Make no mistakes; State of Decay is as close as you’ll get to a realistic zombie apocalypse survival simulation without resulting to a self-induced state of bath-salts-fueled cannibalism in a Miami suburb.
Behind this ambitious XBLA and PC title is Undead Labs, a humble group of 23 developers whose open room studio reveals so much about their culture and indie spirit. Walk in and you’ll find every inch of their studio’s walls covered with concept drawings, images of fans wearing State of Decay shirts, photos of fan made creations, printouts of favorite tweets, inspirational quotes and just about everything zombie kitsch imaginable. “It’s tough to work on a game for two and a half years and not be able to share it or receive feedback,” says Sanya Weathers, Undead Labs’ Director of Community, “This kind of stuff keeps the team motivated.”
By the oversized couches, candidly referred to as “excellent napping devices”, and one developer’s tale of spending an average of five days a week away from his family during the entirety of development, it becomes obvious that the decision to join Studio Founder Jeff Strain on his crusade could only have been rooted in an area of the mind most of us are unwilling to explore. In fact, describing State of Decay as ambitious is an understatement; the scope of the project is, in fact, downright insane. On paper, it reads like recipe for disaster to a 23 person development team: take an area larger than most Grand Theft Auto maps, make nearly every building enterable, then dwarf all of it with simulation systems that push the boundaries of what both the Xbox and Crysis 3 engine are able to handle.
In State of Decay you start out as Marcus and his friend Ed who have wandered into the middle of a disaster zone: a devastated campsite that looks like it’s been used to film more than one Eli Roth horror movie. While the game does not feature a single, central protagonist, it does have a few key characters that help build out the world and move the story along. It is through Marcus and Ed that you’re introduced to your new “home” and band of not-so-trusting misfit roommates. From there you begin down a rabbit hole of true-to-life survival simulations, relationships and ethical choices towards the hope of one day getting the hell out of the valley.
As expected, life-sustaining supplies aren’t exactly plentiful in a zombie apocalypse sort of world, and the well being of a dozen survivors on your shoulders can be a burden that is both rewarding and extremely nerve wracking.
Every choice made in State of Decay carries weight, with each decision resulting in an effect that plays out indefinitely. Characters have personalities, feel human and constantly interact with your leadership and each other; a lot. Sometimes you even need to take characters out on a run and give the camp a break from tensions built up over time. In other instances you have to make the ethical decision to kick the difficult ones from the group; if they go morale gets a boost, stay and your influence as a leader drops.
Undead Labs chose to keep the ethical decisions subtle and inside the players head, not on screen in a series of button specific replies and dialogue trees. At one point I even followed a computer-controlled survivor through a neighborhood after a run to ensure his safety. Even though he’d been a complete ass to the group earlier that morning, the day before he had held the wall against a pair of zombies as they tried to climb their way into camp. To me he was not some nameless, red-shirted NPC, but an individual that deserved a chance.
Death is a very scary and permanent thing in State of Decay as any zombie encounter could result in a character lost; yes, gone for good. No respawn points. No fancy resurrection abilities. All the time spent, skills progressed, and experiences had… gone. It’s that thing called “permadeath” that everyone talks about. Even the initial characters used to push the story along become susceptible to this fate once their story arch has played itself out. It’s because of this feature that you’re forced to constantly balance the risk versus reward, and ethics, behind your every action.
Should I follow through on a radio distress call and help a group of unknown survivors who are under attack?
Do I risk calling out someone from the base to carry back supplies or do it myself?
Should I go toe to toe with a zombie, burn precious ammo and fire a gun, or stealth my way around?
Without a doubt, State of Decay is a survival simulator first, and an action game second. In fact, one could even argue that the action portion of the game is simply another cog in the great simulator wheel that grinds away “under the hood”.
As the player, you’re in charge of building up a central base while keeping the camp alive through the gathering of ammo, medical supplies, food and building materials. Living in the zombie apocalypse takes more than just an axe and a good rifle; it requires a near OCD like attention to detail and constant upkeep.
