The original State of Decay was first released as an Xbox Live Arcade game for the Xbox 360 in 2013, followed by a PC release later that year. Developed by Undead Labs, the game went on to gather a large following of fans due to its different take on the zombie formula. State of Decay was about managing a community of survivors trying desperately to beat the odds.
I picked the original up on a whim once it came out of Early Access on Steam and promptly realized the game looked like it was made a decade ago, ran even worse, the PC controls were out of whack, and I was even getting weird texture artifacts among other glitches. But, with all that said, the desperate and dark world made for some immensely immersive gameplay.
Microsoft eventually released a 'remastered' version of the game named State of Decay Year One Edition for Windows and Xbox One, which comes packaged with all DLC and some improvements. Although I have not played this version, the general word around it seems to be that it did not carry enough changes to be called a remaster.
In 2016, Microsoft announced a sequel at its E3 Xbox briefing, and almost two years later, Undead Labs is just about ready to release it. Alongside new features, State of Decay 2 has many gameplay systems that have been carried forward from the original without drastic changes, keeping the charm - and the buggy nature - intact, but has the developer done enough to warrant a purchase? Read on to see what I think.
Welcome to State of Decay 2. Almost all humans are dead and annoyingly, still shambling around but no one knows why. Humanity is reduced to a few scattered communities that are trying to survive an uphill battle against the zombies, each other, and their own sanity.
When you start the game, there is a short and linear tutorial that teaches you about looting and the simple but satisfying (and gory) combat system. Shortly after that, you are unceremoniously dumped into a massive open world without any level-gated regions or restrictions, and not long after, moving to an entirely different map becomes a possibility too. Just as with the first game, you can only control one survivor from your group at a time, and bringing along another pair of hands to help is still an option.
The rest of the community hangs back in your chosen Home Base, a fortified settlement where you can build and upgrade various facilities for your community's various needs. The goal here is to try and keep everyone well-fed and not overly depressed enough to warrant leaving your group. However, not even the biggest Home Bases have enough slots to cover every facility, meaning you will have to give up on something or the other when building up your headquarters.
This theme of compromise is deeply ingrained into the game. You could always carry backup weapons, some extra consumables, and explosives, but all these take up valuable inventory space. Silencers wear down weapons faster. Faster vehicles have smaller fuel tanks and less space to store goods. Meanwhile, having a large community sounds great until you notice the food stockpile, or the lack thereof.
Every person you meet in this gloomy world is unique, with their own personality traits that could mesh with your community or cause disruptions, and almost every one of them is new to this whole zombie apocalypse situation. By investing your time to play as them, each one of these people has the potential to become a rugged experienced survivor, and also the potential to become zombie food to die a very permanent death.
Since Undead Labs has opted to not have a storyline this time around, the only missions you face in the game are randomly generated ones from your community members and other survivor groups in the world. There is an end-goal here, but it's something you can complete at your own pace; more on that later.
Unlike in the previous title, you can now get into fights with foreign groups, whether it be with innately hostile enclaves, from you threatening them, by ignoring pushy demands of newcomers, or through missions that lead to backstabs. Allying enclaves is highly recommended since they can send backup in a number of forms, such as airdrops, when called upon, but hostilities will develop and fighting other humans wielding guns themselves is a different experience than when clobbering the zombie masses. Well-placed headshots still work wonders though.
Speaking of zombies, in addition to the run-in-the-mill walkers, the special zeds from the original game have been pulled wholesale into the sequel as well, from the horde attracting screamers, the fast and furious ferals, to the hulking juggernauts. The only new arrivals are the Plague Zombies, which tie into that new primary end-goal.
The eradication of the Blood Plague from your region is how you finish a run of the game essentially. This is a new zombie mutation that has become the hottest new sensation to go viral in the nation, growing disgusting masses of flesh named ‘Plague Hearts' at various locations in the map, which you destroy. Hearts are fervently guarded by small armies of the aforementioned red glowy-eyed Plague Zombies, and these zeds, unlike all other undead, can spread their infection to survivors.
I really enjoyed this whole new mutated plague development, which added another layer of risk to the game, where even the most rested, healthy, and decked out survivors can catch the disease quite quickly and easily. Those unfortunate enough to get infected have a short period of time before turning into a Plague Zombie themselves. Although it is curable in that short timeframe, there is, of course, the option of ending the infectee's suffering by giving them a well-placed case of lead poisoning as well.
The whole Plague Heart killing enterprise is sort of like going against mini-bosses, as attacking one calls in waves upon waves of rabid zombies, and the more hearts you manage to blow up, burn, or beat to death, the more formidable the remaining hearts will get, adding more red-eyed freaks into the mix.
I wouldn't call this a horror game, but there are truly tense moments and situations can go sideways very quickly. Several times I was wishing I had picked up just a bit more ammo and fuel, or had remembered to repair my gun. Being stuck up a radio tower with a feral and a juggernaut roaming down below while leagues away from home is a terrifying experience. Moments where I finally made it back home on what was my formerly four-door truck with a sliver of health and infected with blood plague had me feeling like I had aged a couple of years from the stress. These mini-stories that organically develop can make you get attached to characters instead of looking at them as meat bags with stats attached, also meaning the loss of one will hurt even more.
