Title: State of Decay 2 Released On: May 18, 2018 (Ultimate Edition), May 22, 2018 (Base Edition) Genre: Survival Horror, Adventure Reviewed On: Xbox One X Developer: Undead Labs Publisher: Microsoft Studios MSRP: $39.99 CAD / $29.99 USD (Base Version), $59.99 CAD / $49.99 USD (Ultimate Edition)
State of Decay 2 is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘slow burn’. It ramps up slowly, but evolves into a truly fantastic sandbox for those looking for an engaging zombie survival experience rooted in action-adventure mechanics, which expands upon virtually everything that was offered with its predecessor. The scavenging systems, flow of combat, and overall tone of the apocalypse are well-defined — and remain largely unchanged from the first game — lending an immediate sense of familiarity to those that have spent any amount of time playing the original State of Decay. For those that find themselves entering the series fresh, the learning curve is gradual (yet punishing), forcing players to test every limit imposed on them for their greatest chance at survival.
Where State of Decay 2 truly shines is in the expanded breadth of the world and increased complexity of subsystems that power the dynamic and ever-changing world that players find themselves immersed in. Minor tweaks and alterations to the original formula have exponentially grown the resultant product and made for what cynics might initially refer to as a substantive expansion pack, as opposed to its own standalone sequel. Those cynics would be ill-advised to stand on that foot for long, however, as State of Decay 2 truly is a fully-enclosed successor within its own right. Regrettably, some poor optimization and a host of potentially game-breaking technical issues are ever-present in the punishing world forged for this survival simulator.
The game has been on my radar for years, ever since first learning that Seattle-based Undead Labs was working on a multiplayer project codenamed Class 4 as an online-centric successor to 2013’s surprise hit, State of Decay. In an unusual change of pace for me, State of Decay released without my hearing a peep about it ahead of time, which only drove the impulse to dive into it as quickly as I could. Being a huge fan of zombie games now (and even more passionate about them back in 2013), there was no question that the game would check off a lot of boxes, and I spent a lot of time making my way around the fictional Trumbull County – saving whomever I could and scavenging whatever the apocalypse had left exposed and/or undefended.
To be clear, State of Decay 2 is not what was once informally known as Class 4 within the Undead Labs development studio; Class 4 was abandoned some time ago when the studio elected not to make an MMO and focus instead on this up-to-four-person cooperative experience. State of Decay 2 is a wholly separate beast, but remains firmly rooted in experiences past.
Whereas the first title simply placed the player in the wilderness with a single protagonist to use as the first player-character, State of Decay 2 prompts the player to select one of four two-person teams. You may select from a pair of siblings, high school friends, on-and-off-again partners, or another couple. Selecting one of the four teams drops you into the tutorial segment, wherein one of the characters is manually controlled and accompanied by the second as an AI partner.
A casual saunter through an overrun (albeit now-sparsely populated) refugee camp leads the player through tutorial objectives that seek to cover the essential elements within the game. Series veterans will find the control scheme very familiar, although some general changes are present (such as RT+Y to kill a downed foe, as opposed to LB+Y from the original State of Decay). The introduction serves its purpose in filling in the minimal back-story of the two initial characters, and the introductory sequence is over within half an hour or so (or more/less, depending on your desire to explore a relatively barren area)
Towards the end of the tutorial a new, overarching, threat within State of Decay 2 is revealed: the Blood Plague, an infection carried by red-slime-painted zombies that pass the disease along with their bites and attacks. One of the earliest missions is spent seeking a way to cure the disease, and heal a community member along the way. The inclusion of a not-necessarily-zombifying plague is a welcome addition to the zombie survival horror genre; too often is the scene set up and closed with the zombie threat reigning supreme and uncontested. Granted, the outcome appears to be the same (read: death), but the tonal shift is appreciated.
As the first part of the introduction wrapped up, I found myself beside a vehicle and selecting one of three destinations to venture to: the foothills, a plateau, or a valley. I opted for the foothills, hopped into the truck, and drove off into the sunset.
Day-to-Day Mechanics and Exploration
Again, veterans of the State of Decay games will feel right at home with the daily routine expected of the player characters: scavenge, build, fight, and survive. Your five resources (Ammunition, Construction Materials, Food, Fuel, Medicine) independently count down a little bit with each passing day (or in some cases, real-world time intervals), and supply levels must be maintained else the community finds itself afflicted with one condition or another (starvation, sickness, etc.) and the accompanying hit to morale. As the sole / primary provider for your community, it is the player’s responsibility to scavenge for resources across the map and return them to the home base.
