State of Decay was the only reason I regretted jettisoning my Xbox 360. When it came out, I read glowing reviews and believed it might be the open world survival game that so many were waiting for. Now it’s on PC, albeit without proper mouse and keyboard support. I’ve only played for around six hours, but seeing the game riding high on Steam’s best-seller’s list inspired me to write down some impressions. It’s certainly a game I was eager to play but now that I have, I’m not particularly keen to continue.
Along with Dead State, this was the upcoming zombie game that excused my interest in upcoming zombie games. Well received on the 360, it has a focus on survival rather than slaughter, and is set in a series of small settlements across an open world. At a time when Pacman is probably going to be rebooted as an open world third-person action game, yet another to add to the growing pile might not seem particularly exciting, but zombies suit a more open experience. Ideally, it would allow them to shamble through a world wider than a corridor should draw on their strengths, taking the game’s focus away from them and making them an unpredictable environmental hazard.
I came to State of Decay with the expectation that it would riff on some of my favourite parts of horror survival fiction, including the tensions within and between groups of survivors, particularly as resources run low and defences are breached. It does have all of that and more besides, including vehicles, dark and intimidating midnight raids, and enough randomised elements and events to distract from the rather flat story missions. Sadly, all of those parts, for the moment at least, add up to a measly sum.
When I first played, it was three o’clock in the morning. The game had just installed and I thought I was ready to spend the night with it. Fifteen minutes later, I gave up. A lack of sleep and a sophisticated beer-tasting session had left me unable to follow even the most basic of instructions. I’d failed to find the game’s first waypoint, despite the large arrow on the minimap, and had ended up splashing around in a stream, surrounded by zombies.
The next morning, as I awoke from uneasy dreams, I left all memories of the zombie threat on my pillow. Far more ominous was the memory of that arrow and of the clutter of icons on the minimap, of the busy user interface and attention-hungry tutorial pop-ups. My first approach had been ill-timed and unhelpful but even through bleary eyes, State of Decay’s world hadn’t been quite what I expected.
The abiding memory was of flailing zombies, with glowing eyes, who didn’t seem particularly dangerous or frightening at all. I’d hammered the buttons on my controller and they’d fallen over like bowling pins as I waved a tree branch around and then performed a golf-swing finishing move that took their heads clean off. Later, a character says that only a shot to the head will stop them for good but I was too busy bursting craniums open with my bare fists to pay much attention. It’s entirely possible to kick four or five of the rotters into pieces as they charge, doing a sort of can-can, which immediately makes the word less threatening to inhabit.
There’s often more chance of bodily harm walking through a medium-sized city at 11pm on a Saturday night than there is in State of Decay’s blackest nights. Only one character has died while under my control and that’s because I was surrounded in a house and the camera was stuck behind a fridge so I couldn’t see what was happening. The poor sod still managed to survive for two minutes, dragging herself upright as I repeatedly pressed the ‘a’ button, then being pummelled back to the ground.
When a playable character dies, the game gives you control of another. At first, there’s only one chap to play with but he soon makes friends with a soldier (it was she who met her end next to the fridge) and from then on the player can switch between the two. When they arrive at the first proper shelter, more characters become available, but they can only be instructed to accompany on a mission or trip rather controlled directly. New members of the group only become playable when they befriend the main character, which requires a certain level of trust. Random events, supply levels, tiredness, injuries and victories/disasters can all change a character’s mood, which in turn appears to have an impact on how quickly their trust rises or falls.
All of that is good, at least in theory, as is the need to manage personality clashes by dealing with the people involved, either by taking them on a hunting trip to take out their aggression and share their grievances, or by kicking someone out of the group, which can work out for the best, but could also lead to violence or further distrust among those who remain. Even in the brief time that I’ve been playing, I’ve foolishly rescued too many survivors, bringing them back to the church where food, beds and medication are all lacking. As soon as I hear about a group, trapped and surrounded, I’m compelled to save them, ignoring the advice of my group, who are becoming ever more fractured and ragged.
Writing about State of Decay is problematic. I look back at the last two paragraphs and am almost convinced that I must have enjoyed the game much more than I did. It sounds great and many of the ideas are, but the implementation is often confusing or laborious. The stockpile situation, for instance, which works out how much ammunition, food and medicine the shelter uses and produces each day. This involves characters trekking off on missions of their own, usually when the player has switched the game off. I can’t make sense of how it works and nor has the game even attempted to explain it to me. In fact, if I hadn’t read reviews of the 360 version I wouldn’t even have known that the game was going to continue, in some way, while I was having my dinner.
