If you aren't familiar with Undead Labs' first release, State of Decay is an Xbox Live Arcade download made in partnership with Microsoft Studios (and currently the fastest selling Arcade title of all time!). The concept behind the game is that you control a group of survivors trying to survive a massive zombie outbreak in an isolated valley. Your characters will need to hunt for supplies, seek out new survivors to expand your community, construct facilities to help your home base, and create outposts to help handle the zombie hordes. All of this takes place inside the fictional sandbox area of Trumbull County, which you can explore to your heart's content, though certain areas will be blocked off until after you've passed certain story elements.
State of Decay was an "early Father's Day" present for me. I downloaded the trial the same day that it was made available, and quickly decided that I WANTED THIS GAME. I'm a bit of a zombie game nut, and I've played almost all of the big ones - The Resident Evil series, The Dead Rising series, Dead Island, Left For Dead, TellTale's The Walking Dead, Rise of Nightmares... Yeah, I've played a LOT of zombie games. One would think that I would be bored with them by now, and while another "just kill a bunch of zombies" title doesn't exactly fill me with excitement, State of Decay promised something I've been wanting for a long time: A zombie game that focuses on the community as a whole, and on developing relationships between survivors and neighboring communities.
I want to get this out of the way. State of Decay has some technical flaws, as one would expect from a new developer's first release title. The frame rate occasionally stutters for a couple of seconds. Sometimes zombies will clip through walls (or into floors). The textures pop from time to time. And the game insists on telling me that there are too many infestations around my base, even though I've scouted the area and there's not a single infestation to be found.
So yes, there are some technical flaws. Honestly, though? They're pretty minor. They have in no way reduced my enjoyment of the game, nor caused me any real problems while I am playing, except aesthetically. Even better, many of these issue will be solved after a technical update currently undergoing certification comes out in the next couple of weeks.
With this little caveat toward the game's technical flaws out of the way, let's move on to...
State of Decay is a third-person action game. The controls are pretty basic. The standard, left-thumbstick to move, right-tumbstick to rotate the camera, is pretty much expected on consoles at this point. You can crouch by holding the B-button while moving (after your survivor has started crouching you can release the button and remain sneaking), which can allow you to avoid detection by zombies and set up instant-kills. The Y-button let's you shove your enemies, hopefully knocking them down and leaving them vulnerable to finishing blows delivered by pressing Y again while holding the left-bumper. X let's you swing your melee weapon, which will degrade in quality until it eventually breaks. Holding the left trigger enters into an aiming mode, allowing you to fire your firearm by pulling the right trigger. The right bumper will use a selected inventory option without needing to access your inventory screen, and you can cycle through usable items with the left and right direction pads. Finally, A lets you jump, while pressing B during combat will allow you to dodge an enemy's attacks.
The controls work pretty well. Sometimes it will seem to take forever to knock a zombie into a vulnerable position to deliver a finishing blow, but the survivor's skills (I'll get to that in a moment) play a large part in that. Sometimes you'll perform a shove when it looked like you were close enough to execute an instant kill. And aiming a gun at times seems incredibly difficult, and at others almost automatic.
You get used to the controls very quickly, and the game provides you with an obligatory "tutorial" area of sorts. Once you use a control once or twice, you should have no problems, other than the occasional technical glitch, for the rest of the game.
At the start of State of Decay, you will be in control of Marcus, who has been on a two-week fishing trip up at the lake in Trumbull County with his buddy Eddy (who cannot, at the start of the game, be controlled). Marcus and Eddy start the game besieged by zombies, though they have the genre-required obligatory confusion regarding the situation, thanks to having been cut off from all forms of media during their vacation. The game gives you clear objectives on where to go, but doesn't require you to head that way. There's a large amount of virtual real estate to explore, if you're feeling so inclined. Plenty of cabins and campgrounds where you can scavenge for new weapons and items. In fact, the first story-based mission has you doing pretty much that, so you can get a head start. Before long, you'll meet Maya and have another survivor join your little group, and discover one of the things that really makes State of Decay feel different from other zombie titles.
In State of Decay there is no one, central character that the story is based around. So long as you aren't actively engaged in a mission, you can - and will - switch between survivors at your home base. Each survivor has their own inventory, their own skills, and their own personality traits. If the survivor you're playing as dies, you'll switch to another survivor in your community, and your comrades will mourn your loss. And there's no reloading the game to try again either - Sate of Decay features permadeath; the game's save feature is an auto-save, so when a survivor dies, they're gone forever. This might seem brutal, and it is, but it places an emphasis on how dangerous the missions are, and it makes you actually dive a damn about the survivors. By the end of my first play through, I had several survivors who had become my "favorites," survivors whose skills were almost maxed out, who could almost always get the job done. When I got into tense situations with them, I worried about it, because one mistake and they'd be gone forever. Sure, I'd have other survivors to play with, but all the time I had invested in those dead survivors would be lost.
