I’m going to start by saying I am disappointed in State of Decay (here on out referred to as SoD), and to understand why I need you to wind back your clocks and take a walk with me down memory lane. It’s 1996, I am 12 years old and my cousin and I are sat up at 3am playing Resident Evil in his bedroom. Ignoring the fact our family were letting us play this game when clearly it wasn’t suitable, you have to understand our enjoyment and amazement at being scared shitless. Already I was a huge zombie horror fan, yes at 12. I would watch and rewatch Romero movies in my room at weekends, bury my head in books and play Resident Evil over and over. A little obsessive I agree, truth be told I was pulled up through childhood by horror films, rock music and bikers, so a zombie obsession is the least of my worries. As I got older my cousin (now a University Graduate in Scriptwriting) and I would talk for hours about the style of zombie game we would make one day. Anyone own a Dreamcast or GameCube and play Skies of Arcadia? Remember how that was one of the first decent RPG’s to include multiple followers and base building elements? Well we would sit there and devise open world scenarios using elements from Skies and combine them with Resident Evil (and even Silent Hill) to create our ideal game. Fast forward a number of years and we’ve had disasters like Fort Zombie which had so much potential to be something amazing… it failed. We (fellow console gamers) also have to sit and watch development Day Z and all we can do is suffer in silence knowing that we cannot play it on our console of choice.
As the years have gone by and I have had similar conversations with fellow gamers, friends, gamer friends and those in-between, we normally always end up describing some kind of open world, survival horror title set in a zombie-esque apocalypse. Think World War Z (the book NOT the movie), and blend in the struggle to seek out essentials like finding fresh water, food and shelter whilst dealing with hoards of the undead. But through all this, characters that feel real with emotions that are appropriate to the situation they are in. I want believable characters in a fantasy world. Undead Labs have had a go at creating this, and although they did an OK job – personally, I don’t believe the game deserves the 8 and 9’s it has been getting in reviews.
So here we are in Trumbull County, a picturesque central America based setting home to camping resorts, large woodland areas, rivers, reservoirs a couple of small towns and a handful of farming communities. Everything looks perfect from the outside other than the few thousand marauding flesh eating corpses and a handful of Army personnel trying to maintain some semblance of order. SoD doesn’t give us any back story to speak of, but instead drops us straight into our first mission – FIGHT! That’s right, literally the first thing you do in SoD is take down a zombie or two, when done it is then down to business for 30-45 minutes of guided tutorial style missions before finally being left to figure out the rest for ourselves. It’s learn to survive and adapt or die… and be prepared to die, a lot.
I’m going to be straight to the point, the story is by far the weakest part of SoD, and this is a shame. Being an Xbox Live Arcade title the game itself is limited to being no more than 2GB in size. This means we are going to have to put up with poor texturing in terms of the visuals. We will have to make do with what can only be described as hideous audio effects (other than the music, which is good), anyway, you get my point. We know that as an XBLA game, there have to be sacrifices, but those sacrifices would have been fine if the story was more engaging, more believable. Fuck it, I would have happily sacrificed the voice overs for text if only the story continued and didn’t just vanish so suddenly and horrendously. At the beginning of the game the narrative holds some promise, it does a superb job of treading that thin line between zombie cliché and something fresh and new with some would-be brilliant dialogue moments. But out of nowhere SoD seems to abandon any semblance of a plot line. I have read elsewhere about how impressed other players have been with the way Undead Labs have tried to let the environments tell the back story, which is good if executed properly. It reminds me a little of the zombie mode in our beloved Call of Duty games, but as with Call of Duty these are neither implemented well or frequently/widely enough to enable the tactic to succeed.
The way in which SoD deals with playable characters is quite interesting however. You start with one character and over the course of the game as you bring new survivors back to your base, you slowly become friends with those characters. Once you reach this friendship status with that character you can they directly control them. If you are on a mission with Maya for example and she dies, you are as the player (not character) then sent back to your base and you take control of another friendly character. If you run out of friendly playable characters then the game is over. Each character that you switch between during the game has its own back story, but this is so basic it’s covered in 2-3 lines within their bio. When you play as a different character the dialogue and way they interact with other characters, NPC’s and the environment around them remains the same as the character before and the character you will switch too next, meaning outside of a different perk or two the different characters are nothing but differently styled skins. Although the idea here is to leave us to make up own our stories in this open world, SoD is left feeling like it’s populated with clones.
Right, so what do we do during a normal day in SoD? The game is broken down into three main areas, gathering supplies and equipment for you and fellow survivors, fortifying your base and/or your outposts and of course helping out other groups of survivors as well as those within your own group. Every now and then, and this is very infrequent, there will be an interesting side quest – for example there is a great one that see’s you heading into town to help a fellow survivor track down an old homeless man she once worked with as an outreach worker. During the search there is a glimmer of hope in terms of the narrative, the conversation turns to life before the outbreak and how the survivor ended up as an outreach worker. Unfortunately as seems to be the case with SoD this is short lived as you quickly find the homeless man, albeit he is a walking corpse. After putting him down, the survivor runs off and you are left feeling like you do after a cheap McDonalds, unsatisfied and used.
