Posted Wed, Jun 04, 2014 by gunky
When State of Decay launched last fall - a small-package Steam game from a small indie studio headed by the co-founder of ArenaNet - it took a lot of people by surprise. It sold a million copies within the first three months, without the benefit of a giant marketing budget to promote it, and despite being banned in Australia (though, to be fair to the Australian Classification Board, using morphine and methadone pills to apparently close and disinfect wounds does send a pretty bizarre message). They released the Breakdown DLC expansion almost immediately, and announced the next expansion, Lifeline, shortly after.
Lifeline is a different kind of game from the previous two iterations. It's more story-based and runs on a schedule, as opposed to the more open-ended style of Breakdown. It's still all about the zombies and the surviving, but instead of building up and lasting out, you start out strong and fight a war of attrition - last long enough to get all the high-value assets out of the city, and then get out before the whole thing goes to hell.
It's a zombie game. There's violence, gore and frequent swearing. Especially when you find Sasquatch. Oh, and you still use morphine as band-aids. Absolutely not for the squeamish or easily-startled.
There are a number of things that set Lifeline apart from the previous two iterations of the game.
The original game was story-based, with some missions needing to be completed in a timely fashion. There was a definite progression of events, culminating in an escape - of sorts - from Trumbull Valley. Breakdown, on the other hand, is essentially open-ended. You can take all the time you want to scavenge and scrounge, and missing out on a mission here or there won't usually set you back much. Someone might get miffed at you, and you lose some Influence, but it's usually not fatal, and there are no story consequences. Because there's not really any story.
Not so with Lifeline. If you dick around too much trying to loot every garage and camp site you come across, people die. And if too many of the wrong people die, you fail, and have to start a new game. When people die on you, it's usually disastrous - if you lose one of the civilians you are trying to rescue, you get chewed out over NPR by Vienna Chow, the left-wing nutjob who alternates between telling everyone how crappy the military is for running away and then demanding that her radio-show callers be rescued. If you lose too many of them, apparently she stops taking calls, and you no longer get the option to rescue anybody. You might not know whether to be happy or sad about that.
Losing military assets is even more catastrophic. Every soldier is needed for the defense of the base (called "Black Friday") during sieges. And the more sieges you endure, the worse they get. You are also tasked with rescuing civilian doctors and scientists, and, in one case, the stoner son of a restaurant chain owner who may agree to supply the military with his fleet of food trucks. Lose any of those and command tears a strip off your ass.
Ultimately, Danforth is a no-win situation. There are far too many zombies and not nearly enough soldiers to contain or kill them all. Greyhound One wasn't sent there to re-take the city; they were sent in to extract anything of value, and then get out alive. It's an interesting reversal of the previous two games, where the goal was to build bigger and bigger fortifications, gather up as many survivors as possible, and keep on keepin' on.
The sieges are a new mechanic, similar to but slightly different from the sieges against neighboring enclaves in the previous iterations. You get a "danger counter" on your minimap, and when it reaches stage 3, that means it's siege time and you need to get your ass back to Black Friday. The sieges are regular occurrences, and they are one of the bigger resource-drains you will face - especially later in the game, when they get longer and more difficult. The zombies come in two waves. The first wave is usually fairly standard and nothing to get too upset about. The second wave is the "oh shit" moment - that's when the Big 'Uns and Ferals start coming out, after the first wave has already chewed through your mines and weakened the gates. My usual strategy has been to save the fireworks bombs and propane tanks for the second-wave assaults, since the mines and our snipers can generally handle the first-wave assaults without much fuss.
The second-wave assaults are also when you call in the artillery strikes - another new feature, and one of the benefits of being a member of the armed forces. For the first couple of sieges, when you are taking orders from "the Doghouse," you have access to an array of artillery barrages - incendiary, mortars, attack drones and others. Later on, when you are forced to go a little higher up on the chain of command, you have to establish outposts at artillery and comm stations around the city in order to gain access to artillery strikes.
When the zeds break through the gates, they bee-line for the helipad where your civilian evacuees are waiting. And if you let more than one or two slip in, your evacuees are pretty much dead, and you get chewed out by Vienna Chow and/or command.