As I mentioned, each survivor has their own set of skills and traits. You can view the skills and traits of any member of your community by pressing UP on the direction pad and cycling over to the first tab (which is also where your current survivor's inventory is displayed). Traits can provide certain special skills unavailable to other survivors, or they can affect the rate at which you level up certain skills, or affect stats. Characters with the 'Played Golf' trait have a slightly higher amount of stamina. Characters who have a Bum Knee find it painful to remain crouched, and lose stamina while in a crouched state. Some of these traits are purely cosmetic, but can be entertaining. A character with the Storyteller trait will sometimes ramble on about things while travelling with another survivor, for example. Other traits will allow your community to develop special facilities.
Skills are rated from one to seven stars, and have specific actions that earn you "experience" toward the next star. Some skills are shared by every survivor - Cardio, Fighting, Wits, and Shooting - while other require that the survivor have a particular trait, such as the Leadership and Powerhouse skills (Marcus starts with both of these). If you examine each skill, you'll find a Training entry that explains how to level it up. Run everywhere if you want to quickly level your Cardio (which increases your stamina, so it will help your survivor get through those big fights). Fire a gun if you want to level up your Shooting (remember to equip a suppressor, or you'll attract more zombies than you kill). Search EVERYTHING if you want your Wits to increase. Higher levels in skills will unlock specializations and unique moves to aid your survivor, and provide a certain degree of customization with each survivor in your community.
If this sounds somewhat like a roleplaying game, it is. Well, more of an RPG-lite sort of thing, really. There isn't enough depth to really be a full RPG to me, but you can certainly find yourself thinking in those terms. I found my self seeking out survivors with lower skills so that I could develop their abilities and make certain that all of my survivors were capable, much as I used to cycle through party members in Final Fantasy games to make certain that no one fell behind.
"Well," you might be saying, "I'll just keep playing with ONE survivor and turn them into a goddamn action hero!" Yeah. No you won't. Time keeps moving as you explore the world of State of Decay, and eventually everyone needs to sleep, even that so-called "action hero" that you wanted to create. When you're survivor gets tired, their maximum stamina decreases. Sure, things like energy drinks and coffee can restore this, but their effects are temporary (or will be, after the technical update), and eventually you'll start running out of steam too quickly to be effective. Plus, if you take enough damage that the zombie almost kill you, your survivor will become Hurt, and their maximum health will decrease, making it that much easier for the hordes to take your action hero down. This keeps the pressure to switch survivors regularly on, especially as leaving an injured or exhausted survivor at your home base is the fastest way for them to recover.
Community is Key
I mentioned that I love the aspect of building a community of survivors to weather the zombie apocalypse. State of Decay places a lot of emphasis on this, not only through making it imperative that you regularly switch between survivors (who need to like you enough before you can control them), but by keeping a running inventory of supplies and available facilities. Neglect your community, and you will watch it whither away. Survivors not under your control can (and WILL) leave the community, either fleeing in panic or by being forced to hide while away on missions. If you don't have enough beds for people to regularly sleep you can expect mood to worsen and for people to bail on you.
Finding supplies, rescuing survivors, and completing other missions will earn you Influence, a sort of in-game currency that allows your survivors to take supplies from the community inventory. Influence is shared between all of your survivors, so you'll want to monitor it carefully, lest you find yourself unable to get those pain killers your survivor so desperately needs. Influence is "capped" by the fame you've earned throughout your community, quickly draining away until you're back at the proper maximum, so if you want to do a lot of things at once, make certain you're performing missions on a regular basis. Influence can also be used to make use of your home base's special abilities, such as searching for a type of supply your community needs, finding new survivors, or providing everyone with combat training. I didn't find it hard to keep my Influence at pretty high levels, though I did occasionally drop pretty low.
Your community's home base comes with a certain number of open "slots" where you can build new facilities or remove facilities to make room for new ones. The first base where you'll really have the opportunity to do this has two such slots available. My second (and final) base had six, and I filled them all quickly. Facilities can be watch towers (a must; you really want a sniper to help keep zombies away from your home), or dormitories (also a must if you're going to be growing your community). Gardens, infirmaries, training dojos, kitchens, workshops... there are several different facilities, each with their own benefits. Some facilities will require survivors with certain traits (better have a Good Cook if you want to get the most out of that kitchen), so if there's a particular facility you want, keep an eye out for survivors who have the traits you need.
