State of Decay 2 Review

Stale and Decayed

23 May 2018
Played on Windows

Back in 2013, a small “indie” game arrived on the Xbox 360. The zombie survival genre was nothing new, but this was different. It was State of Decay, an unexpected hit that would see future releases on the Xbox One and Windows PCs.

TL;DR

A buggy mess of a game, whose core gameplay has barely changed since the previous game's release 5 years earlier. An amazing premise with so much potential but this misses the mark by a huge margin.

The Good

  • Superb core premise
  • Exciting open world gameplay
  • Dark humour

The Bad

  • Absolutely ridden with game-breaking bugs
  • Very little different from the previous game
  • Repetitive after a short time

A refreshing formula

State of Decay was a weird one. Other games had done zombie survival. Other games had done permadeath. Other games had done resource gathering. But no game had, at the time, combined them successfully into such a coherent package.

The original State of Decay was not a flashy AAA title. You could easily be forgiven for overlooking it in favour of titles like Left 4 Dead 2Dying Light, or even zombie modes in popular non-zombie titles like Call of Duty.

The game was a buggy mess; a glitchy, sometimes cringe-worthy experience, with so-so visuals and laughable AI, that had no right to be looked upon so favourably by so many. But, there was something there, in the gameplay, that drew people in, and kept them playing.

When Jeff Strain, founder of Undead Labs, said the first State of Decay was “just the start of our long-term ambitions,” the next logical step, five years on, is State of Decay 2. It’s only Undead Labs’ second release. Ever.

State of Decay 2: A man in an orange hat approaches a dilapidated wooden house

The pitch

State of Decay 2 is an open-world third-person action game, with a focus on melee weapons. There are plenty of firearms in the game, but the thing with guns is they tend to be quite boomy, and this is bad news if you’re trying not to attract too many undead horrors to your general vicinity.

The main draw is that you are not playing as a particular character. You build a gaggle of “survivors” who hang out in your base, and you’re free to switch between them, taking control of whichever one you’d like.

Thing is, you will be switching, a lot. Injuries sustained while out and about will lower a character’s maximum health pool, and fatigue from using the same character for too long will lower the stamina pool, so eventually you’ll be forced to change to another one.

However, permadeath is a constant threat. If you lose all your health while controlling a particular character, that character will die for good. You have the option of picking another character from your base, and you can even return to the site of the kicked bucket, to retrieve that deceased character’s possessions.

Characters can and will die, but while you’re not getting them all killed, they will “level up” in a few abilities that will make them stronger, better with weapons, or better at healing. This means that losing a particularly skilled character hits quite hard, and this is possibly where some of the emotional attachment to the game’s cast lies.

While your fellow survivors are hanging about not doing much in the base, they will consume resources, like food, water, medicine, generic “materials” to keep things up and running, and other things.

Your job, as player, is to make sure that none of these resources run out, by scavenging what you can from an absolutely huge map full of houses, gas stations, convenience stores, factories and more.

Resources generally thematically match the building from which they are gathered. Medicines will be found in hospitals or veterinary surgeries, and fuel can be found at gas stations.

While the game gives you a good chance to get used to the somewhat complex mechanics and gameplay loops involved, you will have an easy time with the Zs, smashing off many a squishy head with mirth and glee. Things will soon ramp up though, and the draw of the gameplay is just how tense it can get.

You might need both medicine and food. If you get medicine, it might stop one survivor from dying on you, but if you don’t get that food, low morale and desperation might cause some survivors to abandon you and make their own way.

The game is full of tricky decisions like this, and not at all full of scripted sequences or story missions (although there are some). It’s mostly about your own prioritisation necessarily coming back to haunt you along with the dozen or so ghosts of survivors you got killed in nasty ways.

Zombies lurch at the protagonist under a hail of gunfire, in front of a Bronto Gas station

Spot the difference

Here’s my main gripe with State of Decay 2: what’s changed? There’s a new play area. That’s really the only significant difference in gameplay.

Yes, the older CryEngine 3 visuals have been swapped out for the more modern Unreal Engine 4, but really, that goes without saying, doesn’t it?

