It is a difficult proposition to innovate upon the familiar video game theme of the zombie apocalypse which is now so commonplace that it has become a veritable cliche. It seems as though a new zombie game or zombie themed DLC is releasing on a weekly basis. Leave it to Undead Labs and Microsoft to put forth a commendable effort to take the familiar and ubiquitous and create something fresh and novel, then release their title on the unlikely service of Xbox Live Arcade. The end result of this collaboration is the fun, but flawed, State of Decay; a title which aims to readjust players preconceptions behind the concepts of survival and horror within video games while establishing a new paradigm for the interaction between players and the game world within the zombie themed genre.
Because of the confinement of the 2 gigabyte limit for games uploaded to the XBLA service, Undead Labs was faced with the difficult task of bringing a full retail priced game experience contained within a spartan digital download file size. One of the compromises made to stay within this limit was to State of Decay’s tautly written story. Players begin the game thrown into the post-apocalyptic madness by assuming the role of Marcus who, along with his friend Ed, is in Trumbull County attempting to escape the madness of everyday life by camping within the county’s secluded rural borders. After a violent introduction to the zombie infestation, Marcus and Ed take refuge with a small group of survivors and the game’s main quest begins. It becomes clear from this point that the narrative’s main function is to provide players with a pathway towards the game’s completion. Since playable characters are expendable and replaceable, the game’s main story proves ancillary to the component involving the efficacy of player decisions and interactions within the in-game world. State of Decay is a quintessential RPG which thrusts players into the role of community organizer with an emphasis on survival over in-game identity.
As an RPG set within an open-world sandbox environment, players are allowed to explore the entire map from the beginning at their leisure, all while avoiding or fighting zombie hoards in the process. Players can hike on foot to and from locations, but quicker and safer traversal can be achieved by driving cars which are found in surplus around the environment. Cars are a most effective weapon against relentless zombie encroachment since large groups can be killed off by running them over with the vehicle. Cars do sustain damage with every impact and they can become unusable, or even explode, over time. Still, it is prudent to always be within reach of a vehicle given the frequency of desperate situations the game presents players with, especially those where you find yourself in need of making a quick escape when faced with an insurmountable zombie horde converging on your position.
While exploring Trumbull County’s idyllic countryside, players are tasked with building and maintaining a community of survivors. By completing quests as the game progresses, more survivors can be invited to join your community, increasing the necessity to manage community morale which is quantified by a meter located on the player’s HUD. When morale diminishes, community members become more inclined to fight each other, run away, or commit suicide. Players must keep the community well stocked on food, medicine, and weapons in order to keep morale at acceptable levels. In order to do this, players must brave the zombie infested abandoned neighborhoods and business buildings in a constant search for supplies, then return safely home. This is the main game play focus of State of Decay; the urgent struggle to maintain balance between resource consumption and survival in the face of an ever-present threat.
Completion of quests and depositing items and weapons into the community storage earns players Influence points. Influence points are State of Decay’s form of currency. Removing powerful weapons from storage, expanding and improving facilities within the community, calling for help when scavenging for resources, and setting up outposts around the neighborhood set with zombie traps, all cost Influence points. Influence points wane continually as the player stands idly by, heightening the sense of urgency to explore the environment in the hopes of surviving a successful scavenger hunt, or to complete randomly occurring side missions.
As the community grows, so does the need for an improved or a larger location to set up your home. While on scavenger hunts, players may come across construction materials or containers of fuel, which are required to power the homestead. More beds may be required as the population grows, and better medical facilities and sniper outposts are helpful at increasing recovery speed for injured characters and protecting your group, respectively. Workshops can be built and upgraded enabling players to perform tasks anywhere from repairing damaged weapons and vehicles, to building molotov cocktails and grenades. All of these facilities require construction materials and Influence points to be exchanged for their construction, and the types of specialized facilities built are dependent upon the research choices players make based on their game play preferences.
The community within State of Decay’s game world is a very dynamic group filled with needy and ambulatory survivors. While the player’s chosen character is busy completing missions, other community members controlled by the A.I. are also running errands, having quarrels at home, and generally getting themselves into trouble. It oftentimes becomes the player’s responsibility to help resolve personality conflicts at home, help out a fellow survivor who is cornered by zombies, or help a friend hunt the more powerful Freak type zombies. These random side quests appear frequently and tend to overlap. This becomes vexing when players realize some of these side quests can end up in failure if they do not address them in time. Because Trumbull County is a very dangerous zombie infested nightmare, A.I. controlled characters can die when doing tasks away from the player’s attention. Acknowledgment of these game mechanics helps to heighten the player’s sense of urgency in assigning priority to specific tasks, giving weight to the player’s in-game decisions while producing a satisfying experience hinged upon a balanced system of risk/reward.