Even more perplexing is the sense that time has passed, with the sun setting or rising during gaps between play, while story missions remain frozen. I was supposed to meet a friend at the other side of town in the game but had to take a break to meet someone at the other side of town in real life. When I returned, hours seemed to have passed, most of our food had been eaten and everyone was depressed. My minimap still had a mission marker so I jogged through the streets to find my buddy and there he was – “about time you showed up!” I think he’d been standing there for days, untouched by the zombies and only slightly irritated by the delay.
The system doesn’t appear to punish the player for being away for a long time, so going on holiday and coming back a week later won’t cause everyone to starve to death, but something happens every time I save, quit and then return. Once, it was our resident gruff policeman complaining that he’d eaten some pins that had been left in a box of candy, or something along those lines. I didn’t understand why that would happen but he was very cross about it so I had to take him for a walk and shoot some zombies to cheer him up. We were also running out of food so we raided a shop. I didn’t have enough inventory space to carry all the provisions, so I radioed for a courier.
The courier was our cook. I watched him from the roof, sprinting across town toward junctions, turning sharply and continuing in a straight line. He was more machine than man. When a couple of zombies stood in his path, he hit them with a plank until their heads exploded, and then just carried on running, directly toward us.
My observation of the cook brought my feelings about the game into focus. State of Decay is more functional than immersive, except on those occasions when it’s dysfunctional. How much of this is down to the early access, I don’t know. The few people I’ve spoken to who played on 360 report varying degrees of glitchiness so I can’t say with any certainty whether things have become worse, but I’ve seen many a zombie clipping through scenery and humans repeatedly vaulting over the same log. During a scripted story mission sequence, one character became annoyed and abandoned the rest of the group. “WAIT!” One of them shouted. He stood there, right in front of her face. “COME BACK! DON’T GO!” He didn’t. “We’ll have to carry on without him.” Even as we drove away, he was standing, staring at the same point in the middle distance.
I’d happily tolerate all of that if I was invested in the game’s world but, story missions aside, I’m struck by the aimlessness that is the dread of the open world experience.
Lacking purpose is fine if there is something interesting, beautiful or unexpected in at least one direction, but State of Decay’s plot of land doesn’t seem large or dense enough to maintain interest. It’s a murky smudge of a place and the first town takes a minute or two to traverse in one of the many vehicles scattered around the place. I was warned not to rely on them because the noise of their engines attracts zombies but they are invincible killing machines. I’ve ploughed through hordes of zombies and taken no more than a scratch, whereas on foot I’d be kung fu kicking like a crazy man.
Combat is tedious and using melee weapons has a Looney Tunes vibe, more fitting Dead Rising than the more serious tone that State of Decay strives for. Problematically, the bulk of the game appears to involve sprinting around hotpoints on a minimap, occasionally crouching and ever so slowly creeping around a large group of zombies, but more often smashing through the middle of them in a truck.
There’s an RPG in the background somewhere, with character relationships and skill levels, but I feel far too little attachment to those characters, particularly since they can die while my back is turned. That leaves the simulation, with its resource management and attempt to construct a believable ecosystem of sorts. It isn’t very well explained so I’m not sure whether I believe in its workings or not, but it mostly seems to happen without me. Imagine the Zafehouse Diaries with added third person combat and less control over the group of survivors. In State of Decay, I exist to follow the bidding of the minimap and the popups, and the most enjoyment I’ve had has been counter to the game’s themes and atmosphere.
To get some of the screenshots here, I jumped into a car and drove into the middle of nowhere, in the way that only an idiot would during a zombie apocalypse. The vehicle broke when the engine became clogged with intestines and I was stranded, with a few bottles of painkillers and a couple of snacks. The journey home was the most fun I’ve had with the game and if the finished version’s promised sandbox mode can more sensibly replicate that sort of scenario, it might well be worth a look. For now though, State of Decay is more interesting as a collection of ambitious ideas than an experience.
Zombie Labs have said that the early access version is "not ready to be reviewed" and these are only impressions of a few hours play. I'll return when the game is finished, with a customisable control scheme and (hopefully) improved detail and resolution options. For now, I'm going to step away and reconsider my relationship with the undead for a while.