Setting off on an adventure in State of Decay 2 is a casual affair, but requires some planning ahead for the greatest chance at success. It’s very important to ensure that your melee weapon(s) are in good repair, your firearm(s) are stocked with the proper ammunition type, and supplies to recover health or stamina should be on hand for use in a pinch. Once geared up, players have the option to carry out their expedition on foot or by vehicle, or both. Still-functioning vehicles are a relatively rare within the game, and this time around they also require a measurable amount of fuel (via jerry cans that can be scavenged or crafted from the community’s fuel reserves).
While exploring, players are bound to spend a fair amount of time rummaging through houses and buildings for supplies to bring home. These scouting mechanics remain the same as the first in the series; players must enter / scout each room, and fully search all containers before the building is considered fully cleared and available for claiming as an output or remote base.
The primary ‘objective’ within State of Decay 2 is to deal with the ‘Plague Hearts’, a monstrous lump of flesh and corpses that is seemingly feeding the Blood Plague afflicting many of the local undead population. Consider them a ‘hive’ of sorts, where any damage they take summons a swarm of the undead that seek to protect it. With every Plague Heart that finds itself destroyed, all others remaining on the map grow stronger, and summon more undead when attacked. Players are taught that fire, explosives, and ranged weapons are the best tools used against the Plague Hearts, but specific strategies for dealing with them seem to vary wildly between those I’ve spoken to thus far. Once the last Plague Heart is dealt with, the end-game quest-line begins and starts the community leader along the path to establishing their legacy within the region So far, I’ve only seen the Sheriff’s legacy play out; the other Hero archetypes (Builder, Trader, Warlord) likely have a different quest-line to experience.
The world feels similarly populated in State of Decay 2 than it did in its predecessor, and the timelines seem to justify the early game absence of NPCs and yet-unused player characters alike. Still, there is a firm emphasis on the development and growth of a community, which requires personnel and resources in equal measures.
From an early point in the game, you are tasked with forging a relationship with a neighbour of your newfound home; someone surviving in the world that sees mutual benefit to collaboration and cooperation. Missions to recruit or outright rescue survivors come later, and slowly, once the base’s defenses and amenities have been given some thought and development. Even still, the resources that your community consumes is directly tied to both personnel and amenities built up in your base. Upgraded bedrooms require construction materials each day, and food reserves are continually diminishing (at a rate of one, per person, per in-game day). As such, it’s possible to expand too quickly, and the players are responsible for managing the growing burden that each new addition brings to the proverbial table, including the (sometimes) heavy-hearted decision as to whether or not a plague-afflicated survivor sees the following sunrise.
Very little has changed regarding the ‘feel’ of combat between State of Decay 2 and its predecessor; players typically engage in simple (albeit effective) melee combat until a situation devolves into one that requires firearms. Players can equip themselves with one melee weapon and one firearm, and all handled equipment gradually wears out with use. In the event that the melee weapon breaks, each character has a second, ever-available tool to use against the undead. Be it a screwdriver, pocket knife, or something else of a similar size, the last-ditch weapon will never break, nor will it truly shine in hand-to-hand combat situations.
State of Decay 2 offers a substantial catalogue of melee and ranged weaponry, seemingly a little bit of everything for those that elect to take on varying playstyles. Some apocalypse-standard staples return (crowbar, tire iron, pistols, rifles), but there are a great deal of oft-unseen equipment that substantially change-up how engagements play out. After raiding a military base and turning up a pair of fully automatic shotguns (one being the AA-12, for those that remember it from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Terry Crews’ character in The Expendables), my co-op partner and I put them to task in eliminating the Plague Hearts around the game world. Those shotguns were, in my experience, the point in which the tide turned in our favour for high-risk-high-reward activities.
Whereas most other games provide their players with options for respawn and checkpoint recovery, State of Decay 2 continues with the punishing and unforgiving nature established in its predecessor: permadeath. Granted, permadeath in games is more common than ever in today’s landscape, but it still feels particularly punishing in State of Decay to lose a character that’s spent hours building up community-serving skills and talents, or someone who packs a substantial punch when placed in combat. I lost three characters during my playthrough: the first was to my inexperience with Plague Hearts and the hope that a melee weapon would finish up what my guns and a molotov couldn’t do; the second was an AI partner that found herself swarmed while I was scouting in a tower (and didn’t notice was under attack until too late); the third loss happened when a juggernaut showed up during my attempt to tame side-by-side infestations at the same time.
