Review: State of Decay

I don’t even remember her name, but I remember her dying because she was the first – kind of like whoever it was who died first in The Walking Dead, which is appropriate because State of Decay could be most simply described as an unofficial game of the series. Especially the part where people die, because a lot of people die in this game and it’s also entirely my fault.

I mean, I didn’t want to manage the grim, desperate aftermath of a major cataclysmic event. I’m not qualified to do it. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist, and when I got a bit older I wanted to be a rock star, and then I decided to be a university student forever because working a real job sucks, and finally I graduated with a teaching certificate and decided to sit in front of a computer, eating peanut butter and curry pickles straight out of the jar instead. The point is, I’m not much good at this hardcore zombie apocalypse survival thing, and the remaining residents of Trumbull Valley are up to their necks in metaphorical excrement because of it, but I suppose that’s exactly how this would probably work out in real life anyway.

Now what?
I don’t have a contingency plan for this, so I’m just going to scream.

One of the big differences between games and real life, of course, is that you can usually get a lot more really important stuff done in a game version of real life than in actual real life. About ten hours or so into State of Decay, I realised that this is also one of the big differences between this game and other games – you can’t get everything really important done, and that’s okay. That’s just part of the game, and it’s part of what makes State of Decay something so special.

The been-there, done-that, got-the-DayZ-T-shirt hardcore zombie apocalypse survival thing is not exactly a new one in gaming today, but State of Decay introduces some authentically innovative concepts to the genre. It’s a complicated – and, at first, rather intimidating – mash-up of open world exploration, combat, stealth, resource accumulation, and base management, backed up by some old school RPG mechanics like character fatigue and permanent death. While many of its influences (Grand Theft Auto, for example) are obvious, the result is a game quite unlike anything else before it.

Although the "when everything goes wrong, run" rule applies.
Although the old “when everything goes wrong, run” rule still applies.

Fundamentally (apart from the very basic narrative), the game’s premise is to establish a safehouse of some sort and maintain it against a relentless brains-hungry mob – that includes not only locating and recruiting additional people to help run the place, but also to acquire necessary supplies like food, ammunition, and medicines to keep those people alive. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, because without additional people, you can’t adequately maintain your safehouse, but more people means more necessary supplies to support them.

The persistent world simulation means that tasks like building new facilities or even repairing broken gear can take several hours to complete and randomly-generated missions are only available for limited periods, according to predetermined cycles on both the in-game and real-time clocks. Even ending a game session is zero guarantee that something very, very bad won’t happen while you’re not around – this one time I started up State of Decay after not playing for two or three days, and a bunch of my characters had died in the meantime. I want to blame the zombies, but I think it was actually because I didn’t stockpile enough food. Remember what I said before about being a rubbish zombie apocalypse survival coordinator? That.

Even when your back isn’t turned, character safety is a constant concern. If you play with a single character for long enough, they will get tired and their maximum stamina temporarily decreases until you dose them up on caffeine or switch to a new character so the other one can get some sleep. Characters can also be injured, which seriously affects their movement and combat efficiency out in the field, and must limp to medical attention quickly or die. This can be a problem if the tired or injured character is far away from the safehouse, and must make it back either under your control (hazardous) or the AI (very hazardous).

You can swap characters at any time, which I discovered much too late is probably a very good idea because if you’re only ever playing with and levelling up the one character, that character’s inevitable death is devastating. A moment of silence then for Marcus, Ed, Ben, Maya, Jacob, Sam, and all those other people whose names I’ve forgotten but especially that one guy who was an expert mechanic.

This is not an easy game, and its very ambitious attempts at doing something new and different are not without fault. Whether by design or neglect, some critical gameplay systems aren’t really explained and instead left up to you to figure out on your own, and this put together with the brutally unforgiving difficulty could potentially shut out players who might otherwise have enjoyed the game. This complaint notwithstanding, State of Decay is an outstanding accomplishment by Undead Labs, and with a cheap $20 pricetag it’s more game than most full price retail launches. Don’t miss it.

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