Stranded in a grocery store, I was surrounded. Zombies poured in from the windows as I unloaded the last clip from my 1911 into a wall of the undead that were rapidly approaching. Realizing that my last shot alerted a nearby horde, I had the uneasy feeling that my fully leveled character Ed might be facing his last minutes alive and if he was, he would be going out in a blaze of glory. I took every zombie on full force, bashing them into bloody pulps until I was too exhausted to go on. Frantically mashing my D-pad, I prayed I still had a bag of potato chips and codeine to recover my stamina and health. Turning up nothing but an alarm clock, I made a decision to throw the clock behind me. Luckily, it gave me enough time to leap through a window and escape to a nearby warehouse. This is the world of State of Decay.
Surviving in the zombie infested community of Trumbull Valley requires players to make a wide range of decisions that aren’t simply reliant upon combat but also emphasize the importance of thinking. This is how State of Decay distinguishes itself from other zombie games. Players are forced to make decisions that directly impact their ability to survive. It isn’t simply asking you to unload thousands of rounds into rotten flesh. Instead, it wants you to think about the actions you take and how those actions impact both the people relying on you for survival and yourself.
After a brief tutorial section, players are given access to a home base. You are able to expand this community by building new facilities and upgrading them, stocking up on supplies, and even recruiting new survivors. However, expecting these things to come into fruition easily would be a tragic mistake. In order to thrive among the living dead, players must venture out into the infested streets and scavenge everything they can. You may find a powerful firearm, a samurai sword, or a simple supply cache. Understanding what your base needs to continue operating smoothly is crucial to maintaining your survival. This may seem easy enough but as your base expands with new survivors your resources begin to deplete rapidly.
State of Decay becomes a careful game of decision making and balance. Do you gear up and venture out to save stranded survivors or do you try and locate the three missing survivors from your community? Will you have enough supplies for your base as you go out on your missions? These thoughts constantly race through your mind. It makes playing the game feel as if you truly are attempting to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Your survival is reliant upon scavenging for supplies and returning them to base, which grants you Influence. This system is used brilliantly as the game’s currency. Accessing your supply stash isn’t simply an act of taking what you want. Rather, players can only take what they earn and if you aren’t pulling your weight, don’t expect to stock up every time you return home. It’s an ingenious way of incorporating a traditional currency system while making you feel the reality of scarce resources.
Tying the currency system directly to resources emphasizes the importance of finding a building stashed with the best weaponry or medical supplies. However, it also makes you sick to your stomach after a 30 minute supply run turns up nothing. Not only have you just wasted precious supplies but you also have nothing to show for it except a growing pile of undead corpses.
Nearly every building in the world is accessible and often times you will be able to capitalize on a range of supplies available to you by establishing outposts. Up to eight can be built in the world and finding a balance is the key to maintaining a thriving community. Additionally, expanding your home base’s reach helps maintain an effective defensive perimeter that allows snipers to eliminate wandering undead or minefields to eradicate roaming hordes. Creating a safety net for your survivors to operate in significantly increases the ease with which you are able to scrounge for supplies. This is a significant benefit when you’re left with only one character to search for resources. Your survivor will rapidly begin to lose their maximum stamina and health, making it a struggle to find the best supplies to keep him going. Carefully analyzing your surroundings is crucial to preventing your characters’ untimely deaths.
Combat is another crucial piece of the puzzle. Luckily, State of Decay manages to deliver solid combat mechanics that implore players to survive any way that they can. Utilizing both melee weapons and firearms can prove to be a lethal combination for the times when you’re swarmed by an endless supply of zombies. Bashing in zombie brains and unleashing round after round from a rifle, however, will draw the attention of any zombies within close proximity. This makes it important to control the level of sound that you make. Breaking in doors and leaping through windows all project a deadly level of noise, so it’s best to ensure you are always aware of your surroundings. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as scoring a round of headshots and drawing in a large crowd of zombies only to slip out the back and eliminate them with a well-placed grenade. Of course, managing to get that one last resource of materials without having to take down a single undead monstrosity is just as satisfying. It also eliminates the risk of your favorite character being torn to shreds by a zombie horde.
In State of Decay, once a character is gone they are gone forever. Permadeath is a brutal reality that makes losing a character you’ve invested everything into that much more devastating. It adds to the overall feeling of uncertainty that comes along with surviving in a world of the undead where one simple mistake can turn tragic. It’s important to realize that you are going to make mistakes. Maxing out a character’s stats and choosing their own special combat skills can lead to a dangerous level of confidence. It’s easy to forget that everyone in State of Decay has an equal opportunity to become a flesh feast. Simple mistakes are just as dangerous as the larger ones. Forgetting an adequate supply of food to refill your stamina in a sticky situation may leave your character breathless in the worst possible moment. You are forced to truly adapt to the game’s impressive network of interworking gameplay systems and it’s an awesome feeling when you begin to master them.
These systems drive your goals and ensure that there is always something engaging to accomplish. Missions the game offers typically revolve around a specific set of civilians in the Trumbull Valley community and help to progress the game’s story. State of Decay isn’t going to win any awards for its narrative but the fully realized world of characters you interact with contributes greatly to immersing you in the experience of surviving the apocalypse.
Even with all of these impressive gameplay elements the overall experience is slightly hindered by a range of technical issues. Over 18 hours with the game exposed me to texture popping, frame rate issues, and moments when dialogue options would loop for no apparent reason. It feels that a bit more time could have delivered a more highly polished product, but in spite of the technical issues, State of Decay managed to captivate me entirely. It provided the best way possible to help me answer my own questions of what I would do to survive a zombie apocalypse.
State of Decay is a labor of love. Undead Labs has created a truly unique experience for fans of the zombie genre. Players are dropped into an open-world zombie pandemic where they are forced to make heavy decisions as the leader of a group of survivors. Detailed environments and beautifully rendered landscapes are often disrupted by the range of technical issues that manage to annoy, but never truly break the game. State of Decay began as a simple idea that evolved into one of the best additions to the zombie genre in quite a long time and also one of 2013’s best offerings.
This review is based on the XBLA version of the game.
State of Decay is the open-world zombie survival simulator you've been starving for. It combines a wide range of dynamic gameplay systems that effectively create a living and breathing world.