It’s amazing what a small team of developers and fans can do when they truly believe in a product or idea. Never was it more apparent to me than when I was first exposed to Undead Labs and “State of Decay: Year-One Survival Edition” at PAX East 2015. Having never played the 2013 release on the Xbox 360, the entire concept of the game was first shown to me right on the show floor. The enthusiastic personal walkthrough I received from an Undead Labs representative was only made more interesting when I discovered that during the first day of the show, presenters from Undead Labs had transportation delays and were not on the show floor.
As it turns out, they made a call out to fans of the game to help demo it in their absence, and that call was answered. Fans showed up and became evangelists for the game until the crew from the developer arrived. While my demo was given after the Undead folks made their way into Boston, it was clear that they were humbled and excited that their product was so well liked among their player base that they had that sort of help available to them. I was repeatedly told how the Year One Survival Edition was the game that the studio had always dreamed to make, and how their fans were a driving force behind their continued efforts to make the game as great as possible.
I would say that, barring some wish-list features absent in the title, they did exactly what they set out to do.
For those who didn’t play the original release, Stat of Decay is an open-world survival game set during a zombie apocalypse. It shares some gameplay elements with other titles in this genre, with the ability to kill large numbers of zombies as you attempt to survive, but what sets it apart from the more traditional gameplay is the strategy elements added to keep things varied. This game was clearly influenced by decades of genre-defining movies, games, and stories, and takes the most direct approach to how a person may be forced to survive should a real catastrophe like this occur.
Weapons break. People go hungry. People need to sleep. Fuel and materials are scarce. Characters trying to survive have mood swings as they desperately try to survive.
It was these elements that appealed to me most, even more than the familiar Grand Theft Auto-style movement and combat (which, by the way, is as solid as one could ask for). I found myself more interested in managing my homestead and community of survivors as we tried to expand our capabilities and manage our resources. The game has a deep building and inventory simulator, allowing you to pick an area in the game world as your base. You can build multiple additions onto these bases, such as farms, watchtowers, workshops, and bunks. Each addition gives your base more capabilities, such as repairing tools and creating sustainable resources, and is upgradeable to make them more specialized and efficient. Some bases require larger communities of survivors, which you can find and recruit in the game world, while others are more limited in build opportunities but offer more safety from the zombie hordes.
When you aren’t managing your community, you end up performing multiple fetch-quests for community members while also trying to stay alive. Zombies love noise, so a pseudo-stealth system exists to allow you to sneak around abandoned homes and businesses without being detected. You can stealth kill your way to clearing out buildings, which then offers you more safety when raiding them for supplies.
The inventory system is limited and you can quickly become encumbered, so upgradeable backpacks can be found to increase your carrying capacity. You can even load up the trunk of a vehicle for longer resource runs, and take members of your community out with you for some added backup. Stay out too long or take too much damage and your character will not regain as much health. Perform too many strenuous activities, such as sprinting, climbing, or attacking, and your stamina will decrease, slowing you down and leaving your vulnerable to attack. Thankfully, you can switch your control to most members of your community, allowing others to take time to rest and restore their health and stamina.
Whatever you do, don’t let a character die. Deaths are permanent.
My chat during my demo of the game at PAX had me learning how the developers all had elements of doomsday-prepper, and each brought new ideas on how to make a zombie game more reflective of that attitude. Little things, like opening a car door to kill a zombie as you drove past, were features that were pulled from source inspiration. I was told that there were often internal debates over how one would actually deal with a particular zombie situation and the game’s plethora of gameplay styles and options were created to allow the player to make their own choices.
It’s clear from the get go that this is a port, but it was done with quite a bit of care. Both add-ons to the original release, first “Breakdown” and the “Lifeline” follow-up, are part of the base package this time around. Breakdown offers a pure survival mode and ignores the storyline aspects from the base release, while Lifeline offers a new story centered on a military group in a new map area. The Year One release offers new mission types, weapons, and characters into all aspects of the original game, and even brings some of the management additions in the DLC add-ons to the base game.
On a technical level, the game is sound, but not without flaws. The graphics on the 2015 re-release are very well done, but not exactly next-gen in the truest sense. There were times during my play through when the framerate dropped, especially when there was lots of action on screen. It never reached an unplayable state during these times, but it was noticeable, with some slowdowns allowing my character to seemingly jump from one location to another. I also often found the game camera passing through geometry at times, causing some momentary confusion while I worked to correct it. There were also times where zombies seemed to have the ability to pass through solid objects, which made one mission impossible to complete because they had suddenly fallen beneath the floor and were un-killable. While these technical issues occurred only a few times while I played, they were immediately noticeable and were considerably frustrating when they get in the way of mission completion.
If there is anything this game lacks, it’s multiplayer. Because of the way community members can be managed and swapped into playable roles, the idea of a second player hopping into the game to help everyone survive is not hard to envision. The ability to coordinate attacks on groups of zombies or systematically scout around an area for resources would be a worthy addition to the game, and add even more elements of strategy to the already deeply strategic experience. Even some competitive modes, pitting one community against another with limited resources would be a great addition to this game’s bevy of features.
When I brought this up during my demo at PAX, the gentleman presenting clearly heard this plea before, most likely from fans of the first release. He explained that multiplayer was one of their first bullet points for the game during initial development, but due to limitations had to be cut. This is understandable, as it was an unproven property at the time, but it is a little disappointing that it was not added during the preparation of the re-release. He did mention that if a second game in the franchise was green-lit, it would no doubt be the first feature added to the list of potential additions. I would argue that State of Decay 2 should not be created without a multiplayer component. The game as it exists now is missing very little aside from that.
So at this point I feel I should disclose that I generally don’t much care for the zombie genre, be it games, movies, or otherwise. Amongst friends I’ve been known to argue that in recent years the concept is oversaturated in pop culture, and I’ve grown tired of seeing the same thing presented over and over by different creators who all seem to have the same idea anyway.
With that said, I’m pleased to say that it was the enthusiasm of the Undead Labs team and their fans that got me interested in even taking a look at this title. I’d even go as far as to say my views on the zombie genre have changed throughout this experience. Perhaps it wasn’t the genre that was tired, but the ways the genre has been presented that needed a refresher. This game is just that: a fresh take on something I didn’t think I’d care to look at again. I’m glad I did. This game is a must play for those who have not experienced it yet.