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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

State of Decay


By on 6:23 AM

State of Decay certainly doesn't waste any time. Mere seconds past the Start screen, it throws you headlong into a zombie apocalypse in full bloom. Tree branch in hand, you clobber the shambling corpses attempting to munch on your screaming camping buddy, and then seek out the few remaining survivors while scrounging for supplies, weapons, and ever-safer home bases. That's just the first 20 minutes, but the core of State of Decay's gameplay never changes as you make your way through its open world and battle an endless cast of zombies. State of Decay finds its soul in the dreary repetition of apocalyptic survival.

State of Decay's open world manages a substantial degree of immersion, complete with an expansive and occasionally intimidating map and the ability to drive cars freely across the landscape. The cars handle poorly, but the ability to use them to mow down roving zombie swarms offers a malicious satisfaction. Yet this isn't some zombie free-for-all; far from it. In developer Undead Labs' impressive first effort, melee weapons break with frightening ease, ammo runs out quickly, silencers break in the midst of careful attempts at stealth sniping, and even vehicles run out of gas unless refueled. There's a heavy dose of "the real" here, and the game is better for it.
You thus quickly learn to fight zombies only if you absolutely have to in State of Decay, and therein lies much of its appeal. This is not a game about Bruce Campbell badassing about in Evil Dead; it's a celebration of the normal person and all of his or her associated weaknesses. Some of the characters you come across (and can befriend and thus control, if you perform enough tasks for them) have no combat experience at all; they're cooks and gaming buffs, and only through taking them out in the world against the undead hordes can you max out their stats in areas like cardio and shooting to their full seven levels.







Some befriend you easily; others are outright hostile in their worry that bringing in another mouth to feed only weakens your group's strength. Still, there's enough variety among them to warrant answering almost every cry for help you encounter either through your home base's radio or while roving the land. Ignore a plea, and you'll never know if you missed out on finding a world-class zombie killer or even someone who's just witty enough to keep the morale of your home base up.
Just don't get too attached. Death is permanent in State of Decay, which means that even characters with fully voiced storylines and unique dialogue die forever if you let them get overrun. From there, you can only continue through the eyes of another character you've befriended. Because death is permanent, you spend much of the game not in combat but in the more suspenseful act of slinking through bushes on foot. Indeed, every action carries with it the threat of fatal zombie attraction, such as choosing to ram your way through a locked door or even speeding up your usually slow searches through cabinets and bags with a click of the left bumper.




Few things add more tension to State of Decay than the terrifying noise guns make, because a single foolish shot can bring an unmanageable horde upon you. And if your character doesn't have the cardio to outrun them? You'll watch helplessly as the zombies rip his legs from his torso. Unfortunately, considering that there are a host of bugs in State of Decay that make zombies pop up out of nowhere or even send them straight through walls, it's possible that will happen anyway despite your most careful efforts.
Permanent death is a smart addition, though, since losing characters with high skills across the board carries with it a real sense of loss, particularly if their voice quests and customized responses in some quests led you to believe they were an essential (and thus effectively immortal) character. Sometimes they don't even have to die in the field; if a character you've been controlling sustains enough injuries--a few undead chomps don't result in instant zombification in State of Decay--he'll lie bedridden and useless at your home base. The good news is that the need to rest and switch out characters results in you amassing a balanced group of playable characters anyway; the bad news is that the process isn't explained very well, as with so many of State of Decay's essential systems.
You're never told, for instance, that the supplies you place in your home base's storage to earn reputation (essentially State of Decay's currency) may vanish forever, especially if you log out and return to play several hours later. That's right--the world of State of Decay keeps going even if you're not in it. You're never told about the importance of items like coffee, and you're never warned that prolonged absence from the game can leave the morale of your home base so low that key non-player characters start committing suicide out of despair. For the most part, State of Decay maintains the harrowing lack of direction of its first few minutes throughout the entire game, and that lack of hand-holding means that you'll likely lose more characters than you anticipated as you play.



It's also strange that a game that places such a heavy emphasis on interpersonal relationships should have no cooperative mode. You spend your time with State of Decay alone, joining up with other NPCs only for specialized quests and escort missions that bring other survivors back to your current base camp. It's especially odd since State of Decay starts out with a party of two, suggesting that you'll always have a buddy at your side if need be. While the decision undeniably adds tension to the act of exploration, such solo forays seem foolish considering the circumstances, and the experience may have been better if Undead Labs had let you choose whether or not you wanted a friendly NPC with you as you explored rather than forcing you to go without.
State of Decay serves up a near constant barrage of suspense and immersion that leaves even the briefest jaunts away from your home base tinged with the threat of death. Fair warning: it ends too abruptly with an all-too-obvious nod toward downloadable content or a sequel (perhaps, rumors say, in massively multiplayer online role-playing game form), but an option to return to your latest save file ensures that you can continue foraging for as long as you like. And you should. Its flaws are numerous and impossible to ignore, but in spite of them, State of Decay is a captivating survival adventure set in a bleak and harrowing world.

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