It’s easy to look at State of Decay and react with “Ugh, another zombie game? Really?” This is very much a zombie game in its aesthetic and setting, and trust me, it will definitely cover some zombie apocalypse tropes. State of Decay, however, is something genuinely unique in a genre of games that are desperate for something unique. It’s a survival game with a heavy sense of “real.” Melee weapons degrade, your characters grow tired, and death is a permanent punishment for messing up. It’s an ingenious little experiment in the genre, and it’s a type of experiment that frankly really could only come from the indie scene.

The game opens up very simply, with Marcus Campbell and his buddies being attacked by zombies. There’s no drawn out setup or opening cut-scene; you and your friend just have to straight up deal with zombies. Tree branch in hand, you clobber away and help your buddy out. From there on, you sneak through the woods and are watching every corner. Making sure to stay quite as well as avoid being spotted by the undead. You move as methodically as you possibly can, trying to scavenge resources as well as look for other survivors. But it’s once you move into the main town that the meat of the game begins. Before long you’ve (hopefully) amassed a group large enough to make yourself feel comfortable tackling the apocalypse.

State of Decay’s directionless opening may turn some people off, but it’s a significant change of pace from how modern day games spin their narratives. The game is more about player-driven storytelling than the plot Undead Labs has created. Because it’s a sandbox, infusing a sense of reality into its gameplay systems creates an experience that can become intense out of nowhere if you aren’t prepared for it. Deaths in the mission are a constant threat, but it’s going to be organic screw ups that truly make the experience memorable.

When one of your prized crew members dies it can be a soul-crushing moment. In one such instance, one of my characters was coming back home after a mission, only to have the vehicle I was using break down. In this game world, running over zombies often does damage the vehicle, and I had already alerted a large pack of zombies. With what little shotgun shells I had left, I valiantly fought them off for as long as I could while trying to make a run for it. But you have a stamina bar in State of Decay, so of course you can’t sprint for miles. To make matters worse, if you use one character for too long without switching, they will grow tired and hungry. In this case, Marcus was already exhausted from the mission. Miles away with no help in sight and down to my last shotguns shells, I watched as that horde of zombies ripped Marcus in half.

This wasn’t part of a scripted mission; it was a product of my own mistakes. I could have easily switched characters before I went out or I could have run over less zombies. Instead, I chose to be aggressive (because running over zombies is hilarious) and that ultimately cost me one of my key party members. It’s a player driven narrative without the facade you get from the likes of Mass Effect or something like 999. Yes, there are systems and choices in those games that allow you to personalize those experiences, but ultimately you’re still playing someone else’s story. In State of Decay, the game world is the canvas, your controller is the mighty pen, and the gameplay is the writing.

That’s not to say there isn’t some structure to the game, as much as that structure is very loose. There are main story missions, but the story is minimal in its execution. Marcus and the group obviously want a way out of town, and of course there are some military guys you’ll cross paths with to find out how to get out of dodge, before (yeah, you guessed it) a final mission where you’re trying to get out. Very basic stuff, and none of the NPCs really stick out as anything memorable. The Wilkersons are scumbag gunrunners whom you try to tolerate, the cops in a nearby town come off like cliché post-apocalypse cops, and at some point you help a couple. The animations in these scenes are stilted and kind of take you out of it, but ultimately all these pieces are there just to give the game world some flavor.

The sandbox you play in comprises of two major towns, a cabin area, farms across side roads, and a festival area you see a little later in the game. You’ll be driving back and forth through many of these areas to complete missions or scavenge for supplies. Because the game world is relatively large, you can also move your home-base. Benefits can include things like larger sleeping areas if your party gets too big. Stuff like that actually has an impact on the game as characters have moods. They can become nervous, suicidal, crazy, or exhausted without even having gone on missions.

And just because you stop playing doesn’t mean the game world stops. State of Decay is a persistent experience. When you come back, your party members will go through supplies you have collected and react to their current situation. Large stretches away from the game could lead to coming back to a one of your party members going insane and shooting up some of your other characters. Some may find that kind of gameplay exhausting, but I found it to be an incredible asset to the experience, at least in theory.

For all of State of Decay’s wonderful game systems, it does have some glaring drawbacks. Vehicles do break down and can’t be abused without them exploding. However, it is a viable tactic to use and abuse a vehicle quickly, get out of it, and move on to another car, or avoid running over zombies, and only focus on zombie killing with vehicles when the mission demands it. This can take a lot of the tension right out of the experience, as being that conservative is highly effective, and if you make it a priority to scavenge early and often and ignore missions, you can easily stockpile enough supplies so that no character will have a mental break down.

Most of them will be a little scared, but that’s something a quick “take them out on a mission and kill zombies” can easily fix. In theory, moving your home base from the initial church area is supposed to be a product of looking for better defenses. But if you build the right assets, that church area is rarely under any significant attack, especially if you have been scavenging enough ammo and weapons. State of Decay’s largest issue isn’t about how frustrating the game can be, but more so that it’s too easy to take advantage of it, making it a far easier survival game than you want it to be.

Mechanically, some players might find the game a little janky. Because these aren’t typical action game heroes, the movement is stiffer than what you get from modern day third-person games. Only a few of them are really all that accurate with a gun, and weapons will have recoil that your character might not be able to handle. It does add to the game as it keeps the “keep it real” theme going, but it can also take away from the raw entertainment of just shooting zombies. Personally, it’s all about the melee kills: brutal, gory, and all kinds of satisfying. All of this is tied to RPG-esque leveling systems: the more you shoot – the better that character gets with a gun. The more you run – the quicker your cardio goes up, allowing you to sprint longer. Most of it works fine, but no amount of improvements to the shooting makes the pistols any more consistent. Most of them are just outright weak. But then again, it’s all about axing zombie heads off.

State of Decay may not be enough for people tired of the zombie game, but to dismiss it as any other zombie game would be to debase the game from what it actually is. This is a survival game in the purest sense of the word. Yes, once you learn the game’s ins and outs it becomes easy to take advantage of, but the systems in place make State of Decay something truly unique in a genre that absolutely needs a game like this. It may not be as well engineered as a game like The Last of Us, nor will it ever feel as human, but it’s a stark contrast to how Naughty Dog or any other triple-A studio handles the zombie apocalypse. That alone makes it something worth playing, and the fact that it’s a good game doesn’t hurt, either.

Final Score – 7/10

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