Sandboxing and Simulation
Returning fans of the original game and those that play State of Decay 2 for more than a couple of hours will begin to see the sheer volume of sandboxing mechanics at work under the hood. The game is, truly, a technical marvel with how many sub-systems are at hand, constantly eliciting a response from player characters and the community as it responds to threats that are ever-mounting against them in a seemingly (though not-quite) random manner.
Deconstructing all of the systems and how they piece together would be a nigh-insurmountable task, but many core tenets form a bottleneck that can be tackled in a larger scale: Community Morale. Those that reside in your base all work together to contribute to or detract from a sliding scale that represents the overall quality of life within the community. When supplies are plentiful, people are less likely to worry about where their next meal is coming from, and when a friend finds themselves in (literal) pieces at the hand of the zombie horde, morale drops substantially. The individual effects upon your base are made available from the menus, and players would be best serving their community by addressing negative issues as best they can before concerns fester and break apart the bonds being forged at home. For the first few in-game days, my community’s Morale bar sat around the -20% mark, but once I moved to a larger base, stocked it with supplies, and dealt with some nearby infestations, I was well into the green once again.
Outside the walls surrounding the home base, a substantial amount of sub-systems play out to create the wild and unforgiving land that players are tasked with surviving. Lengthy play sessions diminish stamina (used in sprinting and melee combat), substantial injuries impact maximum health (and stamina as well, in some cases), and resources scavenged from the many buildings around the world do not respawn on a timer. Undead can collect into small hordes (5-10 zombies) that infest local buildings (which, in turn, spawn more hordes), and the spawning system for special zombie types (in-game referred to as Freaks) exposes the player characters to elevated risk of death or injury.
One more sub-system within the game that I spent less time engaging with than perhaps I should have is the intricate system that connects your community to other factions (known as enclaves) around you. They are small pockets of survivors that fly under some given banner (Friendly Faces, Grunts, Scavengers, etc.), and repeatedly ask you for help with a variety of tasks. Many times it’s a simple request for a rucksack of any of the five supply types, but sometimes they ask for some greater level of assistance. One, for example, asked me to help them move into a larger home base, only to discover that it held an infestation upon arrival. After clearing out the zombies within the house, we had to take out two more infestations nearby before they felt secure enough in their new home. My reward? A single rucksack of ammo for my trouble, and a better relationship with the group.
Allied groups can offer some assistance to you over the Radio, but I never got the opportunity to take advantage of this particular group’s offer – assistance with the Blood Plague. I always had the cure on me for instances where my characters got too infected and turned sick, and after leaving one of the enclave’s call for help on the back-burner a little bit too long they packed up and left the game world with barely a goodbye. These relationships often feel one-sided, but still require some energy invested in them in order to maintain the alliance in hopes that their perks actualized themselves meaningfully later on when the assistance will be of significant use.
It’s uncommon for me to include a segment in my reviews that specifically covers areas in which I feel the title at hand fell short. With the many bugs and technical issues present in State of Decay 2, however, I thought it would be important to set them apart from the core design elements as these are shortcomings in the game’s optimization that can (thankfully) be corrected as the game lives on.
For clarity, I played State of Decay 2 on an Xbox One X, and the game boasts “Xbox One X Enhancement” that drives up resolution, visual quality, and should expect to leverage the hardware capabilities to make for a more-stable gameplay experience at the very minimum. Though bugs were present throughout the gaming experience, I encountered the lion’s share of them during a lengthy play session wherein a friend and I traded off playing in each other’s map/communities. This was the most disheartening factor, as playing the game in co-op with a friend that you ‘game well with’ makes for a much better gameplay experience, when not hampered by technical problems. Some that I/we encountered:
Much of my commentary on shortcomings present in State of Decay 2 are, admittedly, only an issue due to the extensive time I spent in playing the first game over the years. This is a bit unfair, as games should typically stand on their own in terms of technical achievement and design. Still, having been marketed a full sequel to the previous title, and the years of development time made available to Undead Labs, I have to admit that I expected more growth from a studio that showed such promise with its inaugural release in 2013.
