Games Review: State of Decay 2 (Xbox One, 2018): All work, no play

There is an easy way to tell if State of Decay 2 is going to be your thing or not. How do you react when you realise a game feels like bloody hard work? Do you dig in or do you check out? If you tend to dig in, then chances are you’ll find loads to like about State of Decay 2. If you tend to check out, you will probably find yourself bouncing off it pretty hard.

State of Decay 2 is an open world post-apocalyptic survival sim set in a world ravaged by a zombie plague. It’s been over a year since the outbreak and the remains of the world that was are starting to rot away, hence the game’s title. The goal of the game is to build a community of survivors and reclaim as much safe territory as you can while balancing your available resources, your ability to generate more, the needs of your community and the risk of pushing further out.

Every decision you make represents one box on an endless, self-perpetuating flow chart. Each individual choice leads directly or indirectly to 20 others. Do you have available medicine? If not, do you scrounge in likely places for med supplies to bandaid the problem now or would it be better to go looking for resources to construct an infirmary at your base and generate a small amount of meds each day? If you build the infirmary, do you have the supplies to keep it running? If you grow the infirmary large enough, you’ll need a generator, which requires fuel to run. Fuel you could be putting in one of the handful of operational cars you’ve been using to get around. So do you elect leave the car at home and walk everywhere to conserve fuel? Now your character’s going to get tired after covering only a short distance on foot which limits the potential resources available to you, making them tired, cranky, less efficient in the field, and far more likely to get caught off-guard by a bunch of zombies.

Now take that initial Meds example and exchange it for one of 30 other problems, follow the flow chart down. Understand that all of these flow charts are not only placed side-by-side but are also hideously interconnected and you should have a good idea of what State of Decay 2 is like to play. It’s a micro-manager’s delight and an exercise in almost total exhaustion for everyone else. Playing the game over the course of one Saturday left me feeling like I’d been run ragged. The effort of suspending all that information in my head, of putting out all those fires non stop for hours and hours, left me completely wiped.

Despite its constant urging of the player to solve any of a hundred problems necessary for survival right this very second, time is actually something State of Decay 2 likes to think the player has a lot of. The buy-in for this game is a non-trivial amount of time sunk on any given activity.

Every part of State of Decay 2 revolves around the urgent hunt for supplies, rooting around in derelict buildings trying to sort through boxes of useless junk for something that might come in handy or bolster your community warchest. Searching the boxes takes an interminably long time and usually only rewards you with a box of screws for crafting. You can try to hurry it up but you run the risk of making noise and drawing zombies down on you. A lot of your time will be spent standing in front of a box, looking over your shoulder as you wait for a radial timer to fill up.

In the early game, supplies seem reasonably plentiful but your little band of survivors hoover them up as though there isn’t a zombie apocalypse happening outside. “Please ration the food, you assholes,” I begged out loud, “It’s not like we can dash down to the supermarket if we run out. Oh, you’re unhappy with the living conditions? Well I’m sorry you feel that way, Deborah, but the fucking world ended. What do you want from me?!

Dealing with the survivors of the game’s barren, post-apocalyptic landscape is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the game. They are picky, whiny resource sinks. They also don’t seem to have much sense — they complain about ammunition shortages when your personal stockpile is full to bursting with weapons and ammo they could pull from, they get into fights with each other when morale drops too low and all it takes to decimate their mood is a wandering clump of zombies passing within 6 block radius. You risk life and limb to clear out nearby infestations and lift their spirits, they’ll be stoked for about five minutes before the depression returns.

Anyway, the early game is a meat grinder and it takes forever to establish any sort of foothold in the wasteland. Until then, you just have to put up with the people in your community squabbling like a bunch of infants unable to grasp the severity of the situation.

What about the zumbos though? They’re a pretty solid bunch as zombies go. You’ve got a mix of zombie movie favourites from old school Shambly Boys to the 28 Days Later Sprinty Dicks (these are obviously what I call them, not what the game calls them). You’ve got Left 4 Dead Bloaty Poison Lads, there are Screechy Fucks that call other zombies down on you and there’s Bloody Jerks that infect your survivors with a blood plague, survivable, provided you get them to an infirmary fast enough. All can be dispatched with a solid headshot but they all require different strategies to dispatch. Shamblers can be done in at your leisure. Screechy Fucks have to be taken out before they spot you, but surround themselves with other zombies so its hard to get near them. Bloody Jerks stick close to gruesome plague hearts, pulsing organic globs that take a ton of ammo to destroy and make your character woozy so its hard to hit anything.

