The bar Naughty Dog set in 2013 with The Last of Us made it nearly impossible for another zombie game to truly surprise players. Its exquisite world-building and polish was second to none, and while we’ve seen undead stories attempt to tell a serious, camp-free tale in the following years, the goal of emulating the game is futile. Undead Labs set its sights on something completely different with the original State of Decay, ignoring traditional linear storytelling in favor of player-driven progression. With State of Decay 2, the studio continues this push, and despite several rough edges, it’s mostly successful.
Taking place about a year and a half after the events of the first game, State of Decay 2 is once again centered on the undead outbreak plaguing Trumbull County. When loading up a new game for the first time, you choose from several pairs of survivors, each with their own preexisting relationships, and attempt to make it out of an abandoned government facility before it’s overrun by zombies. In the first hour of the game, you’re introduced to the various combat mechanics, including stealth-kills and firing guns, as well as the constant threat of blood plague – an infection disease that will kill your character and turn them into a zombie if left untreated.
Necessary as it may be to introduce the game’s moving parts, the opening moments of State of Decay 2 don’t make the best impression. The melee combat is less refined than in Dead Rising 4, though the weight of weapons does make each kill satisfying. The stealth isn’t as reliable as The Last of Us, meant as a supplement to facing zombies head-on rather than as an alternative. Facial animations lag far behind competitors, and dialogue scripting issues can lead to awkward pauses in conversation. But as you are let loose into the open world and begin to see the many other elements of State of Decay 2 – you’ll come to realize this lack of polish is far from a deal-breaker.
“State of Decay 2 hammers home that this isn’t a sandbox for you to search at your will.”
As soon as you’re given the ability to explore Trumbull County, State of Decay 2 hammers home that this isn’t a sandbox for you to search at your will. You need to set up a home base and recruit other survivors. You need to gather food, medical supplies, building materials, and ammunition in order for that base to run properly. You need to meet up with other factions to complete objectives and form alliances. Nearly every second of time you spend in State of Decay 2 will be spent doing something to keep your community alive and happy, but what’s remarkable is how this doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s exceedingly rare to go out in search of supplies and not have something terrifying and exhilarating happen to you. You might come across an empty building only to find yourself overrun by zombies who were led to your position by a “Screamer,” or you could be ambushed by humans who tricked you into visiting their outpost.
Occasionally, all of this will happen at once, resulting in a glorious mess of panic and gunfire that will surely result in a lot of dead bodies. Zombies might be the living dead, but they aren’t stupid, and they’ll quickly zero in on your position if you make too much noise – even just opening a container too hastily can attract the swarm. You’ll often have to spend more resources than you’re comfortable with to make it out alive, but the supplies you gather from your dead enemies almost always make it worthwhile. Though you may have ventured out in search of fuel to power your base, you instead come across a stash of ammunition. It doesn’t help your fuel problem, but it does make it a hell of a lot easier to deal with anything guarding fuel somewhere else.
I typically shy away from survival games because I find the resources deplete too quickly, resulting in a never-ending cycle of gathering one type only to have another dwindle dangerously low. If you don’t overextend your reach and keep your community member count relatively small, however, this is never an issue in State of Decay 2. You’ll be able to plan ahead and have some wiggle room in case of an emergency – such as your fuel reserves being partially destroyed in a fire.
The same can’t necessarily be said for your characters’ own reserves. Each survivor is given a set amount of stamina that can be increased by running around the world, and the total amount you’re given ranges from “ridiculously low” to “slightly-less-ridiculously low.” Sprint for too long and you’ll be too out of breath to fight zombies, and your total capacity will further decrease if you stay out too long. It’s a system implemented to make sure you switch between your characters frequently, as those who have been able to rest will have a full stamina bar, but it also led to numerous instances where I had to drop what I was doing to choose a new character. Given the size of the game’s world, this can mean substantial time spent traveling to your base instead of gathering supplies or completing missions, particularly if you haven’t yet met the requirements to build extra outposts in other locations.
Thankfully, any downtime you deal with doesn’t break up the flow of the game’s story, as it’s nearly all player-driven. The missions you choose to take part in – aside from destroying infectious “Plague Hearts” – are up to you, and the relationships you gain and destroy are almost entirely caused by your own actions. It can make things seem a little aimless, particularly if you’ve done a good enough job at keeping your supplies stocked and are looking for something more substantial to spend your time doing, but it also allows you to create your own story. In my game, the character I had chosen as my leader ventured out to look for his missing brother, only to be overrun by the undead and slaughtered. It drove my community into a deep depression which they only recovered from after a military veteran took the lead and began eliminating the zombie infestations quickly filling up the map. We were even eventually able to find the fallen member’s body and take revenge on those who took him down.
“Any downtime you deal with doesn’t break up the flow of the game’s story, as it’s nearly all player-driven.”
Zombies lurk around every corner inState of Decay 2, but bugs might be even more common. As a $30 release, it isn’t that surprising that the game lacks the polish of titles with larger budgets, but it could have benefited from a few more months with the QA department. I witnessed zombies float 30 feet in the air, odd flickering while driving, a door attempting to leave our dimension for a better one, and somewhat shaky performance despite playing on an Xbox One X. At one point, I had been severely damaged and my heads-up display disappeared, hiding my stamina, objectives, and map from view. I thought this was a feature meant to disorient you, but after restarting the game, it was inexplicably back. Most of the time, these bugs were trivial and didn’t cause any real negative impact, but I did manage to get my car stuck between two rocks multiple times with no way of breaking it free.
State of Decay 2 isn’t meant to go head-to-head with higher-profile zombie franchises, but if viewed as a unique combination of action-adventure and survival, it offers something you won’t see anywhere else. Here, “make your own story” is actually exciting, rather than a marketing point used to mask a game’s limited content. It creates an addictive gameplay loop that had me coming back for more, but also left butterflies in my stomach as I worried about my community being destroyed. That balance is key to any horror game, and despite more bugs than are inside one of the undead, State of Decay 2 delivers the goods.
State of Decay 2 was played using an Xbox One code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Windows 10, and it supports cross-platform play.