State of Decay is still in a State of Development, and needs a lot more work -- but it's still strangely compelling, writes Alex Walker.
By Alex Walker on November 20, 2013 at 10:41 am
State of Decay inspires equal parts admiration and frustration. At times I’ve cursed at the monitor, walked out of the room and then furiously badmouthed the game to my housemate. Other times, I’ve quietly swung my lead pipe, tossed firebombs into infested warehouses, reversed over hordes of zombies for the hell of it and not realised that it’s four in the morning, and I needed to be asleep three hours ago.
It’s impossible to venture throughout Trumbull Valley without experiencing several glitches. Some are simply an annoyance. Some, like the second-last mission that kept crashing on me, are rage inducing.
That last bug nearly soured the entire experience. All of the items I’d taken out of the group locker to prepare for the mission didn’t get replaced, and I wasn’t refunded the influence I’d spent either. The state of the world mirrors the survivors’ mood: the more depressed everyone is, the worse your situation gets. More hordes show up. NPCs start fighting with each other, dragging morale down further. Infestations become a bigger and bigger problem, and your home base becomes even more vulnerable. And to top it all off, everyone’s morale automatically drops a little every time you quit and re-open the game — even if the break between sessions is only a few seconds.
I walked away dozens of times during my playthrough. And