A few bright spots adorn Undead Labs’ clunky open world zombie survival title.
Survival games are an art form unto themselves, the perfect coalescence of resource gathering, exploration and building. The utter freedom presented to players can be overwhelming but the agency to do whatever, as in Minecraft, can be empowering. Similarly, having the player on a somewhat fixed path with a strong narrative like Subnautica can be enthralling. Achieving that balance is tough, especially when the player is tasked with performing many of the same repetitive tasks for the sake of progress. Tip the scales too far in one particular direction and you wind up frustrating players.
Undead Labs’ State of Decay had incredible promise when it released, incorporating a large world that bred familiarity with constant danger, incentivizing gathering but still leaving one to do their own thing. It was fun, especially considering what the studio was capable of pulling off with its limited resources. It certainly wasn’t perfect, as evidenced by the numerous bugs, performance issues and overall rough nature of the game. Nonetheless, there was potential.
"There’s a good amount of urgency here, especially when it comes to treating the Blood Plague and putting down a particular zombie for the doctor."
To think that the original game was five years ago is insane because State of Decay 2 is still very much the same. In fact, in subsequent reveals, I didn’t really find tons of visual differences. I’m not going to ignore the subtle improvements made to base building or the increased urgency of resource gathering and survivor activities. The sweeping changes that could have turned this into an open world, zombie survival behemoth still seem a ways off, unfortunately.
Unlike the first State of Decay, State of Decay 2 allows you to choose an origin story. I went with Keeley and Alexa, a couple facing breakups that suddenly banded together when the zombie apocalypse hit. Other options include a couple who found romance when the disaster hit; estranged siblings reunited and staying one step ahead of trouble; and finally, best buds but with one screwing up more than the other would like. Each character has different starting traits and stats, so if you want to specialize in a particular stat like Fighting, Shooting and Craftsmanship early, then there are options available. Fun fact: The character names are actually randomly generated with each playthrough. Keeley and Alexa on one playthrough would have been Rasa and Ella on another.
Regardless of which couple you choose, the game begins the same way with them arriving at an abandoned military camp for refugees and dealing with zombies. This is essentially the tutorial and helps familiarise one with combat, stealth and resource gathering. There’s a good amount of urgency here, especially when it comes to treating the Blood Plague and putting down a particular zombie for the doctor. Eventually the decision to embark to three different regions comes up. Things look promising as soon as you depart the chaos, scout out potential sites in the new region and then choose a base to settle down.
"If a particular community member stands out, they can be promoted to the position of leader."
And make no mistake, State of Decay 2 from the outset gives you plenty to do. After establishing a home base, you can outfit it with various facilities like a garden, infirmary (which is necessary for manufacturing Blood Plague cures), beds and so on to properly cater to survivors. These facilities can be upgraded for more storage or modified in certain ways – the kitchen can ration food, for instance. Depending on resources like food, construction materials, fuel, ammo and medicine, your pool of survivors will subsist but only for so long. Cue numerous supply runs to bolster reserves until proper upgrades allow for claiming outposts and guaranteeing slight but steady resources. Luckily, you can use the radio to call in information about potential resource locations (though they won’t always be so reliable).
From there, you’re sort of free to go about playing how you’d like. Unlike the first game, there seems to be a lot more popping up in terms of random activities. You’re often told about survivors and traders who might need help or want to deal with you, or infestations that crop up and must be dealt with to ensure morale is steady. Some wandering survivors may be interested in joining your community, adding their unique skills to the bunch but overall sleeping space and resources have to be kept in mind.
Certain resources will be depleted, sometimes through random occurrences, but then different survivors may happen upon useful items in their excursions. In between, there will be wandering hordes and zombie attacks on your base, character quests to undertake and heroes emerging among the community. If a particular community member stands out, they can be promoted to the position of leader. That comes with its own risks as leaders will have different requirements and quests for dictating the community’s survival.
Garnering Influence is essential for trading with outside enclaves, capturing outposts, radioing for resource locations and much more. It’s easily garnered through murdering zombies by the hundreds and clearing out infestations so don’t worry. Given how Influence is necessary for shifting to larger bases, there’s quite a bit of grinding to be done. Also keep in mind that morale can take a hit if certain materials or facilities aren’t in place so you’ll have to manage that as well.
"However, while battles against the undead aren’t mean to be eloquent ballets of slicing and dicing, it was quite annoying to attempt a finisher and have my ally sometimes interrupt."
It’s a lot to take in especially when shifting between different characters, managing illnesses and keeping enough weapons handy. When coupled with the fact that survivors can die, or turn hostile in the wild should you annoy them, there are more than a few tough decisions to make.
With some work, it doesn’t take long to sift through the important matters, prioritize which resources need gathering and helping survivors along the way for rucksacks of resources. In fact, you’ll be doing quite a bit of rucksack transportation so keep a vehicle handy and dump it all in the trunk (don’t mind the somewhat clunky inventory system either). Of course, right off the bat, there weren’t nearly as many vehicles in State of Decay 2. Perhaps it was the valley region I chose. Regardless, there was some appeal to high-tailing it back to base after finding a potential new location for my Warlord leader some 1000 meters away, especially when a glitch resulted in my truck being immediately destroyed.
Glitches seemed a given with State of Decay 2 so when a zombie fell from the sky or clipped through a wall, it didn’t seem totally bad. In fact, I never encountered anything game-breaking but the overall jankiness of the first game was still intact. Zombie movement doesn’t always feel totally fluid, alternating between stilted shuffling and normal walking which is definitely more observable out of combat.
