State of Decay

State of DecayBefore actually reviewing State of Decay on its own merits, I should mention that I bought it in error; I thought it was a different game. Since I first heard of the concept, I’ve been interested in Dead State, a game that was meant to be a zombie-survival management game, like a more complicated version of Rebuild, with XCOM-esque turn-based combat.

That game promised to neatly tick every box for what I look for in a game – in-depth management, deep and complex tactics, taking XCOM (one of the greatest games ever made) as an inspiration. Naturally, I was interested, and kept myself vaguely aware of its progress.

But life has been busy recently – Dead State fell off my radar, until I saw it on Steam the other day. I was pleased to see that this long awaited game had been published, and bought it immediately.

Shortly afterwards, I realised my error – what I had bought was actually a different game in which you managed a group of survivors building a base whilst fighting of zombies and dealing with other survivors. I still think it was an understandable mistake: they are both trying to fit into a very small, specific, niche, and they even have very similar names. The mix-up took me slightly aback, but I resolved to play State of Decay anyway, and try not to hold my confusion against it.

Onto the game itself: State of Decay (developed by Undead Labs) takes place during an outbreak of zombies in the US. Everything has broken down, no one knows what the government/army are meant to be doing, all is chaos. Small groups of survivors band together, scavenging for supplies from deserted shops and abandoned houses. Their efforts are hindered by the restless dead, and complicated by other survivors.

You play someone caught up in this apocalypse, trying to ensure your group’s survival and success. On a large, sandbox map you complete various missions in order to ensure this – scavenging for fuel or other supplies, supporting beleaguered neighbours, taking out particularly dangerous Infected. Some of them are on timers, others don’t seem to be, and you have a lot of choice over which ones you complete when.

You don’t stay as one character – as you deepen your relationships with various PCs, they become your friends. Once a character is listed as a friend, you can hop into their head, leaving your previous character to rest or heal. It’s a neat mechanic that allows you to keep playing the game even when the character is exhausted (fatigue is an actual issue in this game; not just something you wait out for a few seconds). It’s also nice to have a choice of characters – you don’t get stuck in a shaven-headed marine’s body unless you want to be.

The controls are third-person, watching your character from behind their shoulder. They’re also somewhat clunky – my character didn’t always respond to the controls immediately, taking a second press to swing their weapon or turn around. It isn’t ideal – a character who needs repeated commands to look left is a character whose face is going to get bitten off, but it wasn’t a constant problem. Annoying when it happened, but bearable.

The interface is more of a problem. State of Decay was billed as an action RPG with management elements, but confusing control schemes and layouts make the management a chore. Everything seems to take a few more clicks than should be necessary, and the whole thing is clearly not designed for a PC – the game was apparently developed for Xbox, and it shows: massive menus, button pushes preferred, mapped keys somewhat unexpected.

The management itself is okay – you have a home base, which has various building slots that you can put different facilities in – a kitchen, for example, or a workshop. Slots can be upgraded, and other survivors with relevant skills will go work in them. Food can be grown or scavenged for, and is a resource that is diminished every day according to the number of survivors you have in your group. It is, again, rather like Sarah Northway’s Rebuild (that link is to the second Rebuild game on Kongregate, which is well worth playing).

Rebuild and its sequel, however, are only brief, free, browser-based games. I normally expect more from larger, ostensibly more valuable works. State of Decay doesn’t seem to do that; if anything, management seems a little less complex in it – in Rebuild, you can assign specific survivors to specific jobs, building their skills and managing the various talents in your group. In State of Decay, as far as I can work out, survivors make their own choices, and those mostly seem to be lazing around. Apparently they start working if the already have a relevant specialisation (great at cooking, for the kitchen, or medically trained, for the medical tent), but I didn’t get experts in many of the things that I wanted/needed.

If you are going to combine management and action, both parts need to be done well. I didn’t feel that was the case in State of Decay. The management seemed to obfuscate and delay from the actual gameplay – you had little real influence on events, it was just another set of hoops to jump through.

The map is open, and reasonably large, which is quite nice. When I saw that it was all one map, I was a little put out: I didn’t want it to be the same four or so locations, limiting replayability; I was hoping for procedural generation. However, the map is large enough that you don’t learn it all that quickly – traveling never takes too long, but is often an appreciable distance, particularly on foot. It forces you to choose between the noise of a car, or long, slow journeys. The choice is slightly cheapened by cars being so fast – the zombies notice you, but are left far behind.

The map feels real as well – it isn’t just fields with plot-critical locations. The developers put thought into the layout of the town, the way that land is used. Overall, the setting and the map are the things I felt that State of Decay does best.

Atmosphere is of vital importance in zombie games – the best games about the undead are the ones where you start shooting corpses on sight, out of blind panic. State of Decay fluctuates here: the first few missions are tense and fearful, but later excursions lose that edge – the minimap fills up with icons and you can drive easily. There are moments where it comes back – a mistake leaving you surrounded by zombies, a screamer noticing you – but you do start to feel in control and unthreatened. The game is perfectly entertaining without constant terror, but it does take some of the fun out of it. Assassin’s Creed has the same issue: the actual gameplay is death to the atmosphere. It is difficult to be stealthy and alert when you can kill or escape everything easily.

In all, I find myself feeling ambivalent to State of Decay. It’s serviceable, just quite clumsy. Nothing works as easily as it should, and the game gets in the way of its own experience. But there are parts that are really well done, ideas that would have been great if the execution hadn’t been flawed. I’ll keep playing it, but I’m not that thrilled by it.

You can buy it on Steam here. The developer’s website is here.

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