With State of Decay: Breakdown it’s clear that Undead Labs have listened to their fans and critics. Though State of Decay was wildly popular it did attract some common complaints, mainly levied against the game’s narrative. The main game was rightly praised for its sandbox surivival elements, but the structure didn’t allow these to shine as brightly as they could – something Breakdown aims to remedy. This DLC throws away the story component and instead lets the player just survive in a zombie infested sandbox. The end result of this is content that brings to light the best and worst of State of Decay, making for a fun survival experience with some notable detractions.
Though the core aim is to survive in an open world environment, survival for survivals sake isn’t overly enjoyable. With the narrative stripped out they have removed what was pushing you forward, and with that potentially diminished the incentive to interact with the world. Luckily Undead Labs have evaded this issue of potential pointlessness by making what is essentially a challenge scenario. Yes you are in a map where you can continue playing for ever and doing your own thing, but there is one overarching aim: restore an RV and get the hell out of here.
This main aim actually facilitates something really interesting, as it ties into the overall structure of the DLC. Once you’ve reached the RV, sorted it out and picked who you are taking with you, players are given the opportunity to escape. There is a caveat though, escape means the end of the current scenario and the start of a new one. If you accept you are given a score breakdown and you are dropped back in the world, but with a slight twist. You start out at a broken RV, with whoever you took with you and the process of building up a base, surviving and eventually escaping in a new RV begins again. This time though the new RV is in a different location and everything is considerably harder. This is the real core of the Breakdown DLC, multiple levels of the same scenario where each one is harder than the last (with touches of persistent like unlockable playable heroes). This adds to replayability, raises the stakes and gives you something survive for.
The reason that this all works is because survival in State of Decay is well handled, though it’s no survival sim it is full of interesting mechanics which make it entertainingly authentic (well… as authentic as a fictional zombie apocalypse can be). By placing the focus on survival rather than just zombie slaughter, Breakdown keeps you on your toes and manages to avoid becoming tiresome. The zombies around you are a real threat, but you have a lot of other things to worry about – like maintaining your home base, scavenging for supplies and helping potential survivors. There’s a nice ebb and flow to the gameplay, and the mechanics intertwine neatly to give a more cohesive experience.
This cohesive gameplay loop starts with surveying; getting to the roof of a specific point and casting your eye across the map. This causes question marks to appear all around you and hovering over these reveals what they really are. Surveying shows what buildings are on your map, and highlights things of interest, making for an effective way to take in what is around you that makes sense in the world. After this you just have to take action on your information in whatever way suits you. The best course of action is to establish a base and then scavenge local buildings for useful supplies. Certain locations are suitable candidates for a nice new home, but have requirements – such as needing resources and a certain number of people on your side. To fulfil these criteria you need to use the information surveying gave you so that you can explore useful points in the local area.
Once a base is set up though, it needs to be maintained. Numerous factors effect morale and stability, and your base can be renovated and restocked by you. Doing this means venturing out into the world and looking for supplies, and while you don’t know what supplies will be where, the surveying process gives you a good idea. Supplies are usually sensibly placed, in your survey you saw a fuel station, they probably have fuel there that you can bring back home. Of course things like this aren’t always guaranteed, but that just adds to the realism of it all and stops it from being so by the numbers. Returning supplies is as simple as loading them into a special bag and getting back home, but you are noisier and slower with the extra weight so there is a sense of tension. Also there is a nice balance between self survival and maintaining your base (as well as the people in it), as usable supplies can either be transported back whole or broken apart to reveal individual items only you could use. Medical supplies for your base help to keep people healthy and happy, and allow you to pursue upgrades like an infirmary, but that won’t directly help you if you are low on health due to undead encounters. There’s a nice conflict here between long term and the short term gain that works in the game’s favour.
With your own survival to worry about, a base to maintain and the odd mission pop-up to take care of, there’s always plenty to do and this stops the experience from feeling aimless. You can handle things how you want, but there are always things you need to do and this keeps the experience grounded. However certain features aren’t as well implemented and can cause frustration. Mechanics like stamina drain are pretty punishing and sap some of the enjoyment out. Exploring the world and scavenging buildings whilst under threat by zombies is an enjoyable experience, but do it too long and your character will tire out. This is a big deal because stamina governs attacking and running, and if you properly tire out you are painfully slow. Though this system is interesting, it rears its head too quickly and too often. Stamina seeps away like nobody’s business and this has a real effect on the gameplay. The idea is that when you are tired you swap out for another character and let your former protagonist rest, which is a neat idea, but the need for this arises too frequently and too early on. It’s not a major issue, but it is a frequent minor frustration.