Outside of the handful of interesting quests like the one above, the rest of the missions mainly break down into leaving the comfort of your base and going out into the town and surrounding wilderness of the world to kill some zombies, collect items and turn back to base. From there it is rinse and repeat for between 12-18 hours before finally reaching the ‘End Game’ mission that once completed sees the credits rolling. And that reminds me, the end game mission is bugged and I didn’t get to see what happened, which royally upset me. I don’t want to give much away, but the characters held some bare minimum dialogue between themselves and then suddenly there was commotion but the camera got stuck behind a rock and I missed it all. Game Over. Credits roll. Noooooooooooooooo!
The thing about SoD is there is/was so much promise. I say there is still promise as Undead Labs are still working on a Co-Op version of the game, which could really add some interesting depth to the game if done properly. I was thinking to myself as I played through another day of saving the same NPC from the same building again for the 3rd day running, wouldn’t it be great if there were some secret collectibles hidden away to distract me from this mediocre gameplay loop I have become stuck in. Anyone that knows anything about my playing style or preferred titles knows that I am a RPG fanboy at heart, so when I learnt about the RPG style level system in SoD I was genuinely quite intrigued. The system helps to keep things interesting for a short while but very quickly you find there is little noticeable difference between a character you have levelled up to max and a new friendly survivor you have brought into the group other than an extended health bar and increased stamina gauge. Ever since my first RPG, which was unashamedly Final Fantasy 5, I have always been a sucker for a decent levelling system, but only when I can feel real progress being made.
One of the areas I was really interested in trying out and seeing in action was the base building feature of SoD. Some of my favourite RPG’s of all time include base building elements; Skies of Arcadia, Neverwinter Nights and the DLC pack Awakening for Dragon Age: Origins. This base building mechanic added to SoD does add a little more depth and strategy to the game and even helps push my overall review score up a point. By building different additions to your base like a work shop or garden new possibilities will open up in the game, or free you up to concentrate on something else. For instance building a work shop allows particular items to be crafted overnight, whilst then upgrading that workshop means any vehicles you pack outside the base (in specified parking bays) will be repaired ready for when you revisit the game after work/school/sleep etc. Building a garden is a must if you don’t want to be running around permanently looking for food supplies. By building a garden, you guarantee a sustainable source of food for you and your survivors. By building these different additions which include kitchens, watch towers, sleeping areas and first aid tents you begin to ensure the health and safety of your base and those within. These additions in turn can all be upgraded and with all of them there are a number of benefits to the player stats that make the time investment into hunting down the building materials worthwhile.
I think what pulled most people into the hype surrounding SoD was the survival aspect of the game. We were all (myself included) cleverly guided towards the game on the idea of having to keep ourselves alive during a zombie apocalypse, not just the usual blast our way through it a la Resident Evil or Dead Rising style. Next to the weak narrative, this is the next biggest disappointment of SoD because quite frankly, it just isn’t implemented well enough to make a massive difference to how the game is actually played. The game uses a stamina system that must be replenished over time – this is frustratingly easy to achieve through food and caffeinated drinks which can be found everywhere, even the public restrooms. This is as far as that survival mechanic goes. A really small change could have changed this basic mechanic into something much more deep and detailed – how about a water and food meter? Having to keep both above a certain level. What about actually eating the food we are always having to scavenge and unless there is enough food, we the player run out of stamina more quickly. I understand adding multiple layer of complexity can be tough, but these small changes could have made the survival mechanic so much more, much more towards what we were expecting.
Let’s talk price and whether or not SoD is really worth the full 1600 MSP price tag Microsoft seem fit to have set. The answer isn’t a simple one and really comes down to just how much you’re willing to put into the game and what you are looking for. If you enjoy zombie mode on Call of Duty or love Dead Rising for its ‘jump in then jump out’ style zombie slaughter, then this isn’t the game for you. It’s also not for those of us looking for a console equivalent of Day Z. SoD is middle ground between the two, and doesn’t live up to some of the big promises made by Undead Labs – the survival aspect for instance. It is also worth mentioning that SoD has far too many technical errors for a game of its price. Yes, I can hear you all shouting and screaming at me ‘But it’s a downloadable game Kris!’, ‘It’s only 2GB for crying out loud!’… yeah yeah, let me finish. It can look pretty bad in some spots, textures forget to pop in for minutes on end and the AI can be so bad that there was a few times I needed to restart missions due to scripting errors. While there is the “it’s a downloadable game” defence for these issues, bear in mind that by charging more than most other extremely polished titles on XBLA Undead Labs needed to provide a quality product.
I know I have said it once, twice and a thousand times over throughout the review, but there simply isn’t enough depth and variation on show in State of Decay to elevate it to the lofty heights its concept could have and SHOULD have achieved. When all is said and done, what makes me continue playing the game is how as I run around I imagine what I would change and how I would change it to bring it closer to that ideal game I have in my head. I think perhaps the best compliment that I can give SoD is it’s a fantastic first effort from a fledgling studio with little budget and funding behind them.
Scouring derelict buildings for supplies in the dead of night, fighting of swarms of undead or sneaking through blood soaked forests was all hugely entertaining. However I just can’t help but feel a lot of my enjoyment came from the fact that I wanted to enjoy it. Now I have finished it, and the review is complete. I won’t be playing it again in the foreseeable future, at least not until I hear CO-OP has been released and I can jump in with friends and see if that adds more to the game.
With game breaking technical issues, promises just not delivered upon and a promising start but ultimately weak narrative SoD could have been so much more. That said it was a massively impressive first attempt for Undead Labs, I look forward to hearing from them on game add-ons and developments.