Despite running on an engine as sophisticated as Unreal, State of Decay 2, while quite good at all the broader mechanics like shooting and driving, is quite fiddly with smaller things. As just a single example, gates and doors are a greater threat to my survivors than any zombie. I cannot figure out where the hell I’m supposed to stand to operate doors properly. Sometimes the door closes and my character stays inside the building. Sometimes they close the door and lock themselves out, planting themselves in the midst of the zombie mosh pit I was trying to escape. Trying to shut a gate in a panic situation gives 50:50 odds of safety or instant permadeath. Then again, if my character is so dumb they can’t operate a door then maybe we’re better off without them.

Like XCOM, when your characters die, they’re dead. There’s no getting them back. Whatever work you’ve put into them, leveling them up, training their proficiencies so that they’re better scavengers or fighters will go away and you’ll have to make do with whichever gronks remain. This gives you good reason to form a rotation, taking each of your community members out for a walk. Sinking all your time into just one or two characters will leave you with a serious skill deficit if they wind up dead — you want them all to be good at something.

Unlike XCOM, however, I never felt like I was particularly attached to any of my survivors. In XCOM, my soldiers and I were one and the same, a united front against the alien menace. We shared in every win and wallowed in every loss together. I feel like State of Decay 2 was going for that feeling too. Unfortunately for State of Decay 2, my community feels like a basket of highly-strung kittens, angrily screeching for someone to bring them food or medicine and turning their noses up at it when I do. I don’t feel terribly protective of them, I am unmoved when they perish beyond the logistical irritation their deaths create and I have zero problem exiling them to the wasteland if they piss me off.

Whatever gripes and technical whinges I may have with the game when playing solo are mitigated somewhat with the addition of more human players. State of Decay 2‘s biggest change over the original is that introduces co-operative multiplayer. Just adventuring with a single friend makes the game infinitely easier and adventuring with four takes the game from grueling time-sink to genuinely enjoyable, if still very uncoordinated, romp. You sweep over the landscape like locusts, hoovering up all available resources for the greater good and cutting down countless zombies with barely a care in the world. It’s a completely different experience with a team that’s happy to work together and one that certainly pushes the player to team up with others to bolster their chances of survival. Time will tell if playing with randos is more or less effort than simply going it alone.

Hey, did I talk about the bugs yet? Because oh boy the bugs. There were a lot of them in my single-player game — cars that would jitter around while I was driving them, zombies that would stand motionless in the sky and then plummet 15 feet to their latest deaths. There was a great one that seemed like certain areas of the map would cause the entire UI, nested menus and all, to rapidly blink on and off. The specific area of the map that caused this blinking seemed to be a 500m exclusion zone around my home base. Which was great.

It might sound like I’m complaining a lot. I’m not really, what I’m trying to do here is set your baseline expectations so you know what you’re getting into. There’s a lot to like about State of Decay 2, if you can dig through the dense outer layers. The world is huge and really reasonably varied, you can choose from a variety of starting locations based on what you want to accomplish with your playthrough and there’s a multitude of ways to grow and improve each of your survivors. There’s tons of ways to interact with the world that I haven’t seen in many games before  — cars that require constant upkeep and refueling being one of them — and danger is omnipresent in a way that makes leaving the safety of your compound a tense experience each and every time you do it. There’s a great variety of weaponry and incredible depth to the crafting and building framework. And once your characters are properly equipped and leveled up there’s very little that can slow your roll, even when playing solo.

Err on the side of caution, make good choices and its possible you’ll get a good run out of State of Decay 2. I look forward to seeing the community figure out the most ruthlessly efficient ways to bend the game to their will. But I don’t think I’ll be back. Surviving the zombie apocalypse is a lot of work for precious little reward.

Score: 6.0 out of 10
Highlights: Complex crafting, building and survival systems;
Lowlights: Some clunky controls and interactions; Whiny survivors; Makes an awful first impression
Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Available: May 22, 2018
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC