State of Decay 2 features hordes of undead creatures roaming around just waiting to take a bite, but it would be a mistake to simply rule it out as “just another zombie game”. Indeed, there are zeds to kill and plenty of tropes that you’d expect from the genre, but State of Decay 2 is about survival and the community that you can build when you band together with others. There are certainly some adrenaline pumping moments which quickly remind you that your life is at risk, but everything you do is impacted by those you choose to have around you – and those you choose not to. A vast improvement over the original, it’s still an imperfect experience, but one that keeps leaving me hungry for more, even after the credits have rolled and the zombie death count is well into the thousands.
For anyone who played the original State of Decay back in 2013 (or the Year One Survival Edition that released on Xbox One in 2015), the core gameplay loop that was so successful then remains just as satisfying today in the sequel. Early on, you’ll choose from some randomly generated character scenarios, head to your first home base and are tasked with the goal of building your community from scratch. You’ll need to gather resources to build, find medical supplies and food, help survivors and recruit them to fight alongside you, all the while doing so with zombies knocking down your door at every opportunity.
Undead Labs have learned from their initial outing and made some worthy enhancements to the gameplay that make the micro-management of your community exciting rather than tedious, including a lot more focus on characters and their backstory. You’re able to switch between the survivors in your community at any time you wish, and they come with different strengths and weaknesses that need to be kept in mind. In fact, you’ll have to share the love, as they will become exhausted from too much activity, injured from a scuffle or potentially even infected by the ominous blood plague. Having a solid roster of people that you can draw from becomes important quickly, so helping survivors that are out there in need of support is vital to your survival.
A major improvement is that these characters actually have personalities beyond their stats. From small comments they make about their past to fully fledged side quests, I genuinely cared about several of the survivors and wanted to see them flourish. While the main mission is to rid the map of the blood plague, I appreciated diversions that had me trying to find lost family members or one side quest in particular which had my character, a singer, trying to track down lyrics to a song that his band had written so that it could be used as a motivational tool back at my home base. These personal motivations had me connecting with them more than I thought I would, making the threat of losing them all the more stressful.
You see, if any of your characters die out in the world in State of Decay 2, that really is the end for them. The skills you’ve been working on with them and the connection you form means nothing and they become merely a corpse, or a zombie that must be hunted and killed to regain your supplies. It’s an interesting take on permadeath, where it doesn’t mean “game over” but still creates a feeling of loss. It’s devastating to have someone fall, backed up by your community that will grieve for the loss. The looming idea that characters can fall turns even the simplest of supply runs into a hazardous expedition, so it’s important to ensure you’re well stocked before leaving your base.
Much like The Walking Dead television series, something as simple as gathering resources can get out of hand if you’re not careful. If a horde of zombies happens to be wandering past as you’re searching an abandoned shop, you can find yourself cornered and overrun. All it takes is a mistake or two and your character can be lost, which makes for some anxiety-inducing stuff in the best way. It makes you more tactical about every decision you make; do you need to search every container? If you’re outnumbered, should you resort to a gun which could draw more zombies to your location with the noise it makes? Do you even have enough fuel in your car to get home?
“…life is fragile and a simple wrong decision can lead to an untimely demise.”
Decisions you make are important, too. I had a conversation with another group who, based on our initial interaction, simply wanted to discuss the sharing of resources. When I casually approached them thinking it was a simple fetch-quest scenario, the dialogue option I chose led them to turn on me, and before I knew it I was gunned down and tragically killed, losing a character I’d gotten to know and like. It felt unfair, but in a way that makes complete sense in this universe, where life is fragile and a simple wrong decision can lead to an untimely demise.
