By JJ Robinson
State of Decay, released on Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows in 2013 & State of Decay 2, released on Xbox One and Microsoft Windows in 2018, both developed by Undead Labs
Everyone has that middling-reviewed, otherwise forgettable game that inexplicably hooked them. Take for example State of Decay: something that seemed like a forgettable zombie game first published back in 2013.
In light of recent global events, perhaps there is something to be said for surviving, or at least trying to survive, a viral catastrophe with those nearest to you.
To review the experience in short, it’s a passable third-person survival sim with combat, driving and base-building elements. Set in a rural American wastela… err heartland, it was as if GTA and Left for Dead had a lovechild in post-apocalyptic Montana. SoD was unpolished, the story underwhelming, the characters formulaic and one-dimensional.
Yet for one gamer at least – the whole experience was enthralling and promised great things to come in survival gaming. The scavenging, zombie dodging sandbox mechanics of the game captured perfectly the sense of place, a beautiful valley that was decaying long before any zombies ever showed up.
Your starting characters – the player steers one at a time – are a pair of campers by a remote mountain lake, unaware the zombies have taken over until they discover a chewed hiker.
Scrambling through a gorge and finding a truck, they return to a valley in disarray. From here, the layer chooses a base site – an abandoned church, farm, warehouse, or memorably, Mexican restaurant. Recruit group members, skilled in some areas, flawed in others. Pick through the surrounding ruins for dwindling stocks of food, weapons and resources, while avoiding hordes and mutant ‘specials’.
‘Rage against the dying of the light’
A DLC iteration successfully bottled the formula with a coin-op arcade aesthetic of repetition and escalating difficulty. Find the abandoned RV somewhere in the valley. Clean, repair and fuel it. Escape with up to six members of your group. Arrive in the ‘next’ valley/level, with meaner zombies, larger hordes, and fewer resources. There is no cure, no objective beyond survival. State of Decay’s zombies won long ago and death is as inevitable as the shrinking margin for mistakes. In the end, the player can merely rage against the dying of the light*.
Finally, a sequel was released in 2018. SoD2 was seized by niche indygame publisher Microsoft Xbox, no doubt encouraged by extreme popularity of the TV show Walking Dead. Vast publishing resources meant SoD2 could double-down on the promising but undercooked sandbox concepts of the original. Characters interact, fight, bicker, sicken and craft molotov cocktails.
As a result, base building has been greatly expanded, including the addition of ramshackle defensive structures to repel invasion. Instead of one map, there are four vast territories, including a nostalgic visit to an even more run down version of the original valley. Also new is ‘blood plague’, a virulent strain that takes over random buildings on the map spawning far meaner versions of both regular and special zombies. Clearing these structures is your objective, a challenging and terrifying process of tiptoeing room to room to find the pulsating plague heart, then bringing it down with your painstakingly accumulated stock of pipe bombs before its unholy caterwauling summons overwhelming numbers of red-eyed, blood spewing zombies.
The extreme tension and the extra depth let SoD2’s sandbox breathe in a way the first never did. Played on lesser difficulties, it is an engaging action-survival sim with a relaxing agrarian theme. On ‘Nightmare’ mode it becomes a different, beautiful beast – a must for players who would usually shy away from higher difficulty settings.
Suddenly, your enemy is no longer zombies – they won a long time ago – but sound. Everything you do creates noise; force open a door or hurriedly search a cupboard for beans and you’ll draw in curious shamblers you failed to dispatch earlier. Intimately clubbing them creates more noise, dispatching them with a gun creates a lot of noise, and eventually, you’ll be forced to flee as half the map descends upon you in an unkillable tide, or otherwise be ripped in half (with mandatory permadeath!). You can, at best, out sprint all but the fastest of zombies – for several seconds, until your stamina depletes, and you slump into an exhausted glacial hobble. Attacking zombies makes noise, attracting others in the vicinity, and very quickly a situation you thought was under control fast turns into the opposite. SoD2 does mission FUBAR better than almost any game I’ve played.
Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart?
Few of your characters are fighters – at least, not until both you and they’ve survived long enough to learn how. As in a real fight, all but the fittest characters are exhausted in seconds. Limping your top mechanic away from a horde, character gasping as you look over their shoulder to see the tireless tide descending, is intense. Clambering to the top of a van gives precious seconds to recover your breath. At the same time, zombies are roaring away, summoning more if their number as a sea of opponents surrounds the vehicle.
Escaping such hopeless situations becomes a thrilling puzzle of emergent gameplay. Bet you wish you’d packed fireworks in your limited inventory to distract them… but you got greedy and swapped them out for that tin of beans, didn’t you?
