There’s no time for exposition with State of Decay. Other games infested with the all-consuming monster du jour – the humble zombie – spend time building atmosphere, tracing the spread of the undead masses from patient zero to full-blown pandemic. State of Decay opens with a handful of zombies chowing down on an unlucky hiker and immediately throws you into combat as they turn on you. Its blunt, unsympathetic approach to the player begins as it means to continue – the sudden violence of combat designed to warn you of the dangers inhabiting this mid-size world. There’ll be no holding of hands, no safe haven and no second chances. State of Decay is more than a zombie killing riot - not just when supplies are low and survivors prone to freak out.
In a week that saw Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us deliver a linear but expertly tuned zombie (well, in a manner of speaking) narrative, State of Decay provides gamers with the inverse. There are zombies to kill here but every shot will linger at the back of your mind, as you weigh up the necessity of another supply run with every squeeze of the trigger. Once the brief introduction has been completed you’re free to explore Trumbull county and the small towns within at your leisure, although some areas will need to be unlocked by completing objectives. It’s not a huge map but large enough that those first few hours can feel intimidating – getting lost can mean the end if it involves no car, no weapons and a horde of flesh-eating undead.
That’s perhaps one of State of Decay’s most defining traits – permadeath. Characters can be switched, offering the player different skills and personalities but the shadow of morbidity always remains. Once you reach a band of survivors camped out in a small-town church the cast of characters opens up, turning the game from an individual struggle to responsibility for the group and all the leadership dilemmas that entails. If someone should suddenly become ill it falls to you to judge whether to attempt treatment or prescribe a bullet through the head. Likewise, should your character run into difficulty in the wilds there’s every chance they won’t make it back, taking all their accrued skills and supplies to the grave. Morale is a tangible prospect so maintaining relationships, supply lockers and defences is vital to a happy community. Unfortunately, different ‘special’ zombie types have the unnerving knack of infesting surrounding properties. Mortality may have a higher value in these sixteen-square kilometres but that doesn’t mean threats can be ignored.
Your actions define how the game progresses, from the minutiae of community management to larger world-changing events. Oftentimes you’ll be on the way to an objective and a distress call will radio through, drawing you away from the task at hand or even forcing you to decide between two problems. People can and will die – not all survivors can be rescued and not all relationships between different enclaves will go to plan. Main missions can see your chosen character fending off waves of zombies, shuttling survivors between locations or gathering knowledge on suspect members of your group. While none of these missions are particularly enthralling – often following the same pattern of search, rescue, destroy – it’s the constant mental calculations pertaining to the larger consequences that elevate State of Decay above a simple clone of DayZ or any other post-apocalyptic shooter.
Even combat involves a level of paranoia not seen in many other zombie-fests. Each gun emits sounds at varying decibels, enticing nearby zombies to your position. Melee weapons all require a few hits to do any real damage, although pressing Y will end most zombies in one with a special move. This would all be well and good if it weren’t for the stamina bar, draining whenever your character hits, sprints or jumps. Many a time you will think you have the upper hand until a failed sprint evacuation instead causes you to evacuate your bowels as you die in a writhing mass of putrid flesh.
Buildings that have been fully searched can be designated as outposts with some large enough to accommodate the entire band of survivors, helpful for moving home base to a different town with more objectives to fulfill. Occupied buildings will then contribute different supplies and bonuses, buffing recovery rates or offering food supplies. A home base can also be upgraded by collecting construction materials – a garden can keep food stocks high or extra beds can be constructed for incoming rescued survivors. Balancing the requirements of the group with external threats is a tricky business, especially when food is low, somebody’s having anger issues and there’s a problem finding clean water.
It’s a good thing that the gameplay is so intriguingly complex. Like a shambling, scraggy walker State of Decay chugs along at a slow pace, nearly crumbling under the weight of its low-res textures and blocky environments. ‘Achieved’ with CryEngine 3 feels less like a proud statement and more of a relieved sigh, although the game tellingly doesn’t make light of this particular engine license. So bad is the framerate and subsequent pop-in that not only do textures fade in but objects in the world can also magically coalesce – at one point directly underneath the car I was driving at speed. Even for a downloadable title the resolution is terrible and the voice-acting barely serviceable, unaided by repeated lines. If someone had said the “I got you a pony…” line once more then the Church of Ascension would be free an extra bed that night, that’s for sure. Jesper Kyd has contributed a suitably appropriate – if not memorable – score that flits between sparse, acoustic guitar reminiscent of The Walking Dead and menacing synth that sounds like a John Carpenter soundtrack.
Despite the extremely ropey visuals and general low production values, State of Decay is a compelling alternative to the linear, plot-driven zombie tales that roam the current gaming landscape. Rumour has it that the next game from Undead Labs will factor in MMO interactions – something to look forward to with great anticipation. As it stands, State of Decay feels like an MMO without the human element – it’s not a pretty sight but there’s more than enough exploration and loot management to keep the mind engaged. As a downloadable title it’s also exceptionally good value, with plenty of emergent gameplay in addition to prescribed objectives almost worthy of a full release. Zombie games are beginning to reach WWII-shooter levels of familiarity but State of Decay has enough new ideas and implements them with aplomb. Players are given the benefit of assumed intelligence, negating any patronising hand-holding. “You’ve seen this before,” says State of Decay, “so let’s put that to the test.” Then it throws you in and expects you to survive – therein lies the fun.