STAFF REVIEW of State of Decay (Xbox 360 Arcade)

Monday, June 17, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

State of Decay Box art What is it about zombies that keep us coming back for more? They've plagued Hollywood for over half a century, and infested videogames for so long now that not even having a game mode named after them was enough, now they even have a recurring bi-annual role in the biggest videogame franchise of all time (i.e. Call of Duty, for the hermits among you). Yet we never seem to get sick of them, especially we videogamers. We just crave more and more games with zombies, much like zombies hunger after human brains. And if we didn’t need more proof of this obsession, consider this. In the week preceding 1) the most important Electronic Entertainment Expo to take place in nearly a decade (in which TWO NEXT GENERATION consoles from Microsoft and Sony were announced head to head); and 2) The release of the long awaited and most-eagerly-anticipated film reboot of Superman; a small, unproven studio named Undead Labs released a tiny little game about zombies exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade, and instead of getting buried in a mountain of E3/Superman hype, the game sells over 250,000 copies in its first two days, making it the second-fastest selling XBLA game behind Minecraft. That's a lot of zombie love. So, does Undead Labs' tiny little game, State of Decay, deserve it?

State of Decay places you in control of a group of survivors during the first few weeks of a zombie (a.k.a. "Zed") apocalypse and challenges you with the multifaceted task of forming a functional community and keeping as many of its members alive as you can for as long as possible. Don't mistake it for a snooty, detached God-game simulation however, as the gameplay is firmly rooted in third-person and action-adventure, with surprisingly deep RPG-style progression systems, resource management elements and unforgiving persistent-world forces churning underneath its seemingly conventional surface. Players will immediately (yes, immediately) start off smashing zombie skulls as a single character, Marcus, one of two hapless accountants from the city who chose to take a two-week camping and fishing trip together in the wilderness at the worst possible time (read into it what you will). As you come across other survivors and earn their trust by completing missions and performing other acts of heroism, you'll form bonds of friendship with many other NPCs (but not all) and be able to control and switch between them, provided they are not hurt, tired, sick, missing, or currently engaged in a mission themselves. As one can imagine however, such friendships can prove incredibly fragile in the face of an apocalypse and mean next to nothing unless they are consistently backed up by deeds, which will earn the player enough Influence Points (the game's currency) needed to maintain stability and order within their Home Camp as well as gain trust and forge trade alliances with other survivor enclaves.

The absolute tension-and-frustration-filled joy of State of Decay is how it constantly overwhelms you with tasks, many of them urgent and time sensitive, all while simultaneously forcing you to manage the immediate health and resources of not only the character you are currently controlling but also those of your Home Camp, including the overall maintenance of your base as well as the relationships brewing within it, all while chaos encroaches from all around, both in the physical form of bloodthirsty zombies but also via the fear and panic that their contagion spreads among your community. How will you play? Will you be the uncompromising guardian who puts the immediate safety of his or her camp above all else, escort your supply runners on nearly every mission, build your outposts close to your camp to better form an immediate line of defense against the Zeds, and ignore calls for assistance from other camps unless absolutely necessary? Will you be the lone wolf who better serves his or her community by venturing out further and further into the Zed-infested wilds, scouting out potentially better places for your camp to relocate to and uncovering more plentiful caches of food, weapons, building materials and medicines for your runners to scavenge, but also exposing your camp to more risk due to taking on more dangerous missions and providing them with less protection? Or will you be the negotiator that reaches out to other camps and creates supply chains to better keep your resources stocked - in exchange for risking life and limb for your neighbours as well as your own people?

Chances are, you'll be forced to organically fluctuate between all three, as State of Decay will throw monkey wrenches into your plans nearly every five minutes that will make almost any decision a big risk, even when you think things have stabilized for a moment. One of your key survivors might snap from fear of a nearby zombie infestation and run away or go missing, or embark on a foolhardy hunting mission by themselves, either way compelling you to go after them or risk losing them (and the valuable weapons, food and medicines you yourself outfitted them with when you last controlled them). If they come back on their own, you can at least expect them to bear a grudge that will further erode your influence, or worse, to have sustained an injury or health status that will keep them sidelined and unplayable for significant amount of time, or perhaps even become hostile towards other members in the camp. A lone supply runner will occasionally get ambushed by zombie hordes and require immediate assistance, which may cause players to delay their immediate plans to ensure that the runner (and the much-needed supplies he or she is carrying) make it home base safely. And sometimes, passing zombie hordes or special zombies will randomly show up in the midst of a seemingly routine mission, the proverbial shit hits the fan, and people die (and when characters die, it's perma-death, so there's no coming back for them). One of the most devastating moments in the game for me was when Marcus, who I'd been using since the very beginning, fell to a surprise attack by Feral Zombie. Already low on health and stamina after clearing a house infested with Zeds, he was gruesomely ripped apart and died instantly. The consequences were grave, as it was still early in the game and I had not earned enough trust from the camp of survivors that had taken Marcus and his friends in. With one of Marcus' friends gravely ill and in need of a skilled doctor, I only had one other playable character available to me, and until I was able to complete a difficult mission to acquire the doctor's help, all the duties of maintaining the camp rested on her shoulders. I was even further devastated when in my focus to keep my one lone character alive and help return the other back to health, I ignored the calls for help from an enclave of survivors in town for too long and was abruptly informed by radio that they had been overrun by Zeds. Those survivors could have potentially joined my group and become playable characters!

