Posted Mon, Jan 20, 2014 by gunky
State of Decay is a single-player survival-horror sandbox game, released for Xbox 360 in June and for PC in November.
Some of you may be wondering, "Why are you guys reviewing a single-player console port that's already almost 3 months old?" Well, the answer is a bit complicated - it was developed by Undead Labs, a development studio founded by former Blizzard employee, and co-founder of ArenaNet, Jeff Strain. And as Martuk discussed in his recent article about the development of State of Decay, the initial project (codenamed Class3) was intended to be a zombie apocalypse MMO, but got whittled down to single-player for a variety of reasons. The company plans to release a follow-up MMO, codenamed Class4, sometime in the future, and Class4 is believed to be a natural extension of State of Decay.
That being said, it's also just an all-around interesting game that will appeal to a lot of different kinds of players, including MMO enthusiasts. It's been fairly popular among TenTonHammer's staff lately, so we decided to give it a proper review, despite its having been around since the fall.
As one might expect from a zombie game, there is brutal violence and gore. Lots and lots of it. Definitely not for the squeamish. Also there is a fair amount of profanity and some... rather bizarre drug use. Definitely not a game for children.
There is a lot more to State of Decay than plain old zombie-killing. Leave that to games like DayZ, et cetera. There are loads of zombie shooters. This one is different.
For starters, it's often better to avoid fighting zombies when possible, than to stand your ground and fight. Killing zeds makes noise, and noise draws more zeds. Oh yeah, they call 'em "zeds" in this game, despite the apparently American setting. Welcome to the Queen's English, boys.
Stealth can play a significant role, but this is a sandbox game, after all. If you want to go around bashing zeds with a pipe threader, by all means do so. Or you can gun them down with an assortment of firearms, getting into states of perpetual combat as your gunfire draws more zombies from all around. Well, perpetual until you run out of bullets. Which can happen alarmingly fast.
Equally important to the combat is exploration. You survive by scavenging supplies from the buildings around you - food, drugs, bullets, bats, guns, fuel, building materials for your home base. Run out of any of those supplies and you and the rest of the survivors are in serious trouble.
One of the more interesting aspects of State of Decay is the ability to swap between multiple characters. You start off with Marcus Campbell and his buddy Ed Jones, who doesn't become playable until much later, and eventually you meet a new stranger named Maya Torres, who joins your group as a second playable character. Eventually, you come across a small town with a fortified church at the northwest corner, where you meet a handful of new characters, some of whom also become playable later on. You meet others out in the wilderness - by which I mean the town of Spencer's Mill and its surroundings. Most of the characters are playable eventually, which is a good thing. Characters tire out after long scavenging hauls and zombie battles, and need rest, but the game keeps on needing to be played. Lily is relentless. And sometimes a bit of a nag.
All of these characters have their own set of skills. Marcus starts out as a fairly decent melee fighter, for example, while Maya and Ed are weaker in that area. Skills improve over time with repeated use, so all the new characters you convince to join the group will need to be leveled up carefully before they are any good at anything. Don't send a raw newbie out on a Feral hunt, for example, because he'll get literally ripped in half. Send out someone with a bit more seasoning, and take the newbie along as backup. Far more likely to survive that way.
An important aspect of gameplay is building and maintaining the home base. This involves scavenging for supplies, keeping morale up by completing missions, keeping the group members safe by helping them out of jams, constructing outbuildings, establishing outposts for resupply and security, upgrading home-base facilities and other stuff. You may even need to play out Walking Dead drama moments and deal with troublesome people in your group.
For example, you may get a message saying that Maya is storming around yelling at people, or Ed is scaring everyone with his pessimism, or Alan Gunderson is being an asshole and threatening to kill everyone. You get mini-side-missions to go back to base and take these folks for a walk to "talk some sense into them." In reality, you just take them on a short and usually straightforward zed-hunt, and watch the dialogue cues on the way to and from the fight location. Setting the person straight increases your relationship with that person and improves overall morale.
In the case of Alan Gunderson, you may need to take more extreme measures. He's the Shane of the game - a ticking time bomb.
Since you are controlling multiple characters, no one character is absolutely crucial. I found that out the hard way the first time Marcus got killed, and I got automatically switched to the next character in the hierarchy. Once a newly-introduced character gets his or her story commitments out of the way, that character is expendable. Basically, if you can control the character in any way, the character can die. NPCs will go out in a blast of glory, detonating their "final solution" grenades when they are pinned by a swarm of ripping, biting, tearing zeds. Player-controlled characters will get ripped not-so-cleanly in half. It's going to happen.
And deaths don't always happen while the player is present, either. Some deaths happen "off-camera," and you are alerted by a little pop-up in the top corner. Usually, I manage to find Doc Hanson in time to save Ed from his injuries. In one scenario, however, I screwed around too much before getting around to meeting Doc for the first time. Alan shot Ed rather than let him turn into a zombie, and it happened off-camera while I was out driving around doing one of Lily's many side-missions.
There's a hell of a lot to do in State of Decay, and a lot of different ways in which to do it. On the one hand, this makes for very engaging gameplay, but it can also be kind of overwhelming. Taskmistress Lily is always radioing in new missions, and you can't possibly do them all. You end up cherry-picking among them - do you help your fellow group member out of a jam, or do you scout for the army to target local zombie hordes for an artillery barrage before they infest a house? Do you go meet Doc Hanson out at Wilkersons' farm, or do you clear out the two infestations that are alarmingly close to the church? If you make the wrong choice, it can have serious consequences to the group. And this wouldn't be so bad, but it all keeps piling up, and Lily gets on your ass about it. Occasionally, you might get two or three missions that you really have to do as soon as possible, and there's no way you can do all three. Your people will die because of random number generators.