Bases can be relocated to several different buildings throughout the map, all of which have different layouts to defend and slots to fill with facilities that provide a range of actionable and passive bonuses. From gardens that provide food to workshops that repair cars, each amenity alters gameplay by relieving a little bit of pressure to survive and maintain life in a zombie infested world.
In State of Decay, each character is a unique snowflake as they start with different skills sets and attributes. They further dovetail in their uniqueness as you level up their skills through use and unlock game-changing abilities. This added feature of the game makes each encounter with another survivor an exciting moment as they may prove themselves camp-worthy with a skill that compliments facility or ability that fills a need in your group.
Core resources are often acquired through actively going out into the world and clearing buildings, doing storyline missions or partaking in a random event. While you could sit back for most of the day organizing meals for you survivors or building medical facility to attend wounds, inevitably you’re going to have to leave the “safety” of your own base to get some needed supplies. Undead Labs does an excellent job of pulling players out of hiding through the use of “real world” needs or causes.
In one scenario, a character required a specific type of medicine that wasn’t available and I was needed to make a run to a doctor’s office.
On evening, amidst the sounds of gunshots and survivors shout for assistance, I was called upon to go out and flank an incoming horde of zombies
Another time I needed to buy time for a group of survivors to pack their things into my pickup when the house next door became too infested with zombies for them to deal with.
Every zombie encounter is different as Undead Labs has chosen to simply provide a wide range of tools to the player, leaving how they handle the situation wide open. Players may elect to go for headshots with a gun they’ve scavenged, sneak past the undead after creating a diversion, back over them with a car derby style, or grasp a melee weapon to get up close and personal. However, unlike the DayZ mod for ARMA II, zombies propose a real threat, therefore making players approach situations with caution and respect. Roaming hordes consist of eight highly agitated zombies. While that may not sound like much to most gamers, if you fail to take them down quickly, expect lots of unfriendly types to join in on the fight. Handling zombies in the open has its uncertainties, but a player can be sure to expect a few things upon entering an infested house: zombies around every corner and from all directions. Some zombies still retain the armor they adorned before being turned; some call the attention of others through with ear shattering screams, while others can take the full brunt of a vehicle collision without batting an eye.
Combat and driving in State of Decay feels very much like you’re playing a Grand Theft Auto title, but with a few added complexities such as NPC combos and finishing moves. While you can’t always choose to run in a group, having someone at your side during a mission to hold up a zombie while you take a whack at its forebrain with a cricket bat is an added bonus. Melee finishing moves generally include doing some very bad things to the zombie’s skull such as teeing off with a golf club, curb stomping, or swinging for the bleachers with a baseball bat. Each one ending with a bit of excitement, a lot of gore and a little sigh of relief.
Driving is a simplified, much like we’ve come to expect with most titles that don’t feature it as the sole gameplay mechanic, with added abilities like door checking zombies a la Zombieland style and slamming vehicles into groups of undead with a handbrake slide. All cars feel different and have varied acceleration and control responsiveness. Vehicles simply handle the way you’d expect them to; sports cars will have a noticeable speed increase while that late 70s ford pickup will feel “wooden and sluggish” when driving. Being that we have yet to see a 70′s pickup truck headlining a Fast and Furious movie, it’s probably safe to say it handled as expected.
It was also my personal weapon of choice.
With the biggest concerns in open world scavenging being sight and sound, some players may choose a stealthier route of gameplay. In SoD everything makes noise, searching, shooting, driving a car, and it’s all indicated by the blue circle in the bottom left corner of the map/hud. Known zombies go from grey to red on the map when alerted, meaning if that blue circle encompasses them, there’s a chance they’ll come looking for a meal. Sight is also a combination of cover and zombie line-of-sight. Hide behind something: there’s a good chance they won’t see you. Hide in a bush: good chance they’ll pass on by without a care. Accidentally step out from cover in their view: you bet they’ll come running.
Managing noise in the game is a play skill that feels realistic, well thought and intuitive all at the same time.
Want to drive faster?
The blue circle expands out depending on how you have your foot on the gas.
Fire a gun?
The sound radius expands briefly for that shot.
Want to search faster?
You’re going to make more noise and risk alerting nearby zombies.
Not all noise is under the player’s control; “failure” rolls can, and do happen.
Early in the game I chose to take a risk and search through a container at a faster pace. Suddenly, there was a sound of a glass breaking and the character quickly voiced her concern:
I had accidentally alerted every zombie west of the Mississippi to my presence in a cabin. Red dot’s started pouring in on the map and I was in a 12×12 cabin with far too many windows to fortify (Yes, you can even board up windows to keep zombies out).
I’m only 30 minutes into playing and I have my first real moment of panic.
The world of State of Decay can be frightening, with several unscripted events evoking that sense of fear that harkens back to Resident Evil when the dogs burst through the windows. Admittedly, they got me twice. I jumped when I tried to back out of a room and right into the arms of a zombie. And again when I left my back (and game camera) open to a room while I searched a tool chest for a melee weapon. Mid examination I was turned into a zombie jungle gym by a couple of roamer zed that just happened to pass by.
It became hard after all these moments to find something I did not like in State of Decay. In fact, the game is so well refined that anything it falls short on seems minor, trivial, or in some cases, well… justified.
Handholding is not something State of Decay does well. It is subtle, sometimes to it’s own detriment, and constantly battles with breaking immersion. The tutorial does a fair job of teaching character combat and survival basics through the use of popups when the situation calls for an action. However the choice of subtle audio cues dropped in via character voice-overs sometimes gets lost in either comprehension or falls victim to bad timing; such as a character explaining a mechanic while you’re grappling with a zed. In four hours of hands on time, every person in the room walked away with a different level of understanding. Luckily, the gameplay is so well refined that a majority of gamers may take up a controller and never encounter these issues; so much is dependent upon timing and paths chosen. To fully understand State of Decay, it should be taken slowly, combed over and patiently explored.
The game’s meta UI, a notebook filled with scribbled diagrams and hand written text on lined paper, struggles between fitting into the narrative and fulfilling the need for information in diegetic way that won’t break immersion or clutter the minimalistic HUD. It’s not necessarily a fault per se, as I can’t think of a better way to tell a player the status of every resource, character conflict, horde sighting, distress call, or how long until the medical tent finishes construction without making his or her eyeballs scream. State of Decay just has THAT much going on in the background at all times.
State of Decay is huge, complex and downright scary when you take a moment to explore its’ intricacies. Years of iteration are evident with State of Decay in the cohesiveness of its systems and gameplay that just feels right. Everything has a purpose, function or reason for being in the game. While not a pure sandbox survival simulator (the mode is being considered and tested), players can choose to run it as so by simply opting out of the “leaving the valley” mission.
It was apparent from the start that this team has obsessed over every detail for the past two and a half years. Guns and melee weapons have true-to-life weights, cars show body damage, melee weapons break, guns jam, food spoils, while every piece of environment art tells a story. It’s a world lived in and fleshed out tirelessly by 23 devoted developers.
For as elaborate and layered as State of Decay is, bashing it for not having features such as co-op or multiplayer modes is borderline disrespectful; possibly the equivalent of taking a kitten from a small child and punting it across the room.
Despite all of the odds stacked against them, Undead Labs has found a way to make an incredible single player experience. With June’s release date just around the corner, they now sit on the brink of proving to the masses that the zombie game genre still has a few brains left in it. State of Decay is a shining example of excellence in iteration, understanding of means and the precise execution of common sense gameplay.
For more information, follow State of Decay’s development at UndeadLabs.com or check out our 20 minute gameplay of a previous build from PAX East.