I’m driving home from a busy night of killing and the roads are empty, save for some legless grumblers. I sigh and look at my map, try to count the exclamation marks, when a voice comes on my radio. It’s probably the fifth voice I’ve heard tonight, and I half expect another plea for bullets from some faceless chump three doors down. But this time it’s one of my own, a member of my enclave. She’s just calling to tell me: Workshop level 3 complete.
“That’s one more item off the To Do list!” she says enthusiastically.
She’s right. State of Decay 2 feels like a massive To Do list.
This is the follow-up to the open world zombie basher of 2013. You control a group of survivors, nestled in a compound with a great hunger for resources. You’ll need food, medicine, building materials, ammo and fuel, along with usable items like weapons, backpacks, medkits and so on. You can swap between characters, embodying whichever soldier, medic or construction worker isn’t tired or hurt at that moment. Then off you trot to scavenge for supplies and re-kill the undead to keep their numbers in check.
This (Windows 10 only) sequel is alarmingly similar to its predecessor, the biggest addition being that you can now play in co-op (check out the video below if you want to see how Matthew and I made our own fun in this hellish land). There are some small differences. Infectious red zombies are mixed in with the ordinary kind, and to reduce their numbers you have to kill “plague hearts”. These are big throbbing blobs of flesh hidden in houses and shops, and they squeal for back-up when you start to shoot or smash them. Night is also a darker shade of black, which adds some discomfort to nocturnal ramblings. But the game as a whole has changed very little. You still go out, kill zombies, loot stuff, and come back to do so some (very) light town management.
But the problems come crawling out of the controller from the moment you swing a wrench. The catch-all term we journos like to use in cases like this is “janky”. Car handling feels smooth and responsive, with cars feeling weighty or nippy dependent on their make. But the same can’t be said for the combat. Firearms are straightforward over-the-shoulder bullet dispensers, but the sound attracts zombies and you want to save bullets for the bigger Left 4 Dead style “ferals” or “bloaters”, or even a dangerous moment with a horde of red boyz. This means most of your fighting involves a lot of axe swinging and machete hacking.
Sadly, swinging these axes, swords and bats is clunky anti-fun. The first swing inevitably misses your target because the momentum and animation feels mistimed. Zombies lurch unpredictably and their own attack animations aren’t easily discernible from one another. Bashing baddies makes up so much of the game, you’d think it’d feel fluid or cohesive. But its a clumsy mishmash of stumbling animations and slippery targeting. It feels bad from the first strikes and remains off-putting for as long as you play.
As crumby as the moment-to-moment skull bashing can be, it isn’t the irredeemable plague heart of the game. That’s the decision to pit the player against seemingly endless timers, limits and dwindling resources while thrusting a long list of housekeeping tasks into their hands.
You get missions throughout the game, as other survivors call for help from their farms or homesteads. However, their pleas are time-limited. Don’t answer a call and a group may leave the map. That’s fine – you can’t answer everyone’s call and are forced to prioritise. But the volume of calls is such that none of them end up feeling important or useful. The “Remaining Soldiers” are as notable as the “Last Days Warriors”. And any group you do want to help in the long term will have their ongoing requests for ammo or medicine washed away in a deluge of generic “please help me” radio chatter. Especially when you have so much basic looting to do just to keep your own settlement on track.
This onslaught of chores doesn’t stop with your fellow survivors. Zombie infestations pop up too often. You discover plague hearts everywhere. Materials are “lost” or “broken” by NPCs while you are away, meaning you’ve got to constantly collect more. You can clear out the undead from a house by killing the zombies and checking every room, creating a bubble in which no more may spawn, but crucially this also lasts a limited amount of time. Seeing the red come back to a portion of the map reminds me of Far Cry 2’s unconquerable outposts. The most disliked feature of that particular open world game was abandoned by Ubisoft, but Undead Labs seem to think it deserves another chance. I’m not so sure.
The inability to “clean” the map could be viewed as a comment on the unstoppable march of the undead, and on paper it has a definite appeal. You’re fighting a losing battle against increasing odds, in an increasingly harsh world. But in practice it feels more like a degenerative “keep waxing your car or else” style of game design, designed to exploit the human need to tidy up and round edges, while never delivering the satisfaction you crave, the satisfaction of a fully completed colouring book. Some games still adhere to these old ways, but very few are as insistent as this.
Here, there are time limits on everything, ticking counters, decaying resources, fragile weapons, and your pause button is disabled by default (you need to set yourself to offline mode to pause – just one of the many useful things the game neglects to tell you). Any one or two of these tricks might be reasonable. The Breath of the Wild’s degrading weapons mean you’re always swapping and switching, discovering new ways to kill a bogbumbler (or whatever it is you call Zelda’s pig men). Dark Souls’ disregard for a pause encourages you to make sure you’re in a safe area and enhances the feeling of safety around a bonfire, where no enemies dare tread. These are good tricks, employed to keep us on our toes or in line with the tension or limitations of an imaginary world. But for the love of god, State of Decay 2, don’t use all of them at once.
As for the town planning side of things, it’s shallow and only interesting for as long as it confuses you. When my partner asked me what I was playing, I thought about describing it as “zombie apocalypse Stardew Valley”. But this is too generous. It’s more accurate to say I’m playing a third-person zombie Farmville, with all the attendant and transparent “Keep playing!” gimmickry involved.
Poor management menus don’t help. Helpful details are hidden in tucked-away places, and even basic tasks have to be done in roundabout ways. Repairing a broken machete means building a workshop which, according to its own description, allows for repairs. But everyone knows you really repair broken knives by putting them into the generic storage box in the hallway and then pressing a button, the prompt for which appears in the small list below all the items. So you need the workshop and you’ve built the workshop because it tells you “this repairs your melee weapons” but then you actually sharpen your swords inside the giant multipurpose ice cooler you’ve had all along.