Some players are claiming there are too many sieges, some that there are not enough. The sieges can be an aggravating distraction when you're trying to complete other objectives, but it can be equally aggravating later on when you are waiting around at Black Friday for a siege to start so you can get on with your work and advance the story. If you find the sieges are happening too quickly, you can stretch them out a bit by ordering your soldiers to "thin the herd" via the Ops Center at base. If you find they are not happening often enough, make sure your soldiers are doing something else.
The playable area of Danforth is not nearly as big as it looks on the map. Much of it is occupied by the multi-lane highway encircling the mostly-off-limits city core, and the rest is divided up into little isolated neighborhoods connected only by the highway. Hopping the fences around the edges of these neighborhoods is sometimes possible, but usually a really bad idea. Most neighborhoods are ringed by "danger zones" where the zombies are packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder and never stop spawning. These can be useful if you can find a good sniping spot, have a ton of ammo and want to improve your Shooting skill, but going in with a pipe wrench and hoping to slug your way out is ill-advised.
I found that I spent a lot more time driving between missions in Lifeline than I did in the other two iterations. There are no back-road shortcuts, so I was always taking the Danforth Beltway and dodging pileups. This isn't the most engaging gameplay, even with the cool new army trucks.
I also found that there were too many "Too Many Hordes" missions. You get 4 hordes for each of these missions, and it essentially involves driving all the way around the Danforth Beltway and plowing into them with your truck before they infest a house. Not doing these missions is almost the same as doing them - there's little consequence for skipping them because you're probably not going to be spending a lot of time worrying about infestations or house-prowling anyway. I did them whenever time allowed, but they kept popping up over and over, and eventually I got annoyed.
There are a lot more zombies in Danforth than there are in Trumbull Valley. This can be a mixed blessing - it certainly makes the game more challenging, but at some points it almost feels like punishment for something. At one point, I was scouting the neighborhood on the other side of the highway from Black Friday while the siege alert was at stage 2. There had to have been 30 zombies shambling around on the short stretch of street between the overpass and the T-intersection. Just on the street, mind you - that wasn't counting the ones inside the office buildings and the restaurant.
A number of players have expressed disappointment with the new Danforth map, and a lot of the complaints focus on the fact that you never get to go into the heart of the city. Basically, you're stuck in the boroughs, which all look a lot like Marshall or downtown Spencer's Mill. If you're expecting re-enactments of epic scenes from I Am Legend, or the Atlanta moments from Season 1 of The Walking Dead, you're in for a let-down. The playable areas of Danforth, connected by the expressway, make for a much smaller game environment than Trumbull Valley.
Be aware that there are a few bugs and glitches still being worked out. NPC AI is occasionally troublesome - soldiers may end up just standing around during sieges instead of shooting or attacking zeds. And you will probably get annoyed by civilians' utter inability to fight off attacking zombies. They'll often cower when being attacked by even a single zombie and won't try to fight them off. This can be problematic when you are delayed during a rescue attempt - often, the rescue target is already being swarmed by the time you get near, and if you have to fight off another group on your way to the target's location (or if one of the attackers is, say, a Feral), you'll probably end up trying to rescue a heap of shredded guts surrounded by hungry zeds.
Because this is an expansion, and it uses the exact same graphics engine as the original game, we can only really judge this new expansion's graphics by what it adds to the game world. For the most part, this is limited to a different cityscape backdrop and a bunch of new weapon models and a new vehicle or two. I believe the Lifeline character models look a little better than the ones from the original game - less frumpy and droop-drawered. And I like the new army trucks. They look pretty badass and handle better than any other vehicle in the game.
The expansion doesn't really address any of the flaws that held the original game back. There are still no sliders to tweak the settings, and the super-high contrast makes it almost impossible to see at night sometimes. It still looks like a low-budget 70s horror movie.
There are a few new musical elements, and the best bits from the original game are still part of the expansion. It sounds like they recycled the same voice actors into new roles, just like Frank Darabont does. Whatever you thought of the voices in the original game, you'll think more or less the same of the voices in the expansion. I happen to like them.