woeful clipping issues (expect zombies to spend much of their time inside walls), quirky pathfinding and numerous glitches all contribute to a profoundly unpolished title. Frame rate stutters for several minutes after loading a game, while scenery objects and buildings can abruptly pop into existence. You'll rarely go 15 minutes without being reminded that Undead Labs' ambition outstripped their platform, development time, engine and price.
Some games would be crippled by this, if not utterly destroyed. Thankfully, State Of Decay manages to overcome its technical shortcomings by simply being compelling enough to keep you immersed regardless. Given the choice, we'd rather developers sacrifice meaningless visual frippery than compromise on the core gameplay. Undead Labs got their priorities right - and it's hard to complain for the price.
- Dynamic open world underpinned by versatile yet deceptively accessible mechanics
- Creating and maintaining your community is unbelievably compelling...
- ... while permanently losing killed comrades is genuinely tragic
- Remarkably ambitious and engrossing for the budget price
- Shockingly unpolished: graphically mediocre, some nasty performance issues and cosmetic glitches aplenty
- Simplistic melee and ranged combat mechanics
- Permadeath might be immensely frustrating for some players
The Short Version: I've over-used the phrase "rough diamond" in years past, but now we have a new definition of the term. State Of Decay delivers one of the most authentic, compelling and enjoyable zombie experiences of recent years, and all for an eminently affordable budget price.
Indeed, you'll completely forget that we're all supposed to be bored of zombies by now. Outstanding.