And if the character you’re controlling has blood plague (an infectious disease that is laughably simple to cure), your instinct may be to hobble over to the infirmary and check yourself in. But no. You’ve got to swap control with another character, then wander this new, healthy person over to the infirmary and have them check your previous self into the hospital bed. There are a lot of small things like this that run counter to common sense. Functionally speaking, the finer details of your base are badly communicated. And once you do figure it out, and have everything up and running, with high morale and a good income, nothing significant about your daily outings changes. Except now you’ve got thirty more bullets, six more Molotov cocktails, and three new exclamation points on the map.
Even as a story generator, it’s limited. Each character has a background, skills and special characteristics if you go looking for them in the community menu. And you can upgrade skills to become specialised in certain things. Maybe you become able to stuff more items in your pockets, or run without running out of breath for a longer period of time. But the effect this has on the day-to-day scavenging is negligible. If I was to scour my brain for anecdotes about my time with these people, 9 out of 10 stories would start: “This one time, we attacked some zombies.”
In terms of dwindling resources, I can see why the game tries so much to hobble you. Feeling like you never have enough to work with is a feeling I normally admire in a game. Trying to spread limited resources in XCOM, for example, rationing alien goo and prioritising the attention of your engineers, engenders a sense of slow-burning danger. And the earliest hours of State of Decay 2 suggest that it will be this type of close-to-the-wire adventure. But later it becomes clear that the reason you never have enough is because the game itself keeps taking your resources away from you. So much of what is lost isn’t being spent on research or thrown away thanks to a folly of my own. It’s slowly draining away to invisible daily costs, or worse, supplies vanishing at random thanks to off-screen mistakes. Moments of radio chatter in which your housemates will admit to pouring your hard-earned loot down the drain. “Whoops,” says Victoria as you drive home from another night of killing. “I knocked over another fuel tank. Silly me!”
This wouldn’t be so bad if it was more generous in nature. Fellow survivors can be recruited to come with you during scavenger hunts. But they won’t carry anything (unless you resort to tedious amounts of character swapping). You can load up your car boot with multiple backpacks of useful supplies, but it was several hours before I found out that car parking spaces let you unload everything by pressing the right trigger, rather than unloading the bags one by one (another useful bit of knowledge once again hidden at the bottom of a menu screen). Creating an anti-zombie stronghold ought to feel like the effort of a tough group of hardened frontiersfolk, but here you’re effectively a mum whose surly teens won’t help with the shopping, and always drop the butter when they take it out of the fridge.
Too much is taken away, and too little offered. You’re supposed to regularly arm yourself with guns and explosives and go hunting for plague hearts. But I never wanted to kill these things because it was both a drain on resources and boring after the third time I did it. Dealing with the lesser infestations is likewise a game of whack-a-mole. Knock one down and another one has already appeared. At the start it feels refreshing to clear out these infestations, like having a good scrub. But it soon feels thankless. You’re not fighting toward something, you’re fighting to avoid a deadline catching up with you. And all the while you’ve got to contend with janky wrench swings and begging survivors on the radio.
And after all this, there are the bugs. Bugs bugs bugs. Characters vanishing, cameras swiveling, cars becoming lodged in barriers, shotguns becoming lodged in spines, doors that look wide open but are really closed, ambulances flickering in and out of existence like a dying filament. The majority of the bugs are visual hiccups, but a couple are complete blinders, such as the time my onscreen health, stamina, ammo and minimap all vanished in the middle of a fight with a tank-like juggernaut zombie. Or the time I threw a pipe bomb and it simply froze in the air centimetres in front of me, then exploded.
One recurring glitch that got in the way of a good time, was when my follower – the person tagging along as backup – would disappear, even though the game still believed them to be there. A little person-pip would be visible on the minimap, following me everywhere, and I’d be unable to dismiss them or enlist a new follower. My transparent pal would even speak now and then. “Look, survivors!” she once offered wordlessly, her advice and observations arriving only in a ghostly text box. This particular bug would come and go, meaning that for random parts of the game I was saddled with fighting infested areas solo, because my invisible friend didn’t like to shoot or manifest herself in any physical way whatsoever. If only I could be so boldly incorporeal.
If you play in co-op, you’ll probably be able to ignore the flaws long enough to have a jolly evening or two with some friends (Windows 10 friends only, of course) and if you’re dead set on rolling around in the blood and gore, I suggest this is how you play it. There’s satisfaction in driving back to home base after a journey to the other side of the map, your pal in the front seat, boot full of bullets and bread. But even then, the flaws don’t disappear, they’re only masked. With two or three pals, your chores may be more manageable. But they remain chores, and it won’t be long before you’ve all had your fill of things to do.
I’m driving down the road again, a follower riding shotgun. This time we’ve only got one thing on our To Do list – get out. You see, if you upgrade the command centre in your compound, it turns out you get an ability that highlights escape routes from the map. Drive over to these big gates and you can leave this whole province behind. I can’t wait. So I’m driving to one of these exit points now, with fellow survivor and famous oil spiller Victoria. We roll up to the gate, and hold the button to leave.
Then it appears. A new map, different from the last. Unexplored, unlooted, undone. Around me the whole group has followed us, and they have set up a tiny command post in the open. Perhaps here it will be different. Perhaps here we won’t face endless tasks and ch–
“We should get some water,” says one of the survivors.
I look up at the sky and fire my handgun nine times into the air. Let the zombies come.
State of Decay 2 on PC is Windows 10 only and costs $29.99 from the Microsoft store