Hoo-boy, things just aren’t going well for Microsoft at the moment. State of Decay 2 follows so closely on the heels of its predecessor that you’d swear it was an expansion, if not the same game. While promising a new focus on building a community and your ultimate legacy, it seems that developers Undead Labs forgot to adjust the design to suit. With a scant number of new features being introduced and an almost non-existent narrative, State of Decay 2 feels like a more boring, frustrating version of the first game. In fact, it’s so uncannily close to the first game that there are only a few things that make it stand apart from it’s older sibling. I remember liking the first game even though it was objectively terrible, and I was hoping that State of Decay 2 would be the same. I just wasn’t expecting it to be exactly the same.
BEHOLD! NANCH-COLA! THOUGH THEY APPEAR AS TWO DIFFERENT CREATURES, THEY ACTUALLY SHARE THE EXACT SAME BODY! A more perfect metaphor for this series has never existed.
State of Decay 2, much like the first, isn’t really a game whose narrative is essential. There’s no race to a cure, no rival group to overcome in a desperate struggle for territory, it’s just your group trying to get along and survive. However, this doesn’t stop the game from attempting to make you think there is some kind of story aspect going on, and it’ll maintain that pretence that until the credits roll. Throughout your playthrough, and with increasing frequency as time wears on, you’ll hear radio transmissions from a paramilitary force working somewhere “nearby.” In the 20-odd hours I spent playing this game, they never appeared, not even in passing. These people are the closest thing the game has to a consistent story thread, and not once do you directly interact with it, or feel its impact.
Instead, the story is intended to be created spontaneously, through your interactions with the other survivors both in and out of your group. Admittedly, I had some great experiences in these moments but not, I think, for the reasons that the developers intended. There’s a handful of mission types, from collecting resources to clearing out infestations, which get recycled over and over. And, yes, there were missions like having to find a suspected murderer and investigate the crime or go to an arms dealer and demand that they clear out of my turf. The reason I remember these missions so well, however, is that they were so few and far between. For reasons I’ll get into later, they’re also far from contributing to “character building.” Honestly, for the quality of the “story” that’s present, they would have been better off leaving it out entirely and focusing their efforts on other parts of the game.
Like preventing cars from getting stuck in every other ditch.
The first stumbling on the road to building a larger community in the game is that you’re still restricted to a single primary base, which is itself very restrictive in size. Your “community” is just your immediate group, which you can increase in size at great upkeep costs but never really to “community” sizes. There’s no real system in place for recruiting other groups into a more spread out community, either, just the option to recruit an individual from the group and break the rest of them up. Other groups will only ever be hostile and friendly, which is the difference between one or two missed resource deliveries. The needy little buggers otherwise just don’t contribute anything to the experience except an endless stream of fetch quests.
Things aren’t much better at the home base, either, with your group continually bickering with one another or demanding more of everything. State of Decay 2 introduces a leader system, but even after promoting one of your group to being the leader, you’ll still be spending the majority of your time scavenging for resources. Any system set up for automatic supply is a supplement at best, and you’re not able to equip and deploy members of your group to scavenge for you. So, instead of being a savage warlord laying waste to any that would so much as cough in your general vicinity, or playing the righteous sheriff and protector of the people, you’re just on constant resource collection runs.
Or you could just let your base fall to pieces and have everyone leave, that’s also an option. I’m sure “Nails” over there will keep things together.
Progress in the game is painfully slow, with the resource upkeep cost always being just a little beyond your collection rate. Any time it feels like you’re getting ahead, you’re hit with a barrage of side-quests, which are presented as optional but are essential for the currency rewards they provide. Without them, you’ll never be able to upgrade to a larger base or buy much-needed items, and if you don’t do it promptly, your neighbours will throw a hissy fit and leave the area for good. By the time you’re done running about, your resources are low, and you have to go back out for more. Just by upgrading your base you’re always on the back heel, not in a challenging way but in a “this game is poorly designed” way, and the constant, grinding cycle of fetch quests and scavenging becomes exceptionally tedious.
What’s absolutely nuts is that if you go back and read what I had to say about the first game, it’ll almost be like reading this same review over again. The companion AI is still utterly daft, the driving is as bunk as ever and defies anything even remotely close to real-world physics, and it still controls like crap. Even the technical problems are still around, in abundance, and it makes you wonder just how much effort went into this “sequel.” About the only thing that’s really different is that the various plots and subplots it brings up don’t matter anymore since they don’t actually affect you in the slightest.
Yeah! Smash them! I mean, you only heard about them five minutes ago, and have done, like, two missions around them, but turn on that aggression like you care!
The voice acting is mostly wooden, and I suspect that this is due to the characters being all randomised. One set of lines and dialogue needs to be able to fit many different character appearances, and it comes across as very generic. The one character that stood out for me was my community Leader, Dakota, because she looked and sounded like Martha Stewart but her leader trait was Warlord. After promoting her, she didn’t change her demeanour or language at all, so I’d rock up to the house of a group I’m about to murder with a coy, ‘best friend’s mum’ attitude, cutesily saying, “I have a bone to pick with you!” The first time I killed another human, she stammered, “Is this what we do now? We just kill people to solve our problems?” This would have been a great line if she still wasn’t saying it after my twelfth or thirteenth killing. I’ll be damned though if it didn’t still play into my headcanon of “Martha Stewart: Bloodinator.”
As we grew more savage, my community – The Beacon of Hope (not my name for them, you don’t get to choose, but hilarious nonetheless) – turned increasingly polite. Only one particularly aggressive guy was saying the kind of stuff I’d expect of a violent, tyrannical group of thugs would say, but he kept starting fights in the community, so I kicked him out. Very seldom, characters following you would try to share stories about their past but I only ever heard one per character, and it never came up again or had any discernable impact on how you dealt with them. Even these small elements of character development couldn’t be competently implemented, and your “community” subsequently feel like little more than sacks of XP and whatever skills you need at the time.
It’s not uncommon for sequels not to live up to the hype established by their predecessors, but State of Decay 2 comes in below even those expectations. Both the design and the way it plays are so similar to the first game that it feels like an expansion to the original rather than a sequel. It even still has all the same bugs and technical problems of the first. The only major difference being that State of Decay 2 feels more aimless than its older brother because it had loftier goals that it couldn’t even begin to live up to. When the basic survival mechanics are a grind, chore, or straight up don’t work, you’re left with another stock-standard zombie survival game.