Building and maintaining your facilities requires supplies. There are five categories of supplies: Food, Medicine, Ammo, Materials, and Fuel. Your community will use up some of each of the supplies, especially Food, on a regular basis. At the start of the game you will be almost completely dependent on finding these supplies in abandoned homes and buildings, but as the game progresses you will build outposts that will help provide you with a steady source of Supplies, make trades with other communities, or even produce your own source of a supply (like getting Food from a Garden). Survivors can scour through buildings to find these supplies, filling a rucksack with one particular type of supply to bring back to base. These rucksacks are heavy, inflicting heavy penalties on a survivor's stamina while they carry them, but are vital. Since you can only carry one supply at a time, the game makes it possible to radio home and request that a scavenger be sent to collect other supplies in your location, saving you from needing to make multiple trips. This can only be done a limited number of times a day, however, and your scavenger can be attacked en route, so keep an eye out in case they need help.
A Persistent State of Decay
One of the more interesting features of State of Decay is that it exists within a persistent world; in other words, the game keeps going after you log off. If you leave your community in bad shape when you stop playing, you can expect to come back to find that survivors have either left your community while you were away, or were hurt and need time to recover. Your supplies will deplete over time, and you might be in desperate straights if you aren't bothering to keep your community stocked while you're playing. On the other hand, if morale and supplies are high when you log off you can count on rested survivors, replenished community inventories, and possibly some new supplies scavenged while you were gone. Heck, I've come back to find that new cars were parked outside of my home base. Damaged inventory can be repaired (assuming you have a workshop), leaving you slightly less dependent on the random assortment of weapons the game provides you with as you scavenge. On the other hand, buildings you've completely ransacked stay empty. There is no respawning of loot (I have, however, noted that some buildings that I don't completely search seem to occasionally reset their inventories, generating new random items). Eventually, your survivors will need to travel further and further afield to get what they need, which means more survivors going missing or dying while you're away. When you reach this point, consider moving to a new location with fresh scavenging opportunities.
Can you really talk about a zombie game without discussing the types of zombies? No, you really can't.
Regular zombies are pretty bog-standard. They groan, moan, and shamble their way through the game world, right up until they spot you. Then these suckers sprint for you, arms ready to rip you limb from limb (there's an achievement for getting torn apart, by the way). You'll need to destroy the brain to take them out, but on a one-on-one basis, they aren't a huge threat, not even to a survivor with only one star in Fighting. Encounter a horde, however, and you can get in trouble, fast. The zombies are also fairly stupid, and you'll see several simply bashing their skulls into a wall, completely oblivious to your presence until you draw their attention.
Feral zombies, on the other hand, are fast and nimble and FEROCIOUS. They move even faster, take a lot more to knock down, and they'll dodge automobiles like champs. I lost Marcus to one of these bastards taking him by surprise, even though Marcus was maxed out on almost all of his Skills.
Bloat zombies are more of a nuisance, than anything. They're filled with toxic fumes and explode if hit or if they get close to a survivor, releasing a cloud of fumes that damages health and stamina. The worst part of a Bloat is that if you hit it with a car, the cloud attaches to the car, forcing you to abandon the vehicle until the fumes clear.
Armored Zombies (no picture), are pretty much your standard zombies, but are wearing swat gear, giving them protection from bullets. You'll need to engage these zombies at melee, but they really aren't any worse than a standard zombie.
Screamers (no picture), are commonly found at infestations, where their screams' ability to stun survivors are most dangerous. If you don't take these out quickly (and there are usually two at an infestation), you can find yourself helpless against a mob of zombies. I normally keep a gun on every survivor just to take out Screamers before they can stun me.
Juggernaut Zombies, or "Big 'uns," are the type of zombie I avoid the most in the game. I lost my first community member to one of these bastards - and I wasn't even controlling her at the time! These massive mounds of flesh and destruction can survive being hit with an automobile - in fact, they tend to handle it better than the automobile! They can grab your survivor, lift them in the air, and tear them in two. They can charge a survivor, hitting with the power of a locomotive and nearly taking a survivor out with a single blow. Head shots seem mostly ineffective, and are hard to pull off once the Juggernaut has notice you (because it will charge at you, leaving you with little time to aim). Groups of survivors tend to fare better against these, as they can hit the Juggernaut frequently enough to force it to release survivors it has captured and get a lucky blow on the Juggernaut's head. If forced to fight one of these things on your own, try to climb out of its reach. Trust me.
State of Decay was FUN. I finished it last night, and I'm already thinking about starting over and trying to do things differently. Explore different base options (though I'm sure that I'll end up at the same base; I love that base), experiment with different facilities, and meet new survivors. The game costs 1600 Microsoft Points ($20), but you can play a free trial of it that runs on a time. You won't get to explore every feature, but you'll get to play with the controls and the opening story line of this great game. This game is the highest (and fastest) selling Xbox Live Arcade title of all time, and it is easy to see why. Do yourself a favor, and pick it up!