A couple of years ago, I got the chance to review a little game called State of Decay. The first game from Undead Labs, it set you up as a survivor in some unknown part of America in the aftermath of zombie apocalypse and pretty much your only goal was – don’t die.
Now, the game has been revamped for release on the Xbox One and PC, with the addition of two DLC packs, bringing a massive slice of zombie action to a new audience.
I’m going to be honest - State of Decay makes a terrible first impression and that hasn’t changed with the supposed ‘next-gen’ version of the title. The graphics remains basic and the controls a little awkward, while there’s a focus on multiple menus which aren’t always that well laid out.
And things don’t improve much through the first hour – you meet some other humans and do some menial tasks, trying to figure out the menu system and braining some zombies before heading back to base. The story isn’t that well-handled and the presentation is seriously lacking.
But my advice is to stick with it because after that opening area, the game massively opens up and you get to tool around in a huge world brought low by the end of times.
State of Decay is definitely a zombie game but it’s far from typical. Rather than the regular survival horror rhythms we’ve come to expect, this is a hard strong look at what it takes to bring a community through such a horrific event.
So while you start off as a single character – the charismatic Marcus – you’ll soon find others and become part of their group. And that’s everything to the game, as you’re beholden to a group of battered down humans for their moment to moment existence.
You’ll have to head out to forage for supplies in the dangerous doorways of ravaged human settlement, bringing back food and medicine to get your starving companions through the night.
And, more often than you’d like, you’ll fail. Not having enough food instantly means a drop in overall morale for the group. Fail to provide too often and everyone will become tired, they might even pass away. And others might decide to take their own lives rather than continue going hungry.
That’s the moment to moment reality of State of Decay and its procedurally generated allies quickly start to take root in your heart. These lumpen piles of polygons are unique to your game, with names and voices and personalities, and if they die they’re gone for good.
You can also swap between multiple playable characters whenever you’re back at base, so you’ll get a further idea of their straights and weaknesses and how they interact with the rest of the survivors. And the game does a great job of setting up tough scenarios to test you – like being all the way across town when the base is attacked and having to choose between bringing food or saving your friends.
The game functions on that raw energy, the despairing moment we’ve all seen in a zombie film that adds drama to what could otherwise be a gorefest and when it works its very, very good indeed.
When it doesn’t the game might make you want to tear your hair out.
The Year-One Survival Edition of State of Decay promises proper 1080p and updated graphics, better animations and draw distance and overall improvements to frame rates, etc. But it’s still a horrorshow at times, with graphics popping in all over the place and character models which look distinctly last gen.
And it remains buggy as all hell, including clipping issues, disappearing NPCs and at least one instance where I had to restart the game. On top of all that, it’s still an awkward beast to play – from the lumbering controls and fishtailing cars to just how counter intuitive the menus are.
One thing this new version of the game does add is extra content. You’ll get both DLC packs – Breakdown and Lifeline – bundled in and they add a lot of extra stuff to do. Breakdown gives you a large area to play around in with little narrative and Lifeline lets you play as a group of soldiers trying to survive in this new wilderness.
I personally enjoyed Lifeline more with its new aspect and assets but be warned it dials up the difficulty by forcing players into numerous pitched battles which you’ll be hard pressed to come through without some casualties.
Overall, State of Decay Year One Survival Edition is very much the same game which released back in 2013, and that’s both good and bad. On the negative side, it carries over the many technical flaws of the original and they feel compounded on a powerful rig like the Xbox One. And beyond that there’s a steep learning curve and freeform feel which simply won’t appeal to some players.
On the other hand, I’ve rarely played a more unique zombie game, mostly in the way it foregrounds the frailty of human life rather than the aesthetics of evisceration. The many complex systems in play are all about making it through one more day, of getting enough food into the mouths of your starving friends and hunkering down for a night rife with the baleful howls of the undead.
But there’s no respite, no magical SWAT team is coming to save you. When the sun rises it’s time to do it all over again, knowing full well that the next door you open could unleash a feral attack and take another vital human out of the equation, permanently. It’s that tension which makes the game bizarrely compelling and well worth seeking out.
State of Decay Year One Survival Edition is on Xbox One and PC now.