Not all the mechanics hold up that well in Breakdown and the new structure does shed light on some remaining issues from the main game. The melee combat is serviceable, but it’s not especially good. You hit zombies with your weapon and if they are downed you can instant kill them. Learning the flow to the combat allows you to master it somewhat, controlling crowds by jumping from instant kill to instant kill somewhat safely, but the melee system isn’t precise enough. Your relative weakness does add to the overall feel of survival, it causes you to play smart and it makes zombies feel like a real threat – in small numbers they are fine, but larger groups can kill you very easily. However, the focus on increasing the difficulty level by level just means that the issues with combat become more and more noticeable. The system could have done with tightening up, but the structure of the DLC actually puts a greater strain on it as the game becomes more challenging. Certain special zombies just aren’t fun to fight and utilise techniques that the simple combat just can’t match. Encounters are always feasible, due to a wide variety of tactics and items available to you (you could distract them, shoot them, set them on fire or run them over), but they aren’t always fun. Put simply, the combat doesn’t match up to what the game demands of you the further you progress.
On top of this the structure of missions isn’t always that enjoyable. There are no story missions, but somebody back at base is always around telling you things you could be doing. This includes clearing infestations, fighting special infected, saving survivors and a bit more. There is a set of looping objectives, but they are mostly implemented well into the game and compliment the core idea of personal survival while maintaining a community. Certain mission variants can be problematic though, a specific example being ones where you barricade a building before it gets attacked by zombies. Barricading just means boarding up the windows and success in the mission is achieved by eliminating all the attackers. This means you need to set up the building so that zombies can’t get in, but also make sure you kill all the zombies that you are supposed to not let in. It seems somewhat antithetical and makes the barricading a bit pointless. You can’t really attack them from inside, so you need to leave and just attack a horde head on. This once again makes for a frustrating combat scenario (especially when they throw special infected at you) and I found the best tactic was to just get in a car and drive around the building running everything over. This felt more than a little bit silly and didn’t feel much like helping to barricade.
Another issue is the frequent gameplay bugs that crop up. I didn’t experience any crashes or freezes, but I regularly encountered glitches. Characters often walk through things, get stuck in things, hang out in walls or just generally get in the way. These moments can be pretty funny, but they can also mess things up for you. One mission involved helping out a stranded friend and escorting her back to base, but she was far too busy spending an eternity falling infinitely through the floor in a loop to follow me home. I couldn’t do anything else until the mission was failed or completed, but she wouldn’t follow me and the zombies couldn’t get to her. Clearly she found a successful survival strategy and didn’t actually need my help, but the game told me to assist her and wouldn’t let me continue until I did this impossible task. Annoyingly, there is no real way to abandon a mission, so the only choice was to quit out and load up an earlier autosave. This wasn’t an isolated incident, another mission couldn’t be finished because a zombie I had to kill was spending his time being stuck in the floor in a way that meant he couldn’t harm me and I couldn’t harm him. We were at an impasse and he was of no threat, I was effectively surviving, but the game demanded that I do the impossible and dispatch him.
Little quirks are glitches were very common in my playthrough, I often got stuck in the environment and had to cheese my way out, or got caged in by the geometry in a way that just shouldn’t have happened. A perfect example being I once parked my car next to the curb and got out, but got stuck between the car and the tiny curb and was unable to mount it. I was able to fidget my way out of this scenario but things like this did keep cropping up and broke immersion. These foibles are ultimately forgivable, but in a game of perma-death and real consequence things like imprecise combat and inconvenient glitches could get you into a lot of trouble. The key to these kind of games is that when you die it is your fault, but these issues make it too easy to put the blame on the game itself.
These issues aside Breakdown is a fun piece of downloadable content that will carry great appeal to a large number of people. If you fell in love with the feel and mechanics of State of Decay, and recognised its potential as a zombie survival experience, this capitalises on that in a greater way. Certain mechanics could do with being fleshed out, and some of the design choices hinder rather than help, but the core is really well done and makes for a great experience where separate elements fit together excellently. It’s by no means a refined game, but the challenge aspect of it adds to the appeal and the increasing difficulty makes survival a real focus that is appropriately challenging. The limited scope can be a bit problematic, but ultimately this content is a great little survival experience that will keep you occupied in spite of its flaws. It’s rough edges permeate all the systems, and lead to several places where work is needed, but as a proof of concept and a starting point Breakdown is pretty excellent. The promise of a proper open world zombie survival game hasn’t yet been realised, but Breakdown is still a cleverly put together and well thought out game that will provide you with a fair few hours of survival fun.