While in combat, things can range from responsive to clunky. There’s the normal hacking but hit enough dead things and your character will learn advanced tactics like slamming a zombie, jumping slices and much more. They’re pretty cool and open up enemies for finishers. Similarly, taking zombies down, one stealth kill at a time can feel pretty satisfying. However, while battles against the undead aren’t mean to be eloquent ballets of slicing and dicing, it was quite annoying to attempt a finisher and have my ally sometimes interrupt. On some occasions, I would go for the finisher but my character couldn’t pull it off, despite being right next to the target.
"The main gameplay loop along with combat can feel very repetitive. A sense of meaningful progression does exist, especially as the base grows and land is reclaimed, one small house at a time."
Large scale skirmishes can be a mess at times thanks to all of this. Gun play is serviceable but not overtly compelling (relying on it as a last resort is cool though since zombies can hear the noise and rush to your location). State of Decay 2 does deserve props for making its zombies dangerous and its characters vulnerable. Taking on a mass congregation all by yourself without the adequate moves, weapons, supplies and at least one follower can be a harrowing trip. That being said, like the first game, combat isn’t overtly complex. Even with some decent enemy variety, skirmishes can play out in the same unwieldy fashion.
Visually, despite being a step up from its predecessor, the sequel still feels incredibly nondescript. Amazing graphics aren’t needed to build atmosphere – the strong soundtrack is a testament to that – but the overall aesthetic continues to feel plain and fairly dull. Performance on the regular Xbox One is strangely not locked – it fluctuates between 30 and 60 FPS, speeding up on occasion. Exploring houses and finding all sorts of scattered details quickly becomes boring due to their overall samey nature. The thrill of discovering new locations is relegated to understanding their overall functions. Past that and imagining your idyllic community thriving in such a setting, there isn’t much by way of visual awe.
The main gameplay loop along with combat can feel very repetitive. A sense of meaningful progression does exist, especially as the base grows and land is reclaimed, one small house at a time. Watching potential arguments crop up as I decide whether to oppose my Warlord’s plan to have an armoury or go through with it are interesting. However, taking part in the same missions again and again, to either kill a handful of zombies or recover an item for a survivor just get repetitive. Sometimes, I had to recover the same item but for a completely different person. Despite the amount of freedom of available, there’s not a lot of exciting variety in State of Decay 2.
Discover a survivor who needs your help? After killing some zombies, they’ll either thank you and leave some supplies or ask for more help to either rescue their friend or find an item. This leads to another location where you must kill more zombies. Scouting a new location? You’ll have to kill all the zombies within before actually being able to claim it (and the odd zombie may still scamper in to smack you, which can be annoying). Embarking on a quest to recover an ancestral mace of all things? Kill zombies and search the locations present. For as interesting as the management aspects can be, the action adventure gameplay fails to really liven things up.
"I just wish the core gameplay felt more significantly improved rather than just “okay”. Given the recent works of both triple-A and indie development studios, that’s not an unreasonable request."
The core issue boils down to State of Decay 2 being too much like the first game. Yes, I get that it’s a sequel so why should it be so radically different? And while there is a case for having more of a good thing – series fans have three large maps to choose from and can pre-build their own community with random survivors by skipping the tutorial – the evolution and heightened polish that comes from a sequel seems missing here. And no, when I say “evolution” a few mods for different facilities isn’t enough. State of Decay 2 does expand on the premise of its predecessor but it opts for slight improvements that only hardcore fans will really notice or appreciation. In the meantime, the repetitive combat, boring mission structure and incessant gathering will wear one down overtime. While the survival aspect is bogged down by too much busywork, the open world aspect suffers from lack of variety and unique scenarios.
There are good things to appreciate about State of Decay 2. Specializing your different characters, struggling to keep your survivors alive even as beds are in short supply and exploring the map, destroying Plague Hearts and dealing with hostile elements, can keep you busy for hours. I just wish the core gameplay felt more significantly improved rather than just “okay”. Given the recent works of both triple-A and indie development studios, that’s not an unreasonable request. I didn’t try co-op but from what I’ve read, it’s quite the mess. If you’re picking this up for co-op play, exercise caution but for all intents and purposes, this is only a review of the single-player portion.
Unlike the first game, State of Decay 2‘s whole doesn’t surpass the sum of its clunky parts, instead highlighting their fallacies when it matters the most. Just “okay” isn’t enough after all this time, even if there are a few fun scenarios on offer. If you couldn’t get enough of the first game, then State of Decay 2 offers plenty to wile away the time. Don’t expect anything revolutionary, much less sublimely ground-breaking from the first game, and you won’t be too disappointed.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Base building options feel decent and provide enough room for personalization. Specializing survivors while managing resources can be interesting. Lots of activity in open world. When combat is on point, it's fairly satisfying. Three large maps provide tons of ways to build your community.
Repetitive activities that offer little variety or imagination. Combat suffers from a few hitches and annoyances at times. Animations and overall movement suffer from jankiness. Aesthetic marred by overall samey nature of locations. Glitches and an overall lack of polish that hark back to the first game.
State of Decay 2 isn't a bad game but it doubles down on too much of the first game's failings. For newcomers, the repetitive combat and mission variety, glitches and lack of polish can be a turnoff but the base-building and survivor management manage to shine.