Smoke billows from the hood of my police cruiser as I sloppily descend a winding, muddy trail covered in road hazard signs and traffic cones, struggling to follow a path that turns too tightly for the speed I’m going. I decide to take a shortcut, careening off of the hill and coming to a jolting crash atop some conveniently placed rocks. Rubber burns and the vehicle squeals but there’s no way around it – this vehicle is stuck. Shit. Defeated, I shove the car door open and drop out onto the ground. Pounding the road beneath my feet, I run as fast as I can down a country road, with the snarling, contagious undead closing in on all sides. I have nothing but a measly, damaged hammer which will break any time now. I must make it back to my base to get another car and recover the loot.
In what can be considered both good and bad, the above snippet describes simultaneously the best, and the worst, parts of Undead Lab’s anticipated sequel to the 2013 Microsoft exclusive.
After 5 years of development, State of Decay 2 aims to improve upon the original game in every way, whether it’s graphically, technically, or in any other way (really it’s all “technically” when talking about games, isn’t it?) including the gameplay itself. Having never actually played Year One Survival Edition or the original, there isn’t much I could say about what’s different. I played the first game long enough to get my best two people killed in an aimless quest into a bathroom, and not being too pleased with the time I invested in those characters being so abruptly discarded, I never played it again. It seems people who played believe it’s not too different from the sequel, however.
SoD is part survival management simulator, part roguelike, combined into a unique action game steeped in enough realism to get the point across. You control, or can control, every individual member of your community, each of whom has their own traits, stats, storyline, quests, and inventory. Outside of the tutorial, you will start with 3 survivors, all of whom can be exiled eventually, and can recruit almost every NPC in the game to join your community. While doing that, you can control – to an extent – where your survivors build their base and what is inside that base.
There are 3 map types – foothills, plateau, and valley. Each comes with its own geography and types of buildings (most are the same) as well as unique base locations. Once you build your command post and upgrade it, and have the requisite skills, you can actually search out other regions and voluntarily leave yours behind if you don’t like it.
Each map has a set number of “home locations” available that can be occupied in order to settle your community. Ranging from baseball fields to summer camps, police departments, breweries, churches and strip malls, each will come with its own unique facilities that can’t be changed or removed, as well as a certain number of parking spots and building slots. The only differentiation between the slots themselves are large, small, indoor, and outdoor. Some facilities can only be built in doors, some outdoors, on a large or small lot. The brewery base, for instance, comes with a still, a craft brewing station, and a water supply that cannot be removed, but you can create beer and alcohol there. Another example is the police department, which comes with a built in police armory and 4 parking slots, as well as some bathrooms and jail cells.
Buildable facilities are similar to the first game, including the still, garden, farm, fighting gyms, shooting range, beds, and many other facilities. Each leader type also has their own unique top tier building that can only be built with that leader – armory, trade depot, sniper tower, and field hospital. What you decide to build is up to you, but there aren’t many viable ways to play the game. You need a constant food income in order to survive, so a garden or farm isn’t really optional, even with food collection outposts.
In addition to the facilities themselves, each one also comes with a mod slot. The mod slot allows you to install an additional piece of equipment onto that facility which amplifies its function. Gardens and farms have several mods that either increase food production or allow you to produce medicine in addition to food. The workshop for exmaple has various mods that allow you to produce different types of ammo or increase production speed. The same goes for all crafting stations as well as storage facilities, morale facilities and beds.
Although you have no control over a survivors traits, you do eventually get to control which direction those traits push them in once they’ve gained enough reputation within the community itself, or “standing.” Each one has a certain amount of levels to reach – almost all of them ten levels – and once the 10th level of that skill is reached, there will be two or more different specializations to choose from. Leveling that skill up depends on what it is. The fighting skill is leveled up by fighting, with a melee weapon, against zombies – logically. You can also have your survivors practice in a fighting gym . Shooting a gun is naturally leveled up by shooting enemies, or by practicing at a firing range. Utilitarian or academic skills, such as gardening or cooking or mechanics, are levelled up by studying textbooks, and occasionally by using your facilities to craft items. Through the crafting and trait system, the game allows for a decent variety of skills, but it is largely out of your control.
