State of Decay Review20 Nov 2013  by
This State of Decay review is dedicated to Marcus Campbell. He was with me from the very start, bashing in zombie heads and doing supply runs at midnight no matter how fatigued he felt or how many other people were just standing around doing nothing. He’d put himself out there for anyone, solving building issues and relationship meltdowns even if he was bleeding profusely from several zombie bites. You could rely on Marcus. Marcus was the man.
Marcus died in the final mission, while trying to lead my rag-tag band of emotionally stunted misfits out of Trumbull County. He was quite literally ripped in two by a feral zombie and his entrails were spread across the landscape of the Pacific Northwest for all to see. RIP big man. You were the greatest.
State of Decay is a delightfully janky game, with a few less delightful PC optimisation issues (more on that later); but god damn does it make you care about some of the survivors you control. The characters are written with the broadest of strokes, defined largely by their starting skills and profession, so it’s not an attachment that stems from pre-written backstory or even through the limited dialogue exchanges. They only begin to become truly distinct once the player has used them on a few missions. Now they have a history. Now they have life.
It wasn’t Marcus’ background as a clerk who loves hiking that made him such a loss in that last mission. That all came from his in-game actions. The times where he’d narrowly made it home after clearing out a nearby zombie infestation on State of Decay’s open world map. Or personally rammed through multiple zombie hordes in a pick-up truck as they were encroaching on the community home. I’d also lost my best fighter. The man who’d levelled up his fighting, cardio and weapon specialisation skills the furthest. How would the group make it out now?
So many zombie-based games are just extra fodder for the argument that the theme is played out. State of Decay manages to make it seem relevant again, by combining a sense of community survival with open world scavenging and the near-continuous, urgent, pressing need to prioritise actions.
Games often yell at you about all the lovely sub-quests you should be doing. Anyone who’s played Batman: Arkham City or a recent Assassin’s Creed title will know that you can barely take a couple of steps in their worlds without a pop-up shouting at you to help save an orphan or collect a flag. State of Decay takes a similar approach, but does more with it.
You’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Bad things are happening everywhere, all at once, so it makes sense for players to have about five choices of activity at any given time. It also makes sense for those missions to “time out” when the situation has resolved, or gone out of control. That’s what State of Decay does, and (up to a point) it’s a terrific method of pushing the player to make priority decisions about which plates to keep spinning. Completionists and those who prefer a slower-paced world will find it infuriating, but as mechanical decision it’s thematically appropriate and succeeds in keeping the player under pressure.
There are a couple of areas where it’s less successful. The game pulls the player’s attention in three different directions at once; there’s the need to maintain the community (through finding supplies, adding new members, keeping existing ones happy,) the gaming incentive to advance the main story through specific missions, and the innate desire to explore the map. Of those three demands, general exploration tends to lose out and mostly occurs as a by-product of the other two. If you want to go hiking across every inch of State of Decay’s world, that means ignoring other tasks, and that, in turn, means hits to morale, loss of supplies and (if you leave it long enough) more dire consequences.
That kind of exploration is best left until you’ve finished the game, and it reloads your save to just before the point of no return.
Some of the mission-types can also begin to feel a little superfluous and more like busywork than an actual activity you’d wish to pursue. The idea behind having to reassure scared or angry community members is a solid one, but in practice this just involves wandering off to a nearby house and killing some zombies with them for a bit.
After a few of these events, they begin to seem all too similar to clearing out infestations (which also involve wandering to a house and killing all the zombies, but has the useful side-effect of keeping your neighbourhood safer.) The concept of a frightened survivor doesn’t quite gel with the execution. Especially if, like me, you set the person in question on fire during the mission with a stray molotov and he still ends up claiming to feel good about the time we spent together. Maybe he was just too scared and on fire to complain any more.
Some of the story-centric missions tend to fizzle out a bit too. One promising set-up involving a Courthouse and martial law in one of the game’s three main urban areas doesn’t really go anywhere and ends in a manner that suggests the developers had more ideas for that narrative branch, but not enough time to implement them. Others reach a more satisfactory conclusion, but the greatest thrills generally come from the day-to-day scavenging runs and hectic efforts to deal with as many urgent tasks as possible before your character collapses from exhaustion (whereupon you can switch to another one and carry on.)
In State of Decay, life (or unlife) continues even when you’re not actively playing. When you load your profile back up, you may find that your AI colleagues have gone on supply runs (hooray,) cleaned the kitchen (excellent,) or, somewhat less helpfully, eaten mouldy meat and contracted food poisoning (god damnit.) This semi-random element only occurs up to a point; logging back in after two days didn’t seem to be hugely different in terms of events to logging in after less than 24 hours, for example. It further enforces the idea that you can’t handle everything yourself and that certain situations will be out of your hands, but taking away player agency in this manner isn’t entirely welcome.
Let’s go back to that jankiness I mentioned all the way back up there. This is mostly of the harmless kind, like dubious animations, zombies clipping through walls and floors, bizarre AI pathfinding behaviour, strange camera angles, that sort of thing. It may annoy you to varying degrees, but more often than not just leads to amusing episodes like a man repeatedly leaping back and forth across a wall because he’s confused about his destination.
Death is meaningful in the game, but it’s also rare. The zombie hordes only pose a major threat if you find yourself unable to leg it back to a nearby car (abandoning a mission, perhaps, but keeping yourself alive) or have lost the ability to mash the “hit zombies please” button. It’s the special ones, like Big ‘Uns and Ferals that can do the damage. The point being, the wonkiness alone should rarely get you killed.
PC optimisation and bugs are rather more problematic. My machine is either on par (processor) or well above (everything else) the recommended specs on the Steam store page, but frame-rate sluggishness and stutters were present even with the graphics set to medium. Annoyingly, you can’t do much beyond switching between the four default settings, so there’s no chance to hunt for the specific aspect (draw distance, shadows, whatever) that might be causing a problem. It was playable, but not smooth. The levels of bloom present were also pretty excessive, until I toned them down with a handy mod.
Keyboard controls can’t be rebound at the moment, but are otherwise functional enough. Mouse aiming still feels weirdly similar to aiming with a controller, which is presumably some sort of input or acceleration issue. These continuing optimisation issues are regrettable, so if you’re a frame-rate purist or can’t stand titles which under-perform on your rig, you should probably steer clear.
Bug-wise, I’ve had mission-critical firecrackers magically vanish because my inventory was full when the NPC was handing them to me and prompts for talking/stashing items completely disappear leaving me unable to do either. Not great, but a reload solved the latter problem.
Lots to complain about, then, but I think State of Decay has something going for it that supercedes a lot of these problems. Many of the game’s ideas have a reach that extends their actual implementation in some way, but the central conceit of keeping together a base of survivors works as intended. Social interaction between the community members is inconsistent, but the attachment that can develop between the player and a favourite set of characters is genuine. While the main story missions are also of a mixed quality, the regular scavenging trips that you’re forced into are, to a greater extent, what will write the game’s narrative for you.
Like any savvy group of survivors, State of Decay uses the resources it has at its disposal in a smart, economical way. At times that means supplies are stretched thinner than they should be and those moments aren’t always pretty, but the strength of the game’s core sees it pull through time and again. Just like Marcus. RIP, man. RIP.