Remember, this is a game that was five years in the making. That’s about the same amount of time The Witcher 3 was in development, and about double the time needed for each Call of Duty release (one release a year, three dev studios in rotation).

Don’t get me wrong: this is great for anyone who has yet to experience the stress-fuelled into-the-midnight-hours play sessions associated with State of Decay. For everyone who played the first game, we’re thinking, “isn’t this just more of the exact same?”

Infested with bugs

State of Decay 2 is a “play anywhere” title, which means that purchasing it on either the Windows 10 Store or the Xbox One gives you the ability to play it on both platforms. That’s something I most certainly did. Neither version should have seen the light of day and reached players’ hands in this state.

On the Xbox one, the interface will just randomly decide to flicker, to the point where it should genuinely come with an epilepsy warning. Other times, it will glitch out, showing only some letters from words, and other times still, it will vanish completely, leaving you without a health bar, minimap, or even a crosshair.

Sometimes textures will just fail to load, such as one instance where all of the ground textures vanished except for the roads, leaving my character floating in “mid air” and unable to see if I was about to take a step forward, or a step off a giant cliff.

Infuriatingly, sometimes the UI will get stuck after you press a button, as though you had held that button down, creating a flickering in-out of menus and an ear-destroying cacophony of menu noises.

On Windows 10, the situation is different, but hardly better. I was playing with an Xbox 360 wireless controller, and using the mouse and keyboard for aiming guns, because naturally it’s far more accurate. If I let the Xbox controller power off, which is automatic after a few minutes of not being used, it would not be recognised by the game when powered back on, requiring a game restart to get it connected again.

There’s also a huge performance drain on a Windows 10 PC, most noticeable when driving. I was actually unable to get a frame rate readout on this one. It’s not a Steam release, so the Steam overlay cannot provide frame rates. Nvidia’s GeForce Experience didn’t work with the game, so no frame rate there either. Windows 10’s “game bar” didn’t work either, which is perplexing since it’s a Windows Store game.

I was playing on a Core i9–7900 with 32 GB RAM and a GeForce 1080 Ti, and the GPU was not maxxed out with vsync enabled, but it certainly felt like it was slipping to 30 fps rather than 60 at a 4k resolution.

Luckily none of these problems exist on the Xbox One, but the graphics are noticably worse on the Xbox One S versus maximum settings on the PC version. Draw distance and pop-in (where distant objects suddenly appear as if from nowhere) was awful, and gone were the lens flare and other post-processing effects. The game had a sort of “muddy” sheen of washed-out textures and low detail, which was disappointing to say the least.

State of Decay 2: The protagonist on an asphalt road in front of a group of stores with a parking lot outside

Follow me, don’t follow me

One of the neat features of the game is the ability to recruit a follower to accompany you. You select someone from the base, and that person rides shotgun with you in any vehicle you drive, and joins in the fray when it’s time to bash in some zombie skulls.

At least, that’s the theory. Frustratingly often, your “trusty” companion will simply disappear, save for the little indicator on the minimap. It indicates that your companion is still following you, but they’re nowhere to be found.

This isn’t too bad in the early game where soloing is perfectly feasible, but later on, when the zombie poop hits the fan, it’s exponentially more difficult unless you have an AI companion helping you out.

More infuriating still, you can’t simply get another follower from the base. First, you have to “dismiss” your current follower, and this is impossible when that follower has completely vanished. You’re stuck. Note that this can sometimes resolve itself by restarting the game, or even switching between the Xbox and Windows versions (it cloud-saves so you have one save game across both platforms), but this doesn’t always work.

Workarounds, not fixes

As if Undead Labs knew their game was technically flawed in game-breaking ways, there’s a “handy” menu option for “stuck”. Calling up this option will “reset” your character, if you get stuck inside a piece of terrain or something. It’s almost as though Undead Labs knew this could happen, and instead of, you know, actually fixing the problem, just gave players a workaround to get up and running again when the game breaks.

Possibly one of the more frustrating occurrences is that vehicles tend to get stuck very easily on immovable terrain. You can easily wedge one on a crash barrier or log and be unable to move. Vehicles are permanent and limited, meaning that if you abandon it, it will simply remain there forever, and the “stuck” option only resets your character, not any vehicles, so that really is the end of the vehicle.

In a way that could only be described as hilarious unless you’re the one suffering it, it’s possible, and quite likely, that your companion will exit the vehicle through the floor instead of the convenient (and physics-obeying) option of using the nearest door.

I had a companion who was stuck up to his head in the asphalt beneath the vehicle. When moving the vehicle out of the way, he stubbornly refused to yield to the natural law of the universe and the strong nuclear force, and instead, insisted on constantly rolling again and again.

It was impossible to interact with him in this state, so I couldn’t “dismiss” him as a follower, so that was that. Another game restart.

State of Decay 2: Approaching a car's gas filler, showing a refuel prompt

Weird design, awkward UI

I’m going to put this as brutally honestly as possible: the user interface is awful, and extremely cumbersome. For example, you need to select ammunition that matches the firearm you’ve selected. 9mm, .357, .22, and so on. However, there’s just random icons that all look like piles of bullets in the base inventory. They’re not in any particular order. This means you have to shuffle through each one, waiting for the tooltip to appear, until you can find the correct one. The simple solution is to add the name of the ammunition to the icon.

Inventory management is a huge pain. You can load the trunk of any car with items, to provide more storage space. However, your character can only carry one bag of “supplies” along with a set number of regular items. Since scavenging mostly involves gathering supplies for your base, this is problematic.

Suppose your vehicle is full, and your character’s inventory is full, and you’re carrying a bag of supplies. You notice there’s a low-value item in your vehicle, which you could just discard, and load the supplies in the vehicle instead.

The problem is, you can’t discard things from a vehicle inventory. Your character needs to pick them up first. So, your character needs to drop an item (which can’t be done while looking at the vehicle inventory), and then take an item from the vehicle, drop it on the ground, then pick up the previously dropped item. There’s no need for this type of inventory Tetris in modern gaming!

Stacking of items is also a huge problem. Certain inventory items like ammunition and bandages can be carried in stacks, each taking up one precious slot. If you want to take one bandage, one bottle of pills, one C4, one molotov, and one strip of firecrackers, that’s five inventory slots! You can take a whole pile of molotovs or bandages in one slot, though, which just makes no sense.

Worse still, you can carry around up to ten portable generators in your “pockets” and rucksack at one. Because that makes sense… A better system is variable size in the inventory, with larger items taking up more space.

State of Decay 2: The home base interface

Base building, minimalist style

Although the game gives you a choice of starting location, the starter house is always the same layout. However, it’s almost like someone in the Undead Labs design studio said “make the most douchebag base layout you possibly can because I enjoy the schadenfreude watching our player base suffer”.

The starter house is on two storeys, and the supply cache is nowhere near the parking, meaning if you need to unload a vehicle, it’s many trips back and forth (because your character can only carry one bag of “supplies” at a time).

Worse still, remember that you can’t use the menus to select a companion. You have to walk up to the character in the game world, but there’s no indicator to show you which character is currently where in your base, so you’re running willy-nilly through all the many tiny rooms in the house as though zombie ants have got into your clothes, trying to find the one companion who isn’t dangerously low on health.

Why oh why can’t we just choose a companion from the menus if we’re already in the base?

I understood that the starter base was supposed to be a sort of “it’ll do for now until we find a better one” type of deal, but boy are the upgrades limited. Each base comes with a number of “areas” where you can build “facilities”, but the starter only comes with three, and even the larger ones are pretty limited.

There’s a disappointing upgrade tree for your facilities. In general, they can be level one, two, or three, each providing more of whatever the facility provides, each upgrade. An infirmary will be able to heal more people at once at higher levels, while a barracks can provide more beds. There’s not a lot more to it than that.

This is essentially the exact same system as the first State of Decay, which is a complete lack of progress for five years of development. There’s no other customisation options, like spending materials on changing the look and feel of the base, or rearranging your parking to be closer to the supply cache so you’re not constantly making trips back and forth.

Gear counts, skill does not

As the difficulty ramps up, one thing becomes abundantly clear: individual skill at melee combat has no effect on survival ability in this game. In melee combat, a single character can take on three, possibly four zombies at once, and no more. There are some “special” moves, but these don’t have any strategic effect like getting behind zombies for a quick kill, so it’s mostly just a button-mash session until your stamina bar is depleted and then you’re screwed.

The only thing likely to make a difference is not player skill; it’s gear. Having a companion means being able to take on twice as many zombies at once. Having a decoy like a boombox or firecrackers can allow you to deal with fewer zombies simultaneously. Having a better melee weapon allows for faster kills.

Mainly, it’s the vehicles though. Vehicles have the ability to mow down zombies by the dozen, and are very overpowered. You will no doubt end up resorting to the “cheese” tactic of opening a door, running away from the horde that emerges, jumping in a waiting car, and running them all over in one go.

This is simply a game design flaw: it’s not meant to be played this way, but players will inevitably take the path of least resistance. If you can just run them all over in a few seconds, why bother to bash them on the head for minutes on end?

A camera to die for

The age-old problem of the third person camera, largely solved by more polished developers like in Super Mario Odyssey and the modern Tomb Raider, still rears its ugly head here.

Too often, the camera will go behind a bush or clip into a tree or other scenery, leaving you oblivious to the impending brain-eating doom surrounding you.

Given that many locations involve clearing a tiny house of a zombie “infestation”, which means traversing narrow hallways and tight doorways, you often feel the camera is working against you, having made a behind-the-scenes deal with the zombies to get you killed.

The field of view on the camera is also extremely narrow, and cannot be customised, even on the PC. I somewhat understand on the consoles: tight FOV means less to render, and they’re already restricted in the visuals department, but on the PC? Come on, let us choose a setting we like!

Lack of first person view also hurts the game with such a bad third person camera. Although you can’t see what’s behind you with a first person camera, when the third person camera is this bad, you often can’t see what’s in front or behind, so give us the option to switch please!

AI: Or, how to make a house brick look intelligent

The AI in State of Decay 2 is literally unchanged from the first game, and it’s woeful. Companions often can’t figure out how to run down stairs, so jump instead, injuring themselves, or simply fall off a cliff because “that’s the best pathfinding I can do!”

The voice lines make absolutely no sense in most situations, like a companion warning you about a “plague zombie” several seconds after you have already run it over.

While in a vehicle, the AI will attempt to open the door to smash zombies as you drive past them. This is a clever and potentially useful gimmick that is ruined by ridiculously bad timing, with the door popping open way after the zombie has already disappeared into the distance, in the majority of cases.

Usually, AI companions will move out the way if you try to occupy the same space as them. However, for reasons I couldn’t figure out, sometimes they just don’t, and their favourite activity is standing in the only exit doorway available. You end up playing a ludicrous game of cat and mouse as you try to encourage your companion to move out of the doorway for long enough for you to get through.

Sillier still, if you have a companion riding in the rear seat of a car, and you get out of that car and move backwards, the companion will happily open the door in your face, knocking you to the ground.

I’ve had one companion who died shortly after shouting a warning about a cloud of noxious gas. She then promptly ran straight into the gas, began choking, and was attacked and killed by the nearest zombie.

That’s when it hurts the most: when you take a companion out with you, knowing you’ve levelled that companion up by playing directly as that character many times, only to have the AI get it killed through a crazy action you could not possibly have avoided. It’s one of the times State of Decay 2 feels at its most broken and unfair.

Into the darkness

The day and night cycle is fully represented in State of Decay 2 and the nights are extremely dark. Sensibly, the area immediately around your character is always somewhat lit, but visibility soon drops off rapidly and you literally can’t see very far ahead at all.

This adds to the stress of playing at night, and it’s a time when I was more content to work on base upgrades and inventory management, rather than the risky business of midnight scavenging.

Each character has an unlimited flashlight, and cars have headlights, but these are comically underpowered. They’re still better than nothing, but will attract more zombo attention, so it’s another calculated risk on your part.

One needless element of realism is the darkness inside your base. When it’s dark outside and there’s a zombie apocalypse ongoing, apparently zombies have a fondness for devouring light bulbs, and it becomes a huge pain trying to navigate the needlessly elaborate base layouts in absolute darkness.

I understand what Undead Labs are aiming for: it’s “realistic” that you wouldn’t turn on the lights because you would attract zombies. In this case, though, I’m happy to suspend my disbelief and have some light inside my base, so I can stop tripping over the piles of discarded wood and paint cans and actually find what I’m looking for.

This is a long review, considering you hated it so much!

Here’s my thing with State of Decay 2: yes, it’s horribly broken and buggy. But, every single bug and game design decision mentioned above can be rectified, and hopefully, at the very least, the many bugs will be.

At its heart is an addictive and player-driven gameplay loop. There are generic “high-level” goals such as finding a way to escape the zombie outbreak, but nearly all of the time, you’re deciding what you and your survivors will do next, because you’re short on supplies, or someone has asked for help, or you could trade for something better than what you already have.

It’s compelling because you’re invested in these characters. You can decide who you recruit, and it takes some work. Strangers will begin to trust you if you help them out with supplies or safety, and eventually will be willing to join you.

It’s up to you to decide whether you could use another character, who might or might not have some specialist skill you lack, but will cost more in terms of bed space and daily food supplies.

If you take on that extra survivor, it’s now up to you to figure out whether to work on upgrading your garden to grow more food, or just rely on scavenging it from some potentially dangerous source.

I won’t say every death is fair. There are too many bugs that cause your characters to die for reasons beyond your control. But, there will be times when you take a calculated risk. You know you probably need extra food right now, or you risk losing some people. They might not leave though. Do you risk it, knowing scavenging food is too dangerous right now because you’re low on bandages? Or do you go for the nearest food stash, and to hell with the zombie infestation icon looming nearby on the map?

The crime of repetition

If you were to read everything above, and find that I had used the title State of Decay instead of State of Decay 2, it would still be entirely accurate, save for some minor details such as the darkness at night.

There is so little changed from the original game here that it just seems like a cynical cash-in from Microsoft and Undead Labs. However, it’s been five years. How can it take five years to make a virtually identical game with a new game engine?

Why can’t we have more mechanics behind character levelling, or more elaborate options for building and decorating bases, or more types of supplies or loot to find, or custom clothing, or more types of zombies, or more vehicle repair options than just “magically fix a vehicle by using a toolkit”, or more combat options beyond “mash attack button” and “single special move”?

There are so many possibilities in this genre that have not been explored, and I find myself mystified on two fronts: that nobody else has tried to do something in a similar style in the past five years, and that Undead Labs have not elaborated at all on the core formula in five years.

Should I get this, then?

Right now? It sort of depends. Suppose you’re looking at the full price purchase. Definitely not. If you’ve already played State of Decay, and you’re flush with cash (can I have some?) then maybe you want more of exactly the same. If you haven’t played either game before, the first State of Decay is available in the Year One edition, much cheaper, and it’s virtually identical.

The original game has had time to mature, with all DLC now included, and many of the more serious bugs fixed for good.

However, the “play anywhere” and “game pass” systems throw a spanner in the zombie works. For $10, you can buy one month of Xbox Game Pass membership, which will get you State of Decay 2 in full, and you can simply cancel it after one month, by which time you’ll have probably completed it.

If you still really want the latest version, not the previous title, it is definitely worth waiting to see how many bug fixes arrive. It’s worth experiencing one of these games, as bug-free as possible. It’s highly unlikely I’d recommend you pick them both up though, just because they are so unforgivably similar.

The other deciding factor might be the inclusion of online co-op in State of Decay 2. This is severely limited, in that you can drop into a friend’s game world, but you can’t bring your own character, picking instead from your friend’s roster, and you can’t take anything out of that world back into your own game.

That might be your thing though, in which case, State of Decay 2 really is the only option out of the two titles.

Dear Undead Labs…

This is a genre that has so much promise and you’re squandering it. You have Microsoft and Unreal Engine on your side. Please don’t fall into the trap of releasing buggy, unpolished games, and please elaborate on the formula before someone else does!

I’m glad I was able to experience your fascinatingly compelling core gameplay for a mere $10 thanks to Xbox Game Pass, but it’s not helping you very much to miss out on the full retail price in your pocket. Maybe if you can extend the gameplay mechanics and fix some of the atrocious bugs, more players might feel inclined to purchase the game in full, and give you a chance at the next title in the series.

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