Of course, there will be plenty of opportunities for players to recruit (and lose) new survivors in State of Decay, and while the majority of them appear to be palette swaps with different apparel and hairstyles, a number of them are unique characters with interesting backgrounds to uncover and stories to tell, and they are all voice-acted excellently. Expect to hear many of the same lines of dialogue during the more mundane portions of the game, but when you encounter a new character that starts telling you a tale of how they came to be in their current predicament, you'll want to stop in a safe place and listen to their story, because they are always genuinely interesting and likely won't be repeated again. A chilling score by veteran game soundtrack composer Jesper Kyd (Hitman, Assassin's Creed) also nails the oppressive atmosphere of State of Decay perfectly, and he has even injected a catchy, heart- warming, banjo-strumming theme that accompanies the more peaceful moments around home base with delicious irony. As for the visuals, they get the job done, striking an even balance between Telltale Game's comic-book art-inspired The Walking Dead and Left 4 Dead 2's no frills look, sacrificing visual fidelity for State of Decay's much larger open-world and scope.

But for all this praise, developer Undead Labs has also earned a BIG slap on the wrist, as there are a numerous amount of flaws, ranging from technical issues to game design, that stop State of Decay just short of being excellent. While quite enjoyable overall, State of Decay barely squeaks by from a quality-assurance level and requires a good deal of improvement (which Undead Labs is promising to address with an upcoming patch, but such updates cannot be taken into account for this review). One particularly annoying bug in the game causes the notification "Too Many Infestations" to appear every few minutes and penalizes the player -5 Influence points each time even though there are no house infestations anywhere in the area, which in turn causes members of your camp to run away and go missing with increasing frequency. While not rendering the game unplayable, it comes pretty close, as it will often leave players shorthanded unless they immediately venture out to find their missing comrades, and more often than not as soon as you’ve returned to your homestead another one or two will have disappeared. And thanks to the game’s simulated offline persistence, you may even load up your last save the following day to learn that yet another one of your comrades has gone off the reservation or is already dead. A second common bug stops NPCs that are on watchtower duty from properly standing watch and shooting invading zombies with a rifle once the watchtower has been upgraded, making your base more vulnerable to passing zombies and hordes. NPCs and Zeds clipping through walls, rugsacks of fallen allies glitching through large objects in the environment and thus becoming impossible to you to pick up and occasional screen tears and glitches round out the list. It’s unfathomable how bugs like these managed to slip by Undead Labs’ QA, and while the game is still unmistakably fun even when taking them into account, the extra amount of time one will have to spend working around the “Too Many Infestations” bug alone is something that many gamers will find unacceptable. The game needs to be patched, and fast.

Another couple of obstacles to gameplay in State of Decay are the game's U.I. tutorials and the Resource Management menu (a.k.a. "The Journal", accessed by pressing UP on the D-pad). As mentioned earlier in the review, State of Decay throws you right into the combat mix after an optional "How to Play" summary right before the game begins, and then parses out a few tips as to how to fight and avoid the Zeds as you encounter them for the first time, but there is actually an entire move list and weapon specialization system that gradually becomes crucial in keeping characters alive once the player starts to encounter zombie hordes and special zombies (such as Ferals and Big Bastards), and even at 10+ hours into the game not a single new move was introduced or explained. I myself only learned of these moves after being tipped off to the above online FAQ by my brother, who began playing the game at same time as me. It's understandable that Undead Labs may have been going for a "roguelike", Dark Souls-sort of mischievousness by expecting the player to "just figure things out" on their own, but even Dark Souls had the kindness to teach players all the key combat actions during the tutorial, and provided instructions on how to perform more complex actions via the in-game menu. In State of Decay, knowing the game’s more advanced actions or being able to learn them quickly is the difference between life and perma-death. As the game industry as a whole moves closer and closer towards a future of only-digital downloads and in-game only manuals, clear and complete instructions as to how to properly play a game will become a make-or-break feature. But for now, State of Decay gets the benefit of the doubt, largely thanks to the “online meta-gaminess” that is currently accepted thanks to games like Dark Souls, not because the game has fully earned it (though to be fair, the game gives players constant reminders at the start menu screen and during its optional tutorial to join its online community, and if you have the online access to purchase and download the game from XBLA, then you also probably have the means to go online and read a FAQ, just like with Dark Souls).
A more concrete problem is that the game's resource management menu is clunky, visually confusing, and is even so intrusive that it consumes entire right side of the screen, often covering up important information updates that appear in the top right corner, so players will find themselves constantly jumping out of the journal in response to audio cues just to make sure they don’t miss important updates. An additional, related annoyance is that while weapons can be reloaded with spare ammo while in aim mode, they cannot be switched on the fly when they run out of bullets, nor can a broken melee weapon be swapped with a different one if the character happens to be carrying a second. Weapons can only be equipped via the Journal, which does not pause or slow down the action when open, so players must be able nimble-fingered and highly observant when accessing weapons or managing inventory in battle, or otherwise ensure that they are well clear of danger before opening the menu. Case in point, one very tense siege mission early in the game with the Wilkerson Brothers (tenuous allies of my Home Camp), went disastrously wrong when in the middle of battle I hurriedly attempted to offload my empty weapons in their storage locker and replace them with better ones more appropriate for the task at hand. It turned out that in my haste I hadn't noticed that my Influence level with the Wilkerson's was much lower than with my Home Camp, which meant that everything in the locker cost more Influence points to buy or buy back, leaving me broke and gun-less to face a gruesome death alongside the Wilkersons at the hands of a Zombie horde -- or at least, it would have had I not turned the console off and restarted from the last checkpoint.

Finally, on a more aesthetic level, poor logic elements in State of Decay's game design keep reminding the player that he or she is playing a game, thus spoiling the otherwise immersive atmosphere that the game creates so well. For example, runners that you send to scavenge a building miles away from home will always choose to go alone and on foot, even if there are three cars parked right outside your base and another ally is available to assist them. Rescuees will sometimes run off for no reason and cause a rescue mission to fail simply because you decided to search the house they were hiding in for resources rather than taking them straight home, yet during another rescue mission they’ll thank you for saving them and then run off on their own without need for an escort, and the mission will be a success. Then there’s the never explained reason as to why you can't swap or share weapons, ammo or items with a trusted ally that’s standing right next to you (à la Resident Evil 5), or share the load of a scavenge with the same person should you come across a cache of much needed items while on a different mission…why so much restriction in a game that places a high priority on simulation and resource management? And sometimes it's simply because State of Decay is a game, a game in which players can be swarmed and bitten by zombies several times or watch the same happen to their allies for several minutes before stepping in to rescue them, yet neither character will get infected unless it is a pre-determined element of the game's story. Of course, a one-bite, one-perma-death open-world game would probably be much more frustrating, and a game that pulls players in so many directions at once and forces them to prioritize so often needs to be forgiving, but that doesn't change the fact that State of Decay does very little to hide its "gaminess", a conceit that occasionally saps the tension out of some of its randomly generated encounters, and a great deal of realism out of its simulation aspects.

In conclusion, State of Decay is a refreshingly enjoyable and surprisingly deep post-apocalyptic romp that delivers strongly on the survivalist-horror RPG experience that it is trying to achieve, but is held back by a number of near- unforgivable bugs, U.I. and gameplay issues. It’s so much fun that you’ll find yourself wishing you could overlook the game’s problems, but much like a zombie infestation, they eventually come together to contaminate the entire experience, and that’s why State of Decay merits only a 7.0 in its current form. Without these issues, the game easily could have been an 8.0 or better. Players who are eager to pick this game up are best advised to wait until the “Title Update 1” patch has been released.

1) Squash those bugs, bugs, bugs! A longer QA process would have resulted in a far more polished and playable game.
2)Allow players to swap and share items with members of their own camp when they are on a mission together, or at least let them carry a rucksack in addition to yours so that you can save time and don't have to call in yet another runner from your Home Camp.
3) Provide a complete, in-game FAQ in the next or subsequent patch.

(Please Note: This review is based on the original version of the game that was made available for purchase on Xbox Live Arcade on June 5th, 2013.)

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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