The original State of Decay on 360 scratched a zombie itch that no other titles on the market, (for the consoles, anyway), could reach. Primarily, and technically I believe it is tied to the games form of Permadeath, which means every decision made could have dire consequences for your characters ultimate survival.
Originally intended as a multiplayer experience, State of Decay 2 picks up where the first left off from both a plot and technical perspective.
If you choose to take the tutorial when you begin, you will have the choice of several pairs of survivors; siblings, lovers or best friends, with whom you must build a settlement and survive long enough to take out the plague hearts that are investing your area. They will be guided by NPC’s and it will introduce you to some of the key combat and environmental controls, before setting you on a path to set up a new settlement to combat the new threat.
Alternatively, decide to skip the tutorial and you are instead allowed to create a new settlement by selecting three characters from a large selection of playable characters. Once you create the settlement the paths realign, with the only real difference to the plot is the fact that the tutorial settlement starts with four characters, rather than three. Get used to seeing this settlement, as you will soon enough be spending a great deal of time here.
In order to survive, you must scavenge enough materials to ensure your groups survival, while also stockpiling to take the attack to the plague hearts, the core quest of the game. State of Decay 2 makes no major changes on the front end resources; you still need to gather lumbar to upgrade your base, meds to keep everyone healthy, ammo to keep the Zeds at bay, fuel to keep the lights on and food, to keep your party from starving. On the back end though, a new level of complexity has been added.
Vehicles now require topping up, where in the original all vehicles had an infinite tank, in State of Decay 2 vehicles are a far more valuable resource than ever before. With the improvements made to the enemy AI and the graphical overhaul to both the assets and in no small part to the lighting, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere at night when your truck runs out of fuel, and having to run to the nearest outpost to restock will test even the most experienced of SOD players
Everything you scavenge or collect is a resource. Characters and Vehicles have a limited inventory space, so you need to balance what you want, be it a new shotgun and some shells, or that bag of crafting materials that you need to finish upgrading your garden. There will always be times when something has to be left behind in order to maximise your scavenging. Thankfully, the improved AI companion helps with the lifting, or even your friends should you venture online.
Beside the new level of depth to the resources themselves, the Base and your playable characters have also had a major overhaul. Your base can now be fitted with Mods, which give additional benefits to your community, be it as simple as increased storage space or the fitting of a generator to allow the modded area to be powered to increased overall character health or stamina. These can be a huge boon in keeping your characters alive and healthy. Each of your groups mental wellbeing goes towards the overall happiness in your base. If someone knows there isnt a guard tower they might be more ill at ease, or if a community member has an annoying habit, such as kleptomania or just being messy, everyones mental health contributes to the collective.
This is why the new changes to your characters are so important. Each of your characters has the base four skills; Cardio, wits, combat, and shooting. These are now supplemented by a unique skill system that can allow characters to become specialists in a field such as gardening, medicine, construction or even utilities, and these skills can be levelled up and evolved with enough experience.
The core skills level up in the same way as before; running around town, or carrying weights around will upgrade your cardio, looting buildings and sneaking past zombies will upgrade your wits, where straight up engagements with the undead will level up your combat and shooting abilities, just like in the first game. This time though, these skills can even evolve. Use a bladed weapon as a primary, and you may specialise in the swordsman tree, allowing you to do a low chop that knocks enemies off their feet allowing an easy kill. Or are you a blunt man, in which case you may decide to just get the upper hand by using less stamina in combat, or even increasing the power of your knockback attacks.
These evolution paths are in every skill tree, allowing you to customise a truly personal squad ofzombie killers with all the skills needed to make a thriving community. Once Maxed out, a character becomes a Hero, unlocking a unique perk that benefits the entire community, and also reveals which Archetype of character they are. The new archetype system allows for further customisation of your base by which of those archetypes you choose to become the community leader. Do you go for the Sherrif, who will look to aid and ally with other communities and protect those that cant protect themselves, the builder who will make your base a near unassailable fortress, the trader, who will look to bring people together through mutual beneficial trade, or will you be the Warlord, and emerge into the wasteland as the dominant force against zombies and aggressive humans alike. Each of these also allow a unique construct to be built in the base, which is far more potent than the existing versions.
This brings you finally to the core mechanic that I mentioned earlier, Permadeath. As I said before, each decision you make, large or small, could spell catastrophe for a character, and by a direct result, with the new base and community mechanics at play, the ripple of damage it can have is measurable. Losing a community member is a grim reality in this world. Run out of gas in the wrong part of town, underestimate the size of the horde you are facing, or just go in for a plague heart under equipped, will see you lose someone important, who is quite fankly, difficult to replace.
This time round combat feels smoother and more balanced, and you will notice a difference as your cardio improves your stamina and your combat prowess improves, as you can take on far more of the zombies with greater ease as you progress. Standard zombies and Freaks make a reappearance, with the Feral, Screamer, Juggernaut and Bloater making a welcome return, but this time they are accompanied by the new Plague Zombie. These festering, skinless, red eyed and red bodied variants are all carriers of the new blood plague that has appeared and is affecting the living. Each of the living that contract the virus will progress from stage 1 to Stage 2 once they have been attacked by plague zombies. Stage 2 progresses on a prescribed timer, allowing you the time to craft the antidote, or to give them a lead based cure, but should they take too much more damage, or run out of time they will turn and become carriers themselves. Plague zombies amass around plague hearts, so in order to clear your area of the hearts, you must be prepared for your characters to take to a fight they may not survive.
From a technical standpoint State of Decay 2 has definitely eclipsed its forbear, but regrettably it has also exceeded the original in terms of ongoing bugs. For everything that was a definitive improvement, you have a bug to match it. Enemies stuck in walls, appearing out of the ether, and even shooting straight up into the air, go hand in hand with the glitched doors that appear to be closed when open and open when closed, or the texture pop in, or the invisible companion, or when you get stuck on a piece of the scenery only to be mauled by the surrounding zombies.
Although these are relatively minor bugs, in a game with such an over riding mechanic such as permadeath, these can really damage a title. Losing a character because you were ill prepared or bit off more than you could handle is one thing, but to lose a character permanently to a bug is decidedly unfair.
Finally, though it is a definite improvement over the first game, the second also finds itself struggling with its frame rate on the original Xbox. Though it keeps a solid FPS for 90% of the time, there are occassions, when too many enemies are around at once, or when you are going full speed in one of the faster cars, where the lag starts and the frame dips. This, coupled with the enemy and environment pop in put paid to one of my favourite cars, and had me double timing it across fields to make the remaining 500 metres to my home base.
That said, for all the bugs, stutter and frustration, I thoroughly enjoy the game. What is does right, it does very right, and what it does wrong is more forgive-able for it. All in all, State of Decay 2 has a great deal of room for improvements on the bug side, much like its predecessor, and if they do tweak it in the same way, this will be a recommended part of your gaming line up for with friends.