State of Decay is a console port, and it occasionally feels like it. Character movement can be stiff and awkward at times with a mouse and keyboard, and controlling vehicles can be a bit challenging. Car-handling physics are sort of hit-or-miss - some cars seem to have specific weighting and balance and handling, and others behave more like mounts in an MMO.
The game is not without technical glitches. For example, Juggernaut zombies - big, fat monsters that are very tough to kill - are too big to fit through doorways, but they can occasionally glitch their way into a house when they use their charging attacks. This can be incredibly problematic. It happened to me once during the defense of the Wilkersons' farm when the place was under siege by hordes of zombies. The Big 'Un smashes into the walls and knocks down all the window barricades around it, letting the small, regular zombies in. Normally this is more or less fine, but when the Big 'Un glitches through the wall and ends up inside... well, that's a position you don't want to find yourself in. Hurl your fire bombs and eat the loss of trust for setting Job Wilkerson on fire. There's not really any other way to survive that one.
I found that I rarely used guns for anything. Until you level up a character's Shooting skill, that character has poor aim, and you need to score head-shots with nearly every bullet. It's difficult to level up Shooting, though, because the skill levels slowly, unskilled shooters miss a lot, and every time you fire a gun, you attract more zombies. Even rifles equipped with silencers can still draw a lot of unwelcome attention. Forget about training with a revolver or shotgun. As a result, most of my characters end up worthless with guns, and have to rely on fragile melee weapons when the crap hits the fan. And this is the kind of game where the fan is constantly being pelted by crap.There are a couple of ways to build up your guns skill a bit faster. You can barricade yourself inside a house in the middle of town and score headshots through the windows as the house gets besieged by all the zombies alerted to the noise. Or, alternately, most climbable observation towers, like water towers, road signs or the cell tower in Spencer's Mill, have a platform halfway up. You can climb up there and snipe from a safe height. You probably won't get as many kill-shots, but you'll be a lot safer until you run out of bullets, and you'll have lots more time to aim.
Some of State of Decay's gameplay takes place when you're not even playing the game at all. This is a bit that I find a little confusing. The game is "real time," so you can't skip ahead to the next day by resting or skip through dialogue. You can't wait out the dark and terrible nights by bouncing ahead a few hours. When you exit the game through the menu and come back later, no in-game time has passed. But the game has "played itself" during your absence. Your supply levels will be different, group morale will be changed, items in storage may have disappeared or been restocked. Hordes and infestations may have appeared in the town around you, and powerful freak zombies may have moved in en masse. The longer you stay away from the game, the more profound these changes will be upon your return (though apparently they cap out at around 3 days).
The graphics in State of Decay look rather dated. This is the least impressive aspect of the game, which is unfortunate because it's a fairly significant aspect of every game. This is not to say the game looks terrible - just older than it is. The mediocre graphics are sort of a bottleneck for the game overall.
I found the colors to be very contrasty. The bright spots look washed out, and the dark spots are nearly black. This adds a kind of cinematic quality to the game, making it look like a cheap grindhouse horror movie out of the 70s or 80s. Unfortunately, it also makes it very difficult to see anything at night. You can see okay in open spaces outdoors, but inside buildings, it can be almost pitch-black. Fortunately, most of the zeds have glowing red or yellow eyes, so you will have some kind of indication when there are zombies present. Unfortunately, the tougher "freak" zombies do not have this feature, and can seriously mess up your night if you stumble across one of them in a dark house while scavenging for supplies. Using your flashlight helps a little, but it can also attract zombies. Apparently, it's autumn in Spencer's Mill. Days are equally divided between night and day - 1 hour of each per game day. This means that, for half of the game, you can barely see, and should probably avoid going into buildings.
The character models, while not terrible, are kind of clunky and unattractive. I don't mean that they don't look like supermodels - even though they totally don't - but the textures are mediocre and sit strangely on the models in some places. Some of the character faces end up looking a bit distorted.
To be fair, though, the slightly weak graphics make the game a lot smaller. My Steam account has been fairly active lately, pulling in new MMOs that are usually around 15 - 20 GB in size. State of Decay clocked in at around 2 GB. For a game of that size, the graphics look pretty damned good. Undead Labs has done a lot with a little.
It would be nice, however, if they added a few options for PC users: a contrast/brightness slider to the graphics menu (rather than just a Gamma slider, which washes everything out or cooks it black), an option to play in windowed mode, and an optional downloadable hi-res texture pack. These three things would have bumped the Graphics score up at least a full letter grade.
The sound, overall, is much better than the graphics.
The voice acting in State of Decay is pretty decent. I particularly like Ed Jones - he sounds like that one guy in that one movie, he wore a shirt... you know the guy. He sounds like that. All of the characters sound good, especially considering that Undead Labs is a small studio and didn't have the cabbage to pull in Patrick Stewart and Mark Hamill and whoever else is commanding the big voice-acting bucks these days.
The music is atmospheric, from the twangy down-home bluegrass-y guitar stuff during relaxed periods to the sickening, nightmarish techno bass drones and stabs and rattling drums while clearing out infestations. The fight music in particular is well-done - some of it sounds like a ramp-up to a brutal dubstep bass drop, making even daytime horde battles and infestation clear-outs in full sunlight feel threatening, dark and terrifying. Composer Jesper Kyd has done a fantastic job, and you can get the soundtrack album on iTunes.
The zombie growls, grunts and groans could perhaps use a bit more variety, but again they feel appropriate for the atmosphere and it can be truly frightening to hear a sudden snarl in a pitch-black room when you don't see any glowing eyes to go with it.