They make surviving the zombie apocalypse look so easy in The Walking Dead. Kill the reanimated corpses, look after (most of) the living, scavenge for food, and don’t piss off that fella with the baseball bat. Rick Grimes might look a little grumpy every now and again, but he’s practically living on cloud nine compared to what players will be put through in State of Decay 2, where staying alive is the least of your concerns in a visually rich but mechanically austere world that refuses to give you a single inch in your struggles to stay top of the food chain. It’s the kind of game where a difficult choice lies around every corner; either that, or a horde of ravenous zombies. Perhaps both. Either way, neither scenario is likely to end particularly well for you.
The first decision you’ll have to make in State of Decay 2 is which duo of randomly named characters you want to start off as, each bearing their own stats and upgradable skill trees affecting things like stamina, strength, and firearm proficiency. These will be the founding members of your community, and while they determine minor things like the dialogue during the opening tutorial mission, it’s best not to think of them as anything close to a main protagonist.
Once you’re let loose in the first of three open world maps, you’re welcome to recruit and switch between an ensemble cast of procedurally generated followers, but every survivor is expendable. You let them die, and that’s it for that character, so try not to get too attached. Your community will have its own overarching quest line, and completing these objectives are the best way to learn the ropes of State of Decay 2’s more sophisticated take on the zombie game. You’ll have to locate and establish your first settlement, recruit new followers to your community, and find enough food, medicine, and materials to keep everyone happy and fit to work.
Unfortunately, that requires going out into the zombified plains of the eerily picturesque rural American landscape to scavenge for resources, make friends (or enemies) with neighbouring communities, and claim new outposts across the region. This struggle to make a life for yourself in a dying world is State of Decay 2’s core gameplay loop, and it feels as addictive to play as ever, now with the added bonus of a faster, flashier game engine to play it in.
Getting to upgrade and expand your settlements is the reward for all of this work out in the field, which is an equally enjoyable pastime that feels a bit like playing a miniaturized version of SimCity. As you gather more materials, you’re able to craft new facilities like Infirmaries or Workshops to improve the quality of life at the settlement and give you access to extra services and tools.
You’re also tasked with keeping an eye on your community’s morale, health, and safety, and it's here where newcomers may find State of Decay 2’s survival systems to be especially exhausting. Fail to keep up with a community's demands, and the game will start pulling you in multiple directions at once, insisting you satisfy a nebulous progression checklist at the expense of teaching the finer details in its spaghetti bowl of interweaving systems.
The intensity does ease up as you progress and your community establishes itself as a more sustainable colony, but the early hours don't leave much room for stopping and smelling the roses of State of Decay 2’s scenery when new developments back home so often demand your attention. If Undead Labs is making a point about the futility of leadership during the end times, then point taken, but maintaining a healthy community occasionally feels more like a full time job than a satisfying cycle of risk and reward.
Fighting to survive
For those expecting a more advanced combat system above the mindless whacking and bashing of the first game, you’re only going to be mildly satisfied. The new and improved game engine does make fights feel more fluid and frenzied, and the shooting mechanics are reliably solid.
But you’ll still often find yourself mashing the melee button to get out of a sticky situation, and there’s no real skill to it other than dodging to avoid lunges or finishing foes with a powerful ground attack. The suitably gory kill animations, however, are an endlessly satisfying guilty pleasure, and top marks can be awarded to Undead Labs for some of the best undead head explosions you could hope for in a video game.
So humanity’s fighting skills haven’t drastically evolved over the last 18 months since the first game was set, but the zombies are stronger than ever. In addition to the fact that other groups of survivors are now a potential threat should you rub them up the wrong way, a new strain of the virus known as Blood Plague has reinfected the infected (yes, really), turning many of the Romero-style shufflers into faster, red-eyed variants of their former selves.
Even the zombies who aren’t standard Blood Plague carriers come in a bunch of different shapes and sizes, from zeds clad in military armour to the walking zombie dinner bell that is the Screamer. They’re not exactly the most original enemy archetypes (we’ve all fought undead Bloaters and Juggernauts a million times before), but they at least bring more tension to skirmishes when you know that the prospect of finite death is a perpetually looming threat.
And death really is the secret sauce that compels you to keep playing State of Decay 2’s fusion of action combat and management simulation. The persistent offline worlds of the first game might be gone (which is probably for the best), but this is still a roguelike experience where every demise brings its own set of consequences. It raises the stakes, and leads to all sorts of fascinating gameplay moments.
You might be defending your settlement from a zombie attack, for example, only to realise that one of the unwelcome guests is the reanimated corpse of your former friend. Or perhaps you’ll be forced to euthanize (a.k.a. shoot) an infected community member in order to conserve what's left of your meds and save the community at large. The memories you make for yourself will almost never be tales of sunshine and rainbows, but they remain the thrilling highlight of State of Decay 2’s unique approach to sandbox storytelling.
Strength in numbers
These deliciously dark micro-narratives are even more enjoyable when playing online via State of Decay 2’s new co-op mode, too, in which players can join each other’s games in squads of up to four and survive the virtual doomsday together. Having an extra human hand to help you out does ease the burden of the game’s uncompromising difficulty, and generally livens up every activity you engage in throughout the world. It’s not the essential way to play State of Decay 2, and some may even prefer having more control of their world in single-player, but co-op is nonetheless a great addition that Undead Labs was savvy to include for the sequel.
State of Decay 2 is a survival sim that asks every “what if?” question that you might have had about living in the zombie apocalypse and, better yet, challenges you with answering most of them yourself. The state of things hasn’t changed too much over the original State of Decay, aside from the notably upgraded visuals and the smart inclusion of online co-op play, but developer Undead Labs has astutely avoided overreach in favour of doubling down and amplifying the game’s strengths as a purist survival sandbox.
Zombie fatigue in popular culture can sometimes feel as widespread a disease as the blood plague itself, but by sticking to its guns and delivering on a smarter breed of zombie game, State of Decay 2 is a potent reminder of why the undead continue to be such a rich source for interactive entertainment.