The traits for each character are randomly generated and, at least without using a mod that sort of violates EULA if you play online (the game is always online), there’s no way to modify them. That guy whose life you saved and then you invited him into your community because all his friends got eaten, it might end up being a giant douchebag with absolutely nothing to contribute. You don’t know. You can’t know until they have already started a fight.
When you meet a new survivor, you often cannot even preview what their traits are. Many of the people, probably all, of the people you can recruit start first as quest NPCs who need help, or traders. You can “learn” about them, but the truth is the game will usually just show question marks for their traits. It’s only once you recruit them you can fully see what they’re about, and when you eventually achievement hunt the game, it makes it difficult and time consuming to find the people you’re looking for. A lot of the time you may end up with 7 warlords and 3 sheriffs, for example. Its in this mechanic you are introduced to one of the games core themes which is sacrifice.
You may spend time leveling a character just because you like their skills, only for them to turn out useless in the big picture. Maybe you don’t need 3 people who know how to garden (you don’t.) Perhaps you don’t want 7 warlords. A survivor may end up having too many negative qualities, and thus they are constantly starting fights and bringing morale down.
Each play-through requires you to elect a leader from your survivors, in order to complete the storyline. Otherwise you can just play aimlessly and stock up on materials and people until you find the person you’re looking for. In fact, you have to do so for a little while in able to actually elect a leader – a character isn’t eligible until they’ve earned your community enough influence and increased their standing to “hero” by completing quests, collecting resource rucksacks, killing zeds, and destroying plague hearts. Once a leader is elected, they cannot be removed and a new leader chosen. The leader class a character will be, however, is visible from the beginning so you can know who to exile or who to level, or who to just ignore. The game has four leader classes, each of which comes with its own abilities and version of the story line: Sheriff, Trader, Warlord, Builder. In order to beat the game, the entire storyline for the leader must be completed, which is also predicated on destroying every plague heart on the map.
Plague hearts are big, disgusting flesh sacks that are found only inside of buildings, hidden away in dark corners, which control plague zombies. There are two ways to determine the location of a plague heart – old fashioned searching, or using influence to call for help on the radio. Sometimes finding the plague hearts is easy just by exploring – you can simply drive around and find many of them. The air will be thick with a red smoke, at which point the characters will comment that the air tastes like blood. More importantly, a non stop stream of plague zombies will come from the direction of the plague heart and a large concentration of them will be right outside, as well as inside. Hearts take a significant amount of damage to destroy, and early in the game you’ll get a tip from an NPC that they are weak to fire and explosives. Typically it takes more than one stack of frag grenades, molotovs, pipe bombs, or other bombs to destroy one, although C4 will do the most damage. As you damage the plague heart, every few hits it will spawn more plague zombies to stop you. If your gun breaks or runs out of ammo or your explosives run dry, you can also hit it with your melee weapon. Whether you get killed by the plague zombies before destroying the plague heart makes them disappear is another question.
On that note, the game doesn’t seem interested in persuading you what the real threat is when it comes to enemy types. There are four specials – bloater, juggernaut, screamer, and feral. Bloaters are your Boomer types but the most important part of their attack, or death, is that they leave a large cloud of damaging, noxious gas which will have lasting effects on a character well after they return to base. Screamers have no arms and so aren’t very useful at attacking you, but they will spawn countless reinforcements until killed. Ferals are your L4D hunter types – fast moving, they pounce on you and also have very fast melee attacks. The best way to kill them is to shoot them in the head, which means catching them at the right time. Last but not least, the big fat Juggernauts have a lot of health, will charge at you, have a powerful melee swing as well as a slam attack, have a powerful charge move, and can actually grab a character and just rip them in half. Each has their weaknesses – bloaters are usually lying on the ground to ambush you and can always be effortlessly killed from range unless they just spawn on top of you; screamers are easy to sneak up on and only take one headshot to kill; ferals are fast but if you get the jump on them they take one easy headshot, and juggernauts are fast at range but easy to dodge if you let them get in close. If not, they still go down easily from explosives or a few rifle shots to the head. Best of all, special melee finishers work on all of the specials that I know of, but it wouldn’t be wise to do so on a bloater.