On Nightmare, the core gameplay mechanic is not running or fighting, but risk mitigation. Unless you specialise an elite character otherwise, sneaking is slow. Realistically, you won’t tiptoe everywhere. You’ll jog when you think you can get away with it, because you’re human and you’re impatient and you’re meat. SoD2 knows this and taunts you, as you leap heroically through a glass window into an infested diner. The thrill of nightmare SoD2 is that it’s never unfair, or even mechanically difficult, like Dark Souls.
Failures can always be traced to complacency or a poor decision on your part.
Thankfully, there’s vehicles that can be repaired and fuelled. Out in a cornfield, in the pitch dark of night, rescuing a survivor in a ransacked barn, memorising the route to that car is the only way to survive if you step on something chompy.
Start it up and zombies dogpile on to the vehicle’s exterior, ripping off panels and doors to haul you out unless you veer to fling them off or smear them on a telegraph pole. While you’re swerving in a distracted panic, special ‘bloaters’ lie in the road like malevolent speed-bumps. Hit one and they’ll explode, filling the car with toxic gas and forcing you to slam the breaks and dive out at speed before you choke to death. The special skill of that survivor you spent your last few fireworks to rescue? Ikebana – Japanese flower arranging. Oh well, a few morale points for the team and some useful bait when the ferals tear through your base like raccoons in a dustbin.
Then there is the ‘Ferals’. Fast-moving hillbilly zombies that herd lesser zombies like sheepdogs and have an uncanny ability to smell you out, before leaping on you from behind tearing your character limb from limb. If you’re quick on the draw you might headshot one at range, but nightmare spawns them in packs of three – typically right behind you. The howl of a feral spotting you is one of the most terrifying sounds in gaming. Players can quickly be lost to panic as they forget how to fight and fling molotovs inaccurately due to a desperate and futile attempt to flee.
Nightmare mode in SoD2 imbues your decisions with heavy consequence, forcing you to engage with all the game’s systems such as crafting. Raiding a plague heart node is entirely sandboxed, but feels like an epic adventure for which you need to prepare. Will you go in guns blazing, pitting your limited ammo stockpiles against hundreds of zombies drawn in by the noise from nearby paddocks?
Find a vantage point up a nearby billboard and snipe it down through a window? Or distract the blood zombies with a boombox while you sneak in and plant the (rare and expensive) C4, walking out like an action hero while the building erupts into an inferno and flaming figures scatter into the nearby fields?
Some players will bounce off the busywork needed to get to this point. On nightmare, the game is a tense survival management sim: it takes fuel to reach unlooted houses, repair kits if you hit anything big on the way (you did bring one right?), skills to sneak, survive and fight on foot. Offset the risk of being munched against the character’s worth to the community – is your stealthy looter, one of the only advanced classes sensible to send on night missions, also your only exceedingly rare electronics expert able to craft C4? You’ll need that later if you don’t want to go beating plague hearts with a tire iron, remember.
It can be a frustrating game of highs and lows. Your characters are unique, and they die permanently – and horribly. You’ll never forget the first character you lose to a juggernaut, torn in half and tossed aside like a toddler with a stem of broccolini.
The peril of emotion
Revenge is tempting… but SoD2 knows such emotions risk sending your survivor community into a doom spiral as each one seeks to correct the mistakes of the former. Better to live and let… dead? Immersion makes you share the tension of these characters, and their deaths are testing. A recovery crew, for instance, that are sent to ‘distract and extract’ the dead character’s valuable gear, may find the now zombified top hal of a companion clawing plaintively towards them across a parking lot.
Time in this world makes you more grizzled (ferals aside – always pack a panic-shotgun or a change of pants). It’s a superb example of a sandbox game that makes moments of emergent gameplay much more than the sum of its parts. In the end, it’s the losses players might remember more than the wins. Heroic stories, like the last survivor of a doomed world, an Ikebana flower-arranger turned surprisingly competent gardener, fleeing an overrun base with whatever she could grab, as blood juggernauts tore apart the last of her community, flinging their remains into the night. Her story is the player’s story – a wonderful plotline emerges that is unique to gaming.
Limping into the pitch dark, with naught but an empty pistol and a can of beans. Then – a howl from behind. Reader, this writer is ashamed to say they may have rage-quit to avoid her permanent demise, the divine intervention of a control-alt-delete crash to prevent the permadeath writing to the save file. A sound bug incurred by forcing the game to crash meant the character’s dying screams echoed through the desktop. They could only be stopped with a hard reset. Even shut down, the game never seems to let you forget – it knows what you did.
This is true, videogame horror.
*Dying Light, another magnificent zombie game, combining the parkour of Mirror’s Edge and the terror of Resident Evil with a very, very bad mushroom trip in the city of Harran, aka I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Istanbul.