With the release date for State of Decay 2 (opens in new tab) finally set for May 23 after years of quiet development, I decided to revisit the original. I installed the game, played for a while (I had already finished the vanilla campaign back in 2013), and concluded that this is definitely still the best zombie game (opens in new tab) ever. Yes, I know that article makes a different choice for No. 1. Let me clarify that I'm not saying State of Decay (opens in new tab) is the best game with zombies in it. What I mean is that State of Decay is the best-ever interactive answer to the question of "What would you do in the zombie apocalypse?"
And not just because it offers the most realistic answer to that question, which is "Die." Though that is the first reason.
Losing people is part of the game
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Yeah, zombie games kill characters off quite frequently. If you meet somebody in Resident Evil who isn't Ada Wong or Wesker, there are pretty good odds that they'll be a lurching ghoul the next time you see them. Even playable characters are subject to grisly death scenes when you do something wrong... but then you can just reload your last save. State of Decay doesn't let you off the hook when you make a bad call. I knew I was in a different kind of zombie game when the character I'd been playing since the tutorial - a courageous office clerk with a pumped-up fighting skill - was literally torn in half before my eyes.
No "Game Over, Try Again?" screen. State of Decay auto-saved as my favorite character was devoured. Then it was time to take control of a new hero/sacrificial lamb from the camp of survivors he'd gathered and start picking up the pieces. Admittedly, not all the deaths in State of Decay will leave you questioning your judgment; often they're anticlimactic and just make you curse your allies' AI. But that fits with the genre! Some people die dramatically, and others just die, you know? More than any game where you know your character is going to live at least long enough to make it to the final cutscene, State of Decay works as a true zombie survival (and non-survival) story.
Zombie hordes are a real threat
Zombies typically replace robots and faceless soldiers as the endless mooks you clear out on the path to a true challenge. At first, State of Decay feels similar. One zombie's no problem. A half-dozen are tricky, but you can still prevail as long as you're careful. Several dozen? Your ammo's spent, your baseball bat's broken, and you're in trouble. Doesn't matter how much of a Badass Action Hero you are - the war of attrition is still one you're ultimately going to lose.
State of Decay makes zombies frightening by focusing on the true threat of an undead apocalypse: every day, there are more of them. Eventually you accept that you can't fight them all, and you learn to live amongst the dead. First you creep everywhere, then you get a feel for when you can afford to alert a few zombies as long as you lose them around the next corner, then you take up the subtle art of horde wrangling. You never lose your awful respect for the undead, though, because you know how quickly it can all fall apart if you get sloppy.
Scavenging is a way of life
Lots of video games have scavenging. You break into a building and look around for useful items: weapons, healing items, building materials. Then you head back home and craft it all up into gear that makes you more powerful. In State of Decay, your needs extend beyond 'find better guns.' You must provide for everyone in your camp full of survivors; weapons are a luxury when your whole group is sick and starving, and those needs grow more dire over time. At first, finding supplies is just a matter of breaking into the convenience store across the street. Unfortunately, no one's left to restock those shelves.
State of Decay has a constant need for supplies and a static number of places to get them. As the hours wear on, you must search farther and farther afield from your headquarters and take bigger risks to find what you need. Eventually the truck you use for your runs will break down far from shelter; you'll probably survive the trip back on foot, but it might make you finally decide to relocate your home to greener pastures. And guess what you'll need once you get there? A bunch more supplies to build everything up. It probably sounds exhausting, but your stocks deplete slowly enough that you have plenty of time to worry about other things. Still, the ticking clock never lets you forget how tenuous your existence is in this rotten new world.
It's grim, but not too grim
Listen: living in a world where almost all of your loved ones and friends and neighbors and convenience store clerks are dead but also want to eat you is messed up. State of Decay embraces that. There will be times when you need to do awful things, like running right past another survivor in dire need of help because you're already badly hurt yourself, or putting a bullet in your friend's brain before infection claims them and they turn in the middle of the night.
Other times, State of Decay will let you drive your big truck right past a horde of zombies, prop open your door, and squish a dozen into campy gore splatters. Its survivors will make dumb jokes to each other that land with a thud. Your omniscient journal will reveal silly tidbits about your friends' pre-apocalypse lives: Barry says he saw Bigfoot once! By walking the line between 'harrowing, what-would-you-do survival tale' and 'fun video game,' State of Decay helps you better appreciate both ends of its experience. I don't think I'd want to play a video game that 100-percent realistically recreates the experience of living in the end times - at least not for very long.
The best zombie stuff is always low-budget
State of Decay has some jank. Ok, maybe a lot of jank. Even if you're playing the Year-One Survival Edition (opens in new tab), which mostly alleviates the choppy framerates of the original (this game isn't ugly, but it sure ain't beautiful), you'll still deal with a mess of menus and controls that occasionally make you give an unaware zombie a gentle kick in the pants when you really meant to smash their head in. Those are the kind of missteps and glitches you'd expect from an indie game with the ambition to punch far above its weight class and not quite enough budget to back it up.
In that respect, State of Decay's in great company. You could make a hundred original Dawn of the Deads with World War Z's budget. But which is the better film? As someone who has watched far too many zombie movies within the last few years (my wife is a bit obsessed), I feel qualified to say the best ones rarely feel the most expensive. Maybe it's because they focus on more intimate, relateable human stories instead of globe-trotting action. Maybe it's because they have that little extra bite (pun intended) in the authentic way they address commercialism and inequality. Dead Rising may be the one with a 'this game isn't affiliated with Dawn of the Dead' label on its cover, but State of Decay is the true successor to George A. Romero's apocalypse-on-a-shoestring storytelling.
A vacancy in hell
Most zombie games try to recreate the experience of watching a zombie movie in interactive form. No one thing State of Decay does is extraordinary on its own, but the way all its systems feed into and reinforce one another makes it an unparalleled zombie survival story generator. For my useless-in-the-apocalypse money, that makes it the best zombie game ever made. Until State of Decay 2 hopefully dethrones it, anyway.
Cleanse your palate of all that lingering dread with some spine-tingling frights in our list of the best horror games (opens in new tab) of all time.