Character progression is a central component for State of Decay’s systemic design, and it is integral to the game’s overall fun. Each playable character is assigned specific attributes which denote the character’s aptitude in performing certain tasks. For example, the Cardio skill determines how long the character can sustain a sprint or repeated melee combat; the Wits skill determines how quietly and quickly a character can rummage through drawers and cabinets in search of supplies; and the Fighting skill determines how effective the character is in combat. These and other important skills can be leveled up by simple repetition of their corresponding action. As character skills improve, selections of specialized skills become available. Here, players are given an option to select a focus on specific abilities which are governed by a given attribute skill. For example, although Shooting is a main attribute skill, players can select to specialize in hand guns instead of rifles; another example would be choosing blunt weapons instead of bladed weapons. Some specializations allow players to attack multiple enemies at once in order to escape being surrounded, or to perform flourishing finishing moves that typically ends with the satisfying crunch sounds of a zombie’s head being crushed with concrete. No matter how efficient your character becomes at the art of zombie apocalypse survival, that character will become tired after extended periods out in the field, resulting in a penalty to the character’s stamina. When this happens, players can return to their home base and exchange the playable character with another survivor in the community, who comes complete with his/her unique set of attribute skills to develop. Character progression is a genuinely enjoyable aspect of State of Decay, and it is functionally necessary since the game’s design forces players to keep characters on a steady rotation.
Character death is a distinct possibility in State of Decay, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s game over. If your character should succumb to the ferocity of the zombie hordes, the game will resume in the body of another survivor. Thankfully, death may be likely, but it isn’t inevitable. Although there are carry weight restrictions and inventory slot limitations, each character can still carry a few melee weapons and a firearm to aid in survival. Despite the game’s somewhat rough presentation, melee combat manages to be tense, fluid and fun. Nothing beats doing a golf club swing finisher with a crowbar directly to the head of a downed zombie. Unfortunately, gun play doesn’t fare as well. At best, the gun play mechanics are functional; at worst, they are stiff and imprecise (a recent patch has helped ameliorate this). Fortunately, using guns is not the focus of the combat in State of Decay since zombies relentlessly approach and ammo is scarce. This intentional design choice serves well to convey a sense of palpable horror. State of Decay is not a traditionally scary game, but the tension spawned from the player’s desire to remain undetected while scavenging as large groups of zombies pass outside elicits a visceral response. One wrong move may mean detection, inciting the zombies to doggedly pursue, and thrusting the player into a desperate struggle to survive and escape. Moments like this are what makes State of Decay one of the most terrifying and exhilarating games in recent memory; when the conflation of the meticulously interwoven design mechanics coalesce into something great. A converging zombie horde doesn’t mean instant death. Should the zombie bodies pile on top of the character, the game allows players the opportunity for a second wind by vigorously tapping the A button. When successful, the nearly dead character triumphantly rises from the pile with great force, knocking the zombies back, all while experiencing a slight restoration to health and stamina at the cost of serious injury that shortens the overall length of the character’s health meter. Experiencing the thrill of barely escaping and watching the character limp back home is very rewarding, leaving players with the sense of relief that the character has lived to fight another day.
There has been a lot of attention directed at State of Decay’s lack of polish and technical shortcomings since its release. Undead Labs’ unique vision of producing a huge, zombie infested open-world for XBLA was evidently complicated by a limited budget and XBLA file size policy. The game still manages to look acceptable for the current generation, but in motion the game’s flaws become glaringly apparent. Texture pop-in and frame rate issues abound, especially when driving fast in a vehicle. Character animations appear stiff and clipping with objects occurs frequently, specifically when zombies are climbing a fence or through windows. It is rare that any of these shortcomings affect the game play or the overall enjoyment of the game, nor do they undercut the game’s deftly honed underlying systems. What does pose a barrier to entry for the novice RPG player, however, is the lack of a proper tutorial at the beginning of the game. Learning the game’s sim and RPG systems is further obfuscated by the confusing in-game menu system that requires patience and attention to detail to fully understand, even for experienced RPG players.
State of Decay presents gamers with a fresh and novel interpretation of the zombie apocalypse set in an open-world RPG characterized by a complex and well balanced game play system. Undead Labs has done a great job of injecting palpable exhilaration and terror within a virtual world mounted upon the foundation of the concept of survival. State of Decay is a title whose addictive and ambitious game play design stands at the precipice of brilliance, marred only by its technical issues. Thankfully, State of Decay is a game that merely buckles, but never bends, under the weight of its own ambition. In this era where Xbox fans have few console exclusives to look forward to, State of Decay is one of the best Xbox 360 games to come out in some time, and could have been one of the best new franchises of the generation. It is a game that deserves to take its place among the pantheon of great Microsoft exclusives, if only the publishing giant would come to realize the value of the rough diamond they have in their grasp, and give it the polish, and financial support, it deserves in future iterations.