I think I’ve gone completely mad. It’s the only explanation for why I immensely enjoyed my time with State of Decay (SoD), despite an overwhelming “badness” that infects every facet of the game. Controls can be unresponsive, AI can just be flat out retarded, music is all over the place, glitches abound, and plot points are dropped just as quickly as they were introduced. There is so much that is objectively wrong with it, but the combination of all those elements forms a delicious slurry that I slurped on for at least a good 24 hours of rapt gameplay. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that State of Decay is “The Room” of zombie survival games. There were even a few Pavlov-style gameplay cues for me to shout at by the end. I loved/hated the cars!
Are you ready for this third-person, persistent open world, community-building social simulation, stealth-based, zombie-survival horror role playing game?
One thing that the game does right and does well is putting a “pause” on character dialogue during fights. If your character is having a good ol’ chin wag with someone when you come across a group of zombies, they’ll ask whoever they’re speaking with to wait until they’re free of danger. They’ll then even pick up the conversation naturally again, with stuff like “You were saying?” before the NPC picks up from where they were interrupted. I am so thankful for this feature because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a single moment of the ridiculous story that SoD drunkenly weaved its way across.
SoD doesn’t bother itself, or the player, with silly things like exposition or explanations. Instead, it drops you balls first into a panicked fight, with an equally panicked ally, against a few zombies that appear to be there specifically to screw with you. You start out as Marcus: Athlete, born leader, and all around conveniently perfect character for a zombie apocalypse. You’re partnered with Ed, the wise-cracking best friend who treats every situation like a joke. Thrown into a dangerous situation together, their back and forth sets the tone of “whacky comedy” that SoD will shortly shatter when it decides it wants to be a different game. For now, however, death and destruction is mostly met with jokes and levity; Ed is a dick in this game. Funny, but still a dick.
Oh Ed, you so crazy. And dead. I killed you pretty quickly.
Once you meet up with a proper group of survivors, however, the tone changes for the dramatic and the story starts focusing on the conflict of social values in a post society world. Not for very long though, because the inevitable militarization of survivor factions occurs and– no, wait, the military are here now! They’re kicking people around and completely ignoring survivors, we have to band together to– hold that thought, we’re getting some mystery signals coming in from some unknow– OH NO, THERE’S A MYSTERY ILLNESS THAT IS SWEEPING THE SURVIVOR SETTLEMENTS, QUICK GO FIND SOME– hang on, before you do any of that, can you go have talk to Steve? He seems kind of down lately, and we’re worried about him. What do you mean by “The military are storming our houses”? HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN!? SoD’s pacing is also sporadic, to say the least, with most of these storylines showing up unannounced and regardless of whatever else is happening at the time.
There are so many plot lines and subplots introduced throughout the game, some that are never once mentioned again, that the game never explores enough of them to make any of them meaningful. What you have instead is a demented mosaic of fragmented stories that occasionally interrupt the otherwise fun gameplay; that said, there’s still a lot of unintentional comedy to be enjoyed. Characters die and their supposed family and friends barely bat an eyelid, yet if I accidentally get a barely known newbie character killed out in the field then everyone becomes a sad sack. Playable characters also share “fame” between one another and the AI can’t seem to discern who earned what. It leads to hilarious moments like newbie survivors being invited to take the grenade launcher from the communal supply because “everyone looks up to you for the work you’ve done here.”
GROVEL BEFORE YOUR LV1-EVERYTHING GOD KING.
The game has a bumpy start in that it doesn’t do a fantastic job of introducing you to the mechanics and overall design of the game. It’s simple enough that you can easily pick it up and have the hang of it after about an hours worth of gameplay, however. You just have to struggle through the beginning to get to the fun part. The bulk of the game revolves around keeping your community stocked, populated, safe, and happy; as the player, you’ll switch between the available survivors to work towards those goals. You’ll quickly find, however, that no matter how well you fulfill the first three criteria, you’ll never please the miserable bastards that make up your community. You can be living in post-apocalyptic luxury, and one of them will still run away from the well stocked, well armed, fortified fun palace to go cry in a shack somewhere.
That isn’t to say that whole process can’t be fun in itself though; the building management side of the game is really engaging, rewarding planning and diligent scavenging. Major resources spawn as large rucksacks, which can only be carried one at a time by the player while on foot. It forces extensive and careful use of vehicles, which have a separate, mobile storage capacity but also create a lot of noise that attracts zombies. They also flip into the air when clipping stones at high speed, roll over at the first sign of an imbalance and can plow through crowds of zombies like nobodies business. They also completely confound your AI partners; “Get in the #$!@&*% car!” should be the official tagline of this game.
Annoyingly, your AI partners seem incapable of carrying resource rucksacks, let alone themselves.
It wasn’t uncommon for glitchy physics to occur while playing though it was rarely detrimental to play and often more funny than anything else. By the time I finished the game, the town was littered with modern art pieces I’d inadvertently created with cars that had been planted in buildings and sidewalks at jaunty angles. A zombie sank through the floor during a fight until only his head was visible, and Jaws’d his way across the floor before bursting up in front of me to attack. I flipped my car while trying to jump a broken bridge and the car’s resulting ragdoll physics threw me over to the other side. Zombies themselves will regularly bug out and stand motionless while I beat their friends’ faces in, then lunge at me just in time to perforate their face on my shiv.
The zombies in this game are also a legitimate threat, which is just so great. I’m sick of zombie games where zombies are not the largest and foremost of your concerns. If you’re on your own then even being faced by three of them at once can pose a serious risk. You better hope there’s a vehicle nearby, or that you can run for a good long while because facing a mob of them alone is basically certain death. Even vehicles will only protect your for so long since for all the zombie killing they can do they also fall apart fairly quickly. Stealthing your way past them is always the preferable option but even simple actions like searching can attract their attention. Moreover, they are everywhere and in numbers that are impossibly high for the population that had previously inhabited the area. The tension in gameplay that these conditions create is almost palpable and prevents player complacency.
Your classic “ohshitohshitohshitshitshitshitshiiiiiiiiiit” moment.
Hunting down and retrieving resources was by far and away my favorite part of the game because I love mindless, in-game rote tasks but only if they’re done well. Games like Saints Row and Crackdown do the “Open world random activities” shtick well, and it’s this kind of gameplay that fills up your time in-between. Between building up your base and holding the hands of your community members, you’ll be sent on rescue trips, hunting missions, be ordered to take out zombie hordes or find specific items. There’re also some kinds of missions that only become available after unlocking them in the story. I was so confused while playing some of them, however, before I’d reached the relevant story points. The game had bugged out and allowed me to play them too early; they were still a lot of fun, it just didn’t make any sense story-wise.
To this end, if you’re the kind of person who wants to know more about the winding, distracted plot of SoD then you can play SoD: Lifeline. Lifeline takes place at the beginning of the outbreak and focuses more on the army side of things, casting you initially as an officer in Greyhound One, a special forces unit in the area. It’s more focused on the combat and objective-based gameplay than base or community management and expands further on the story (for what that’s worth.) SoD: Breakdown, on the other hand, is an “endless” sandbox mode that can be ended by fulfilling the overarching objective of fixing and escaping in an RV. The focus of this mode is entirely on managing a community and its resources, without a story to shunt things along, and can basically be thought of as “Zombie Apocalypse Simulator 2015.” That’s not a bad thing, since the actual gameplay side of it is rad as hell.
Look, all I’m saying is if they released an updated version of this every year or two? I wouldn’t be upset. The writers can stay, though.
Music in SoD is kind of all over the place and seems disconnected from what’s happening most of the time, which is unfortunate because the music itself is really great. There’s a nice kind of twangy-guitar, country-outback vibe to the majority of the tracks that’s quite reminiscent of Borderlands. It makes exploring the environment feel less like picking over the remains of humanity and more like you’re exploring a new frontier. The problem is that the music can sometimes be calm and serene while zombies are swarming over you, or tense and discordant while you’re hanging out in your base. It frequently breaks the immersion that the game attempts to setup, what little there is to be had.
The dialogue and voice acting, however, is where the game shines through, and by “shines through” I mean it is hilariously atrocious. Does one of your community members need cheering up? Take them out to the middle of wherever and have the standard pep talk with them! Almost everything that’s said by the player characters is totally detached from what’s happening right in front of them, and what little that is mentioned is usually wrong. “Glad there were no zeds around to hear that,” says Marcus while searching through the warehouse, two hordes of zombies shattering every window and clawing their way inside. On the upside, most characters sound like they have personality and are more convincing than those from certain triple-A games have been in the past. Looking at you, Dead Island.
I don’t know why I loved State of Decay so much, it’s exemplary of so many typical traits of terrible zombie survival games. It’s almost as though they’ve crafted a parody of the genre, going balls out to demonstrate the failings and trappings of triple-A titles that came before it. The design is solid and, when it works, the gameplay is engaging, but both get distracted in practice by the ridiculous plot that plagues the game. The music and voice acting only serves to confuse the player, not guide them, and the bugs and other issues are just icing on this awful zombie cake and I ate it up for over 24 hours. These are the issues that I would have reamed other games for, but State of Decay managed to pull them all together to create one of the best unintentional comedy games I’ve ever played. Maybe I have gone mad? Either way, it gets an additional .5 in the score for being rad despite its badness.
DISCLAIMER: This game was supplied to us by the publisher, and reviewed on XB1 across 24 hours of gameplay.