Games Preview: State of Decay 2 (Xbox One/PC, 2018): Survival of the fittest

“When we announced State of Decay 2 last year, we were prepared for cries of ‘Do we really need another zombie game?'” says Undead Labs founder Jeff Strain during his short intro to our little group of games journos at Soultrap Bar in Surry Hills. “Our answer was yes.” It’s the kind of emphatic ‘yes’ I’ve heard before, the kind that only comes from creatives pitching an idea they really believe in. It’s the yes of someone who sees the not only the value, but the point of difference in what they’re trying to make. Strain isn’t wrong to insist his game is different. Within the zombie survival genre, State of Decay 2 is doing things you don’t see that often.
I spent about three hours with State of Decay 2 running on both a high-end Windows 10 PC and an Xbox One X dev kit. The sequel to  2013’s State of Decay, this new game has a lot it wants to do. It wants to provide a simulation of post-apocalyptic survival that feels as nuanced and layered as humanly possible. It wants to reinforce a few of the creakier parts in the original’s foundations but neither does it want to sacrifice too much of the scrappy, lashed together feel that made it popular among its playerbase.

The title’s use of the word Decay remains core to its identity. Set many years after a global zombie outbreak, the world and everything in it is now properly starting to fall apart. Weapons, tools, buildings, vehicles and even the survivors you’ve aligned with are all slowly being eaten away by nature and the seemingly endless hordes of the undead.

The feeling I got from this preview build, especially after only briefly perusing the How To Play section before jumping in, was of a deep mechanical well. There is so much complexity in State of Decay 2‘s interlocking systems that you may feel a little overwhelmed at first — our preview session began, I’m told, about 10-12 hours into the game when your character and their little group of survivors should be very much up and running. There are systems on top of systems on top of systems. When chatting to Strain during my session, he repeatedly referred to the game as “The Simulation” and its not hard to see why. It uses the trappings of open world titles we’ve seen a hundred times before — jump in a car and head down the highway, use the overworld map to mark out where you’re headed and scout objectives before you get there, clean the area out and claim that land as your own. I knew what my plan of attack was the moment I looked at the map. Here’s the thing though: I’ve never had my car run out of fuel on the way to the marker before. At that point I had a decision to make — do I look for somewhere I might be able to scrounge fuel to keep going, sacrificing already limited combat and survival resources to do so, or do I leave the car where it died and make my way on foot, staying low in an effort to save the ammo and meds for later?

State of Decay 2 has the player making a lot of these decisions moment-to-moment. I found very quickly that the real battle was not with the army of zombies wandering the rural American countryside, but in managing my inventory such that I could guarantee odds for survival better than 50/50. I had to make sure we had clean water, I had to make sure I got enough rest, I had to make sure I’d stashed enough meds to keep my health and stamina up in a fight. And all of this is just for the one character I was controlling in that moment. I had to weigh all of these personal decisions against how they would affect everyone else in my camp and what their response would be. If I make too many risky plays, if I lose too many good people, then survivor morale will crater. The same thing happened if I burnt through our supplies too quickly or irresponsibly. Low morale will lead to unrest, which in turn erodes our collective safety. The nightmare scenario is losing all of your survivors. Losing them all (and lose them I did, I was exceedingly cavalier with my survivors early on) got me a game over and I had to start fresh.

I could see an XCOM-like bond forming in my mind about all my survivors, something that Strain himself later confirmed as a facet of the game he liked a lot, but felt emerged on its own rather than by design. There’s nothing terribly different about each survivor person-to-person which allows the player to start filling in blanks at their leisure. It mattered when I lost someone on a purely mechanical level but I can see it being a real gut punch if I’d had that person on my team since day one, only to have them die because I got greedy. Ultimately, their safety is in the player’s hands and if they steer these people into danger and they get eaten, the player has no-one to blame but themselves. What’s worse, if I lost one to the horde and wanted to recover their supplies, I’d have to fight my way back to the location where they died, pick my way through the crowd, locate their now shambling, undead corpse, take them out and riffle through their belongings. Brutal.

On the other hand, my fellow survivors also responded to my actions in positive ways too. They loved it when I took zombies down, they loved it when I went out hunting for supplies and returned to drop them off in the collective stash, they really loved it when I built new fortifications for our home base and they were ecstatic whenever I’d claim new territory and drive zombies out to make it safe for habitation.

Clearing areas for habitation doesn’t just mean decimating the local zombie population either (though that is a big part of it — the final stage of clearing any new house or area means moving from room-to-room, making sure the whole place is a Deadite Free Zone). Sometimes there are stores that need to pillaged for supplies, sometimes the zombies have created these crusty, pulsating red blobs that putrify everything around them and generate more undead mutations. Attacking these horror sacs always brought the horde swooping down on me but the reward for dealing with one when I found it was often worth the trauma.

I found at least three types of zombies wandering the farmland map we were on. There’s your everyday shambling corpse that would lunge wildly at me if I got to close, big bloated boys that would explode and drop poisonous gas that deals damage-over-time, and ferals which were  fast and lethal acrobats, able to keep up with a moving jeep. This initially concerned me, it didn’t really feel like there weren’t enough enemy types to keep the loop interesting but there’s a method to the madness (at least in the demo we played). While a lone zombie can be dispensed with fairly easily, adding another three or four to the situation makes them a bit of a handful. Throw one of the two outlier enemy types in the mix and you’ve got problems. Then remember that all of these zombies creating a racket that attracts other zombies and you’ve got a real party on your hands.

I found it easy enough to duck out of the way of their attacks, but you don’t want to lean on that strat as crutch for escaping any situation. All that ducking and weaving makes it easy to run out of stamina and be surrounded. It’s also easy (and delightful) to jump in a nearby car and mow them down like you’re in Dead Rising. The downside of doing this is that it will significantly damage any car you’re in and if it blows up or the engine conks out, you’ll be on foot again and vulnerable to attack.

There was a day/night cycle that was playing havoc with my visibility too. Because there was no working electricity beyond what I could power with a generator, getting around at night meant traveling by the beam of my flash light or the headlights on my car. This, quite obviously, turned me into a homing beacon for hungry zombies, which was a problem. Turning the lights off and trying to sneak through is a viable strategy but a bloody hard one to pull off because it was really dark out.

There’s a co-operative mode as well that could provide to be extremely useful for those who want to go resource hunting in packs. Indeed, there’s a large chunk of the game’s inherent design that felt like it was built around the idea that you’d group up and play together. During my session, I played with two other journos and it certainly made raiding hazardous areas less risky than trying to go it alone. I’ll be very excited to try it with a few friends and see how it goes with people I know well and can communicate easily with.

At the end of my three hours, and as trite and overused a sentiment as this is in games coverage, I felt like I’d barely made a dent or even scratched the surface. There are so many things to do, try, build and flee from, so many systems I hadn’t yet encountered or figured out, that in the days that followed my session I found myself wanting more. For Undead Labs, that’s got to be a sign that they’re on the right track. With a little under a month to go before release, I’m sure they’re deep in polish and bug hunting right now. I look forward to reviewing the game in full when it launches later this month.

State of Decay 2 launches May 22, 2018 exclusively on Xbox One and Windows 10.