It’s been a while since I picked up a zombie game. Back when the genre was at its peak, I was with everyone else in spending hours in Left 4 Dead 2, Dead Island, and Call of Duty’s Zombies mode. Since then, zombie-focused adventures have fallen from grace due to oversaturation and lack of innovation. You can imagine my surprise then when a console severely lacking in exclusives is touting an open-world zombie title as a reason to buy the box.
The original State of Decay was unique in that it presented a simulated RPG zombie-world to survive in. The goal was merely to build a base and survive alongside other humans. You switch between the different survivors in your base as you search for upgrade materials and new characters to bring in. Potentially, you could play the game endlessly, upgrading your world until you get bored and create a new one.
For better or worse, State of Decay 2 doesn't innovate much on that formula, at least not in the 18 hours I've spent with it so far. Undead Labs' latest opts to bring us a similar experience with all of the extra features they couldn't fit in the first time around.
I started out with a pair of survivors who fought and broke up countless times before the zombie outbreak brought them back together. Their dynamic could make for some exciting conflict during my gameplay, no? Shortly afterward, we founded our first base with two other survivors and got to work. That is, after a game crash in the middle of the opening sequence forced me to restart everything.
When exploring the world, the first thing I noticed was just how often zombies would come after me. When driving around, the undead would come at every angle. Searching through a house for supplies? Better hurry up. Biters will be at the door shortly. Even in the safe zone, zombies were regularly breaking through and giving my survivors a hard time.
You gather resources and other survivors by completing randomized objectives similar to the radiant quests in Fallout 4. Zombies will trap someone, or a group will ask you to provide them with extra supplies via radio. Objectives reward you with allies, materials, or sometimes even new additions to your group.
Fortunately, the world map provides details on each location and what you can find there. Resource management is an essential aspect of keeping your base operational and morale at a decent level. If I'm running low on ammo, I can search for an abandoned military base and bring back bullets. At one point my group was complaining about the lack of water, so I searched out treatment plant and claimed it in minutes. State of Decay 2 streamlines a few features like this, which makes the nearly absurd level of micromanaging much more accessible.
Playing State of Decay 2 is like being a freelancer. There is a laundry list of different tasks that update frequently. To survive, you must pick and choose which are most beneficial to you and your group. Initially, you want to do it all. That dude trapped in a house by zombies? I can save him while on the way to help out my allies, and I can even grab some gas at that fuel tank in between the two. Oh wait, on the way this new group of survivors asked for help, and a new trader is in town with some rare gear. Plus, I was just informed that my base is under attack by zombies and we’re running out of food.
When starting out, this insanity stood out to me as a balance issue more than anything else. However, I realized that this is called State of Decay for a reason. Survival should be difficult. This is a world where things can go wrong instantly. This is a true "how would you fare in a zombie apocalypse?" simulator, and that’s what puts it above other zombie titles. Last night, I experienced a tragic moment only 200 meters from my home base that pushed that thought home.
There was an infestation of zombies surrounding a poor guy across the river from my base. I had just maxed out all of one character’s skills and was working on the final skill for my group leader. These are my two best survivors that I built up from the start. Infestations are usually 6-8 zombies with one or two special ones thrown in. More often than not, it's an easy task that I can handle by myself. I got to the house and found out just how wrong I was.
The survivor was using a gun, which attracts a load of other zombies. There was also a screamer, a unique enemy that screeches to attract even more. This combination put us in the middle of a zombie swarm. My partner, the leader of my group during the 18-hour experience had met her untimely death. Weirdly, this triggered a severe bug that removed my entire UI. I could no longer see my health or my weapons, and I was in a mad rush to my car to get out with my life. Somehow I pushed through and ditched the guy to try and find my way back home.
I needed to restart to fix the UI bug, and found that my character was a hit or two away from death. All of that work was gone in seconds, which is representative of the State of Decay 2 experience. Anything can go wrong at any moment. The tragedy is a part of the journey, and you must earn your victories. That said, the UI bug was one in a long list of issues that tarnish the overall package.
For every gameplay moment I've praised, there is a bug to bring it down. So far I've experienced glitches where quest rewards don’t show up, zombies clip through windows, cars get stuck where they shouldn't, enemies drop from the sky, and missions randomly end before I fulfill the objective. These problems add up, tarnishing an otherwise immersive simulation. They aren't the only areas with a severe lack of polish either.
State of Decay 2 is not pretty at all. Ground textures are mere splats of green and brown, character models are rough with no sign of anti-aliasing, and pop-ins are quite frequent due to the poor draw distance. Also, remember the partner I mentioned earlier? There was almost no depth to her relationship with my main character. What I thought would be an interesting dynamic was only a few lines of dialogue during the opening sequence. That partner even died a bit into my experience, and my character didn't react at all, aside from a grieving hit to morale that all of my survivors experienced anyways.
As much as I want my base to go on thriving, it’s more for personal satisfaction than it is for protecting any of the characters. I have little reason to care about any of them. Sometimes I experienced small moments where I learned about their past or about how hard it is to see their loved ones become undead, but that is standard fare for zombie media. The survivors never interact with one another aside from these forced moments which are few and far between. Each one is merely a tool for improving my base.
Regardless, I still find myself wanting to get back to State of Decay 2 as often as I can. There is always something to be doing, and it's easy to fall into the "one more thing" trap. However, I worry that my most severe bug was 18 hours into my playtime. For as much as I enjoy the immersion, what if a game-breaking bug comes up later on that ruins it all? Ideally, these would be features that are fixed in a day one patch, but the first State of Decay was incredibly buggy as well and that was never fixed.
For now, the sequel is proving to be what Destiny 2 was to the first game: a more realized vision rather than an overhauled new experience. My next few dozens of hours will be spent fine-tuning my base and protecting my survivors. Hopefully, the only dangers continue to be the zombies and not the programming.
State of Decay 2 was previewed on Xbox One using a code provided by Microsoft. It is also available on Windows 10 via Xbox Play Anywhere.