Zombies might not always be your focus, but they are absolutely always a threat. The more you progress, the more different types you’ll encounter, and it doesn’t take long before the risk versus reward mechanics really come into play. There’s your standard zeds, but there’s also blood plague zombies with red glowing eyes that are far more vicious and can cause infection. Screamers are incredibly irritating, shrieking so loud they knock you to the ground and call other zeds to your location. Then there’s Bloaters who explode with a toxic gas when killed, Ferals that make your life even more difficult with their speed and endurance, plus the daunting Juggernaut that stomps loudly as it chases you down, trying to crush you. These different types are usually fine to deal with on their own, but any combination can make for a serious challenge. A horde? Okay. A horde with two screamers and a Juggernaut just a couple of blocks away? Run. Run fast and don’t look back.
As I said earlier, the core gameplay loop in State of Decay 2 revolves around collecting resources and materials to help your base thrive. You need to make sure you’re well stocked on basics like food, or your community will be unhappy. Low morale can cause all sorts of problems, like in-fighting and slower recovery time, making attacks on your home base tricky to deal with. You can move to better locations once you’ve earned enough reputation to do so, allowing you to expand your community, adding additional spaces for more beds, a medical facility, extra defence, larger storage areas and more. The upgrading of the base becomes addictive in and of itself, especially if you like micro-managing.
Searching containers for resources does take a bit longer than I’d like, often having me resort to a “fast search” that comes with the risk of making noise which attracts zombies. There are moments where the pacing does feel a bit slow, including some vehicles and character movement that has you schlepping across the map at a crawl. Hand-to-hand combat can also be sluggish, without much variety or combos. It’s simply mashing the attack button until a zombie dies and then moving on to the next target, one after the other.
State of Decay 2 is also not a pretty game. Not that the zombie apocalypse would be pretty to begin with. Textures take a while to load in, the world is very much a brown and green style of colour palate and character models don’t have a lot of life or facial expressions to them. While this is an Xbox One exclusive, don’t mistake it for a game with a AAA budget. This is an indie with a fresh coat of paint, which means the imperfections still rear their ugly head on occasion. While there will likely be a day one patch and future patches to address issues, there are currently zombies that float above the ground before dropping into the map, followers who disappear when you change characters, car physics that just don’t make sense and also clipping issues and pop-in.
These glitches may be immersion breaking, but are easy to laugh off when you’re playing with a mate. The game features co-op with up to four players, and exploring the map for resources and destroying zombie infestations is much more enjoyable when you have a friend by your side. You can drop in to a friend’s community and help make their community thrive, using characters from your own community to assist. The supplies you gather will be added to your own personal pool for use later with some minor rewards provided for helping, but it’s vastly superior relying on another player to help you with a tricky mission than it is relying on the AI.
One night, my buddy and I were doing one of our routine runs – gather some supplies, take out an infestation to increase morale… that sort of thing. We went into a building and killed a few zeds. Easy. We searched through some supplies for a few minutes while we were bantering about which location we’d head to next and what resources we were looking for. I stepped outside to head back to the car with a rucksack of food and turned around to see not just one horde, but three hordes combined lumbering in our direction. A zed lunged at me from behind and had me fight it off as the 25+ zombies approached. “DREW“, I yelled to my mate through the mic. “We have to go NOW“. I ran to the car and started the engine. He stepped outside, confused. “……OH SHIT!!“.
We escaped with our lives. Barely. My character had a slither of health left with no time to heal. Even our car barely had enough fuel to make it home to resupply. Despite the flaws and the very real focus on home base, there are still classic zombie movie moments like this that are trademark of the genre. It’s moments like these, shared with friends, that will keep me coming back to State of Decay 2 long after my community has survived and thrived.
The Bottom Line
The repetitive nature of gathering supplies to keep the morale of your community high will either prove to be a frustrating endeavour for you or a premise that will keep you hooked for many hours. The end game sees you repeating this process in a new environment, hopefully having learned from your past mistakes to build an even stronger base than before. The addition of co-op makes State of Decay 2 all the more enticing for anyone who thinks surviving the zombie apocalypse with your friends by your side is a good time. The experience isn’t as polished as it could be, but the combination of resource gathering, base management, killing zeds and surviving in this harsh and threatening world makes for an incredibly satisfying experience. State of Decay 2 may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s still bloody satisfying to watch it spin.