The first thing that I noticed was the abundance of ‘bloom effect’ present within the game, especially during nighttime sequences. In the previous generation of console gaming, bloom effect was widely used to soften the edges and roughness present in some of the texture and model limitations before studios came to a greater understanding of how to optimize for the hardware. Now being nearly five years into the console’s life cycle (and the game being powered by Unreal Engine 4), such an excessive amount of bloom effect was very distracting. Everything seems to trigger it, from chest-mounted flashlights, plague zombies’ red eyes (even at night), and the forward-facing headlights of vehicles even when you’re driving and the camera is behind the car. Somehow, the directional lights are still projected backwards through the car, reflect off the vehicle’s roof, and trigger the lens flare. To confirm this, I made absolutely sure that there were no light sources ahead of me, moon included, and reproduced the effect.
Secondly, and perhaps the greatest ‘offense’ I encountered (and only an issue after playing the first game) is the quantity of building models re-purposed for the game. Many (most) houses, businesses, garages, warehouses, barns, and more, all appear to be lifted directly from the asset library of the first game. Granted, some have been modified slightly (a wall added here, or removed there), and the contents shuffled around, but the core structures remain nearly identical to the 2013 release. Extending that trend is the reuse found within the three maps. My first game began in the foothills map, which placed the first home base just down the road from where the story begins. After finishing the foothills and moving into the valley map, the first home base encountered is an identical structure as found in the foothills, save for a non-functioning garage set aside from the core structure. In a game that promotes (and heavily rewards) exploration, I feel as though more effort could (and should) have been expended in building a greater supply of building assets that would’ve drastically improved the variety available within the world. The same applies to the Freak zombies; there are no new miniboss zombie threats to deal with that weren’t present in the previous game, save for the slightly different Blood Plague zombies that simply build an infection meter.
Bugs and Glitches
- Base / Community
- Multiplayer: Facilities constructed within a base would often not appear for the visiting player, leaving wide-open areas that cannot be interacted with
- Multiplayer: The storage locker (central inventory / stash) would periodically disappear for the visiting player. Requires quit/rejoin.
- Solo: Switching characters at home base would often cause enlisted followers to disappear. Requires quit/restart.
- World / Exploration
- Multiplayer: Driving causes many de-sync issues that can have you crash into each other (in separate vehicles), or substantial rubber-banding (in same vehicle). No apparent workaround fix.
- Multiplayer: Some Freaks would not appear on the map for the visiting player, leaving them exposed to attack. Host player would have to spot or deal with them alone.
- Multiplayer: Buildings fully searched / scavenged by the host player prior to multiplayer session was created would show up as un-searched by the visitor, yet the visitor cannot search anything within the building.
- Multiplayer in General
- Though players find more interpersonal enjoyment in slugging it out together against the elements, dwindling supply resources, and unyielding undead horde, there’s no way around the blanket statement that State of Decay 2 suffers the most (technically) when partnered up online (note: no split-screen available).
- Though more a design issue than a glitch; a huge disappointment was the inability to see how the game is ‘beaten’ when you’ve joined in as Player Two. Upon concluding the final mission, you’re given a (frankly insulting) message that “While [your partner] celebrate[s], you’ll exit to the main menu in 10 seconds”. Were I not playing in the same room as my friend (in apseudo-LAN-Party setup), I wouldn’t have been able to see the end-game cinematic. I understand that this is done in order to prevent Player Two from unwittingly concluding gameplay on their own community, but this was a disappointing letdown after spending the better part of a dozen hours in someone else’s map, working through every other component of their story.
The twenty-five-or-so hours I spent with State of Decay 2 show it to be, unequivocally, a better version of the 2013 release that I’ve long-held in such esteem. The inclusion of multiplayer elements sent the gameplay to newer heights when partnered up with some real-world friends that contributed meaningfully to the community resources and defense, even if the host of bugs and issues found were present only during multiplayer sessions.
For the base version’s $40 CAD price point (half the cost of a AAA game), there’s no denying that the breadth of the game and all of its underlying sandbox systems make for an immersive survival experience often unseen in games at this scale of development. While I truly resent the idea of calling a game ‘unfinished’, I can’t help but feel like State of Decay 2 would’ve benefited from a lengthier development cycle or more staff to handle the considerable number of components running ‘under the hood’. With the likelihood that major issues will find themselves patched out in the days or weeks to come, the game will undoubtedly be all the better for it, and more enjoyable within its substantially broad landscape to survive against the elements and undead horde.
Final Score: 7.5/10
State of Decay 2, without question, expands upon just about every system present in its predecessor, and improves the formulae that create such an immersive sandbox experience. Regrettably, a substantial number of technical issues present at launch hold back its true potential.
The review copy of this game was individually purchased by the reviewer.