The real threat are the plague zombies. Although they are typically mixed in with normal zeds, the plague zombies can’t be missed – their eyes glow red, they move faster and hit harder. While normal zombies will simply damage your health bar, plague zombies will also actually infect you with the blood plague. You won’t get infected right away, no – there’s an infection meter that has to fill up first. Once it does, if you immediately escape you have about 2 hours to administer the cure to yourself or have another character do it. It isn’t generally a big deal, but if you get caught in a large group of plague zombies all hitting you at once, and somehow don’t die immediately, each hit stacks and you can end up turning into a zombie within a half hour if you don’t make it to a cure.
Similar to the first game, the core gameplay loop of State of Decay 2 is quite simple. Wander around the map gathering as much resource as you can in order to build your base up and keep your people alive. At the same time you’ll accept quests and help strangers out, which will in turn give you free loot as well as more opportunities to scavenge for stuff. Take the stuff back to your base, or sell it to a trader, rinse and repeat. While it sounds boring and repetitive on paper, the game isn’t really long enough for that — a start to finish play of one of the four storylines will take about 12 hours, less if you only do story missions.
Unfortunately, the weakest aspect of the game is its story. Each leaders storyline may differ in the path it takes to the end, but the end is always the same, resulting in the same cutscene every time with a slightly different script. You aren’t necessarily forced to make any sacrifices with one leader versus another, that would make a playthrough unique compared to another playthrough. You might choose a different base or build different stuff, but it always ends the same. The devil is in the details, which can be said for all roguelikes, but those details aren’t significant enough to lend true replayability to the game. The beginning is always the same, and the end is always the same. You even occupy a house, as your first base, that is almost entirely identical in every region.
In that department the game can be forgiven, to an extent. Being a roguelike you are pretty much better off imagining your own story, although the gameplay won’t always accommodate it. In my opening description, at the time I got a sincere The Walking Dead feeling – not the book necessarily but definitely the show. It felt like I was in an episode where the plot revolved around my character getting home with all the resources they collected, or people were going to die.
However, the game shouldn’t necessarily be forgiven for its lack of depth or innovation over the original. Your community has a soft population cap of 9 people, for example. Recruiting more than that requires a bit of finagling of the games systems, and even so, at that point you begin to run out of beds and have to sacrifice useful facilities to fit more people. As someone who didn’t finish the first game I didn’t know what to expect, but I want to be able to manage a legitimately sized community of survivors. I want a base that lets me build more than a couple of facilities – one where I don’t need to destroy my workshop in order to fit more people. The concept of sacrifice of course would indicate that you have to choose to keep those people alive instead of having utility, but with Unreal 4 and the current state of game design, not to mention by virtue of being a sequel that took 5 years to come out, the game should just be bigger. You should be able to install more than one mod to a facility.
As for what is in the game, it eventually becomes the opposite of a challenge. Certain facilities, or guns, make things laughably easy. Probably the worst example is the Trade Depot facility, which allows you to spend influence to summon one of several traders to your base. They show up, and you can spend influence to buy the most obscure facility mods as well as resource rucksacks which are 175 influence each. Assuming you figure out how to easily game the influence currency system, it’s easy to build up enough influence so that there’s never any concern whatsoever that you’ll run out of resources or that you’re wasting any.
Coming full circle with the opening, the game is also pretty glitchy even after some patches. Most of it is by design rather than mistake. For example, rocks are all over the place in every map. You can’t jump on rocks. Most of the time you can’t drive over them and they will get your car stuck. Even going full speed you still can’t drive over them most of the time. Rocks are the most telltale sign of this games archaic, antiquated world design – they prevent you from having free reign over the map. Other than the rocks, zeds will often still get stuck in walls, but the game is mostly solid.
State of Decay 2 isn’t awful – far from it. It was a thoroughly enjoyable game for the 70 hours I played in order to 100% it. It is just rather basic in its current state, and the current offering of DLC is just cosmetic or features items like melee weapons, guns, and cars. It’s only fair to say that State of Decay, in its original release state, wasn’t much different – the game wasn’t a complete package until Year One Survival Edition included all the DLC. I’m looking forward to Microsoft ownership providing Undead with the resources they need to truly expand upon and improve the game, and if anyone is reading, I wouldn’t argue about being able to find a military base with a tank, or putting guns on a car.