There are also times when the sheer number of things that require your attention can become overwhelming. During my play-through, I've had occasions where the options to save a stranded survivor, remove some unscheduled zombie meet-ups to improve community morale, take care of my Home Base's fuel shortage, and even deliver a piece of rare equipment to a soon to become unfriendly enclave, all popped up during a short period. But, since the game only tells you what you can do, not what you must do, it was a relief to find that all of these missions and requests can be completely ignored. There are consequences for taking this route, of course, but you can always deal with them later.
However, something that I would have liked to see implemented was basic companion commands, so I could at least tell my follower to hold position or heal up. The AI seems to switch between being ultra-aggressive and unconcerned randomly, where the first death in my community was due to a follower running into a hostile enclave that was being attacked by zombies, ending up being both swarmed and shot repeatedly. All this happened while I was running away.
Moreover, the lack of trading between your own community members was disappointing. For example, if the other survivor I've recruited to follow me has something I need, I would have to talk to them, switch characters, find and drop the items on the ground, switch back to the original character, and finally pick them back up to use. Having to do inventory shuffles like these and dealing with overextending followers gets tiring.
Looking from afar, the regions available in-game seem quiet and almost inviting. I mean, there's some undead prowling around, but it doesn't look like the end of the world had come through here. That is until you go exploring and notice the ransacked houses, mass graves, the overturned trucks, and the abandoned military checkpoints that are still home to advanced weaponry that no one in their right minds would leave behind, I guess unless a zombie apocalypse happens.
The world of State of Decay 2 is split into three maps, and although the landscape, size, and density are unique, I found that lootable building assets are shared between the maps, so you will be seeing the exact same houses and shops repeating in different regions. It's disappointing but understandable for a budget title such as this. However, with the exception of the starter location, all other available Home Bases seem to be unique to each map from what I could scout out.
I would like to commend the developer for their implementation of the shroud of impenetrable darkness that you might call night time. There are periods during the night when you can't even see five meters in front of you, and the measly torch that survivors are equipped with is almost useless outdoors. Running into a glowing sea of red eyes belonging to roaming plague zombies is truly something worth witnessing, this was right before I noped back to my car to come back during the day.
Another thing I found interesting and quite surprising at first was that survivors turn into zombies after they die regardless of their cause of death, if their heads are still intact, of course. This could mean that the zombie situation is something similar to The Walking Dead where everyone is already "infected," and death is what triggers the transformation.
State of Decay 2 isn't an ugly game, but it certainly isn't a head turner either. Unlike the original, however, the performance reflects that. I played the game on a mid-range PC housing an AMD Radeon RX580 8GB, an Intel Core i5-4570, with 8GB of RAM, and the frame rate was hiccup-free for the most part except for a few drops when fighting large numbers of zombies. There are enough advanced graphics options available that I think if you were able to run the original game, the new one won't cause many problems.
I'm happy to say that I didn't find a single issue in the keyboard and mouse controls, a far cry from the original game, which didn't even ship with the capability. There are primary and secondary keybindings available for each hotkey, and there is no mouse acceleration to speak of. Also, the only time that you will see a loading screen is when you start up your save file, and while installed on an SSD, it takes around four seconds to load into the game. All of the HUD elements can be turned off as well, including the tutorial messages that likes to pester a lot.
Sadly, it's not all smooth sailing. The game is powered by Unreal Engine 3, with Undead Labs opting to ditch the original's CryEngine backbone, so you would think it will be all smooth sailing from he... Oh hell, I'm stuck in a chair again and there are zombies literally raining from above. Yes, the game performs well, but I'm starting to wonder if bugs are becoming a series specialty. Occurrences like being stuck on various furniture, exiting a vehicle and suddenly being waist deep in concrete, and turning around to find out your follower is only visible on the mini-map, among other glitches happen too frequently to ignore. Undead Labs does seem very aware of the getting stuck issue at least, as there is an in-game radio command to get ‘unstuck' and teleport a short distance away. All I'm wondering is how deeply ingrained is this bug that the developer had to opt for an immersion breaking teleport button as a workaround.
You might be wondering where's the section regarding the highly advertised cooperative cross-play enabled multiplayer section of the game. Sadly, we were only sent a single pre-release review copy, and even after days of trying to find other people through random matchmaking, I wasn't successful, (likely due to the lack of players) which makes this a review of the game's single-player department. However, from multiple streams that I've seen, the co-op functionality seems extremely buggy, much more so than the single-player, so it may be wise to wait until some fixes come through before purchasing it for the multiplayer.
The original gathered a massive following of fans despite its shortcomings, we will have to wait and see if the sequel will be a repeat of that. As for myself, the amount of times I've taken a break from State of Decay 2 cursing the current situation is only balanced by the amount of times I've hopped back on the saddle to see if I can get out of the hole I dug myself into or try and make the perfectly balanced Home Base I'm dreaming of.
Thanks to the well-built survival aspects, multiple maps available, and the randomness of events that can unfold, the replay value is decent as well. Even with new features that have been sprinkled on top, State of Decay 2 feels and plays very much like an upgraded version of the original, but the numerous bugs manage to stop the game from reaching its potential. All in all, for the price point it's being offered at, the game is an easy recommendation to returning fans and anyone looking for a unique survival sandbox experience that doesn't mind it being rough around the edges.
Neowin was provided a pre-release copy of the game to conduct this review. State of Decay 2 is slated for launch on May 22 and is available for purchase on PC and Xbox One via the Microsoft Store with a $29.99 price tag. The game will also be playable through Microsoft's $9.99/mo Xbox Game Pass subscription service at launch on both platforms.