If the zombie apocalypse was real, how would you survive? State of Decay 2 provides an opportunity to find out. The simulation is far from perfect, but it presents a fleshed out, immersive, and at times stressful experience that’s hard to put down.
Upon picking a pair of survivors, State of Decay 2 thrusts you into its world with a short tutorial and some lore. Your chosen duo escapes a zombie horde and comes across an abandoned military base. Interactions are frequent here, and I grew to care for my couple. This scenario does a good job setting the dreadful tone, though it isn’t representative of the rest of the game.
Cutscenes and expository dialogue make up a lot of the introduction. We learn that the military has deserted the area and survivors have to fend for themselves. You'll also meet two others who join up with you to build a life together. Unfortunately, this is the only traditional "story" segment in State of Decay 2. Once in the open-world, cutscenes are rare.
I understand the “create your own adventure” design choice, but an optional plot to follow would have been a nice touch. Even if the story would have been short, I want to to know more about the world. I would have felt more motivation to survive here, and the lack of a plot is especially frustrating due to the hints of other events via the in-game radio.
A group called "Red Talon" are often offering up tips and discussing their intentions to help survivors. There’s a neat subplot where the group is trying to blow open a new route for others, but events are only heard over the radio and never shown. With how often they communicate, it seems the Red Talon would appear in-game at some point. Instead, this mysterious alliance remains on the radio waves alone. This is even more frustrating once you interact with the bland factions included in the world. All the radio contact feels like a lot of build-up with no payoff, though the disconnect does make you feel even more alone in the apocalypse.
An absence of story doesn't mean you're running around aimlessly. Establishing a base is no easy feat. You'll spend the first couple of hours gathering resources, running errands, and bringing in survivors. These moments are somewhat miserable, as survivors complain and fight with one another over a lack of stability.
I failed to prioritize fuel gathering on my first playthrough, and that kept my group morale at an all-time low for longer than it should have. Fortunately, State of Decay 2 provides in-depth statistics on what's affecting your group. Both stressors and relaxers are documented for a detailed look.
Bases have limited space with lots of different options for buildings. Structures are relatively self-explanatory: An infirmary for healing, a workshop for building weapons, a tower for defense, etc. Survivors come with specialized skills that will benefit from their respective properties. A mechanic will thrive with an auto shop, while a nutritionist will be right at home in a kitchen. However, the limited spaces prevent a lot of experimentation.
Survival requires a workshop, an infirmary, a watchtower, and a kitchen at the minimum. Depending on your fortress, these building staples limit you to one or two spaces for experimentation at most. This limitation is a shame, as there are some cool buildings I have to pass up for the essential ones. I want to build a lounge with an Xbox for my people to hang out in, or an auto shop for fixing and upgrading my vehicles. Of course, erecting a massive fortress with every possible building would contrast with the vibe of hopelessness, but there should be a bit of leeway for the sake of variety. The ability to host multiple bases would have gone a long way in structure diversity.
Each survivor you take in has a legacy ambition, which is either the safety-focused builder, the community-driven sheriff, the survival of the fittest warlord, or a peaceful trader. Picking one to be your leader will start a chain of quests to fulfill their legacy. For example, the builder wants to create a fortress for the safety of their group. A lot of these quests involve claiming territories to make this so.
That said, the quests aren’t as exciting as they’re set up to be. Near the end of my builders legacy, I was approached by groups of survivors wanting to join us. My group was full, so I denied all of them. I was suddenly asked if I was ready to “complete” my community, meaning that I would be done and have to start anew with builder bonuses next time. I said yes and initiated the final quest. A previously shunned group showed up, brought with a horde of zombies, and I had to kill them all as a final task. Suddenly, all of that fortress-building was gone, and I had to start a New Game Plus of sorts with three carried over survivors and a bonus trait. These final moments felt rushed, as do most of the quests in general. Structured sections are more quantity than quality.
At nearly every moment, I was under attack by zombies. Even in my base, undead are often trying to break in. Because of the low draw-distance, they seem to come out of nowhere when roaming the open-world.
Special zombies exist as well, with models that feel stripped right out of Left 4 Dead. The Screamer attracts extra zombies until killed, the Bloater explodes into poisonous gas, the Juggernaut is a damage absorbing tank, and the Feral moves quickly and tackles survivors. As unoriginal as these monsters are, they inject variety into fights and can cause a real struggle when paired with the standard horde. The Feral is the most deadly, with him being the reason for the only two deaths I experienced.
Combat is a blend of melee weapons, guns, stealth, and grenades. The third-person shooting is tight, with most shots landing precisely in the reticle. To keep quiet and save ammo, you’ll be using melee the most. You can pick between blunt and sharp objects to bash heads in. As you upgrade your survivors, each one gets a unique melee attack that makes fighting a bit easier. Even so, stealth is your best friend. Some of my most intense moments involve sneaking into zombie-filled houses and eliminating each monster from behind. Weapons break rather quickly, so I have to carry extras often.
That’s not to mention the plague hearts - red stalks of energy that create plague zombies. Sporting red eyes, these creatures cause infections when they bite you. Eliminating plague hearts is essentially State of Decay 2’s version of a boss fight. Each heart fills a space with gloomy fog and brings in heaps of zombies when attacked. These stalks take a lot of firepower to bring down and are worthy challenges early in the game. However, they fail to be challenging later on when you can craft explosives. Lobbing a few grenades renders this significant enemy type moot, which eliminates an entire section of the game due to the simplicity.
Victories in State of Decay 2, both big and small, are worth celebrating. Most activities reward you with influence, which you use to trade with factions, spend on assistance via the in-game radio, or found new bases. In fact, the points are offered a bit too often. I’ve often had an excess of them whenever I needed to spend.
As addicting as these game mechanics are, there are a few glaring flaws that prevent State of Decay 2 from being the ultimate zombie survival simulator. Aside from the introduction, survivors serve more as a gameplay mechanic than they do actual people. Each member has paper thin motives that they hardly express. My most played character is more of a pacifist. When at odds with other survivors, she would mutter a little bit about killing them, and that's it. No morality check, no change in conversational tone, nothing. Not once did I feel a connection to any of them, even the ones I played during the introduction. A survivor's importance to me is based purely on their skills.
I spent a ton of my time driving. Yet, nearly every time I have a substantial way to go, my car will get stuck somewhere along the way. Slightly uneven terrain, a couple of rocks, or random structures get under vehicles at an alarming rate. Sometimes I'll wiggle my way out while wasting a half tank of gas, and other times I've had to ditch the car altogether. When driving does work, plowing through groups of zombies is excellent fun. Heads explode, bodies go flying, and I've even shortened a Juggernaut fight by ramming into him. You can also hold the door open to drive-by smash zombies, which just never gets old.
Character models are rough to look at on the Xbox One. Both survivors and zombies have jagged edges, and textures are spats of a single color with little detail. This lack of density allows State of Decay 2 to handle quite a few zombies on screen with only a slight performance hit. On the other hand, the lighting can look quite good at times. Watching the sunset over a valley filled with bodies is eerily charming, making the dirty ground textures easier to stomach.
A lot of bugs have been patched, but some persist. Characters clip between each other often, making combat awkward and even ruining stealth attacks. I’ve had mission rewards disappear, objectives not register upon completion, and doors not open no matter how hard I try. These issues are significant enough to dampen the experience, but not enough to make me stop playing.
Co-op is a much-touted addition to State of Decay 2, though I haven't had much a chance to try it out. You can invite up to three friends for a private session, or call in a random survivor via radio. Fortunately for single-player enthusiasts, the A.I. isn't half bad. In fact, I can usually leave survivors to do all of the fighting for me, so I'm not wasting my ammo. They'll get into cars, keep a close distance to me, and generally be out of the way when in combat.
For all of its problems, State of Decay 2 keeps pulling me back in. Some areas should receive more polish, but what works is damn fun. State of Decay 2 is about killing zombies and building up your base, and it delivers on that front wholeheartedly. The experience isn't going to blow anybody's mind, but this is a solid game with something for everyone. Also, I've learned that I may do alright in a zombie apocalypse. I can't say many other games have shown me that.
State of Decay 2 was reviewed on Xbox One using a code provided by Microsoft. It is also available on Windows 10 via Xbox Play Anywhere.
State of Decay 2 is a fun and immersive sim... when it works. There are some bugs and a few odd design choices, but the game does what it sets out to do well.
- Variety Of Activities
- Fun Base Building
- Addictive Combat
- Shallow Survivors
- Loads Of Bugs
- Driving Physics Ruin The Experience
- Not Great To Look At