Things are not going well for me in the zombie apocalypse. A walker the size of a wrecking ball just blew up my car, for starters, shrugging off the resulting explosion as though it were a faint tickle against his rotting flesh. Then there’s the fact that everything’s on fire now, including myself. Oh, and all my friends are dead too. Just another day in undead paradise, I suppose.
Despite the unravelling bloodshed, I’m having a lot of fun, and that’s State of Decay 2 in a nutshell. It’s violent, tense, unrelenting, and thoroughly dystopian, but what a treat to have a zombie survival sim that’s so entertaining in its depiction of a world gone wrong.
“In order for it to be a survival game, you should always make the player feel like something could go wrong at any point in time”, explains Design Director Richard Foge of Undead Labs, the studio which has returned to work on the sequel to its 2013 Xbox Arcade hit.
“We got a lot of feedback on the first game, and folks who had been playing it a really long time found that it began to get really easy, to the point where the first DLC introduced an increased difficulty mode. So we wanted to find that line between challenge and reward [with the sequel], and try to ride it for as long as we could, as well as being reactive to how players are different.”
If my three hour preview of the game is anything to by, I’d say State of Decay 2 is well on its way to hitting both of those goals with aplomb. During my time in the game’s fictional depiction of rural America, I let four of my procedurally generated protagonists succumb to the gnashing of zombie hordes, failed to keep up community morale at my home settlement, and was even forced to ‘euthanize’ (i.e. shoot) one of my followers after they got infected with the virus. The only silver lining was that I managed to pry any useful loot from his still warm corpse, but I didn’t feel great about the whole thing.
So the ‘survival’ part of State of Decay 2’s zombie survival sim is definitely alive and well, and if you enjoyed the original, then that news is probably music to your ears. But what’s different about Undead Labs’ sequel, now that the studio is able to make use of the deserved uptick in support (a.k.a. money) from Microsoft Studios?
Well, for one thing, the game finally looks the part, with its hued, verdant depiction of small town America really setting the scene for an apocalypse that’s as mesmerising as it is deadly, especially when running in 4K on PC or the Xbox One X. I experienced a few drops in frame-rate when several zombies were cascading the screen at once, but - in all noticeable respects - this is a far more polished product than the original State of Decay, and players can now enjoy the journey without fear for any immersion-breaking bumps in the road.
Drop dead gorgeous
“A big inspiration for building this world was where I grew up as a kid, in a rural town outside of Seattle” says Doug Williams, the Art Director on State of Decay 2. “Recreating that small town vibe was important, while other sources were things like Dawn of the Dead; I think that movie has a real feel to it, it’s not flashy, and that’s the same style we wanted to bring to this.”
“But the biggest muse for me has always been Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The cinematography in that film is so beautiful that it almost doesn’t feel like it belongs in a horror movie, and so we tried to capture that for the game too, by creating a place that felt beautiful. It sort of betrays the idea of the traditional zombie apocalypse.”
There’s no denying that beauty, especially when compared to the original game’s janky, rough edges and technical shortcomings, but the most exciting new feature for many will be State of Decay 2’s capacity for seamless online co-op, in which a survival party of up to four players can fight, explore, scavenge, and level up together freely in the open world. And, as you’d hope for, it was when playing with others during my preview where the game began to throw up apocalypse flavoured entertainment by the bucket-load.
You can collectively role-play the experience if you like, scouring abandoned homes and building up a community as though it were an episode of The Walking Dead... or you can indulge in the kind of open world shenanigans reminiscent of another recently released co-op game, Far Cry 5. Me and my partner mostly opted for the latter, riding doughnut rings around the undead in a police car and calling in airstrikes wherever possible, because airstrikes are cool.
Base building and resource management also play an expanded role, which is where State of Decay 2 will be able to keep up its shelf life as a replayable, longer-lasting experience. Each settlement you establish can be upgraded and built up as you bring back more survivors and resources from your travels, which in turn rewards you with better services like more effective med bays or fully operational farms that can generate sustainable crops.
Much like with the original game, these settlements act like pit stops for the weary traveller, where players can switch between characters, recover from illness, stock up on supplies, and generally enjoy a place of respite from the dangers outside, though they’re not immune to the odd zombie attack every now and again.
Death by numbers
That said, survival game fatigue is a real side effect for titles that don’t do enough to avoid the cliched trappings of busywork that the genre is infamous for, and I’m not yet totally confident that State of Decay 2 can rise above those temptations to overload the player with life-or-death scenarios. My settlements were constantly asking for more food, resources, and morale boosts, and it felt as though I couldn’t keep up with their demands unless all my time was devoted to obsessive scavenging and ruthless micro-management.
That’s because there are a lot of systems at play in State of Decay 2, and it’s not hard to imagine this complex juggling act of staying alive being a turn off point for those who prefer their zombie games delivered with heapings of instant gratification.
Granted, I was playing a preview build set during the later portions of the game, and Undead Labs promise that the opening chapters will do more to ease players into its bespoke survival rhythms, but it’s important to note that the management sim aspect of State of Decay has been amplified as much as its action-adventure spirit for the sequel.
There’s no doubt that this multi-layered approach will appeal to those with a taste for the tactical, and you’ve got to admire Undead’s commitment to a big budget survival game that refuses to pull any punches; it’s just wise to know what you’re getting into when State to Decay 2 releases next month.
Mind you, even if you are struggling to stay on top of the food chain, like my poor, hapless survivor who never escaped that aforementioned encounter with the walking wrecking ball, it’s hard to complain when the world around you is this eye-pleasing, and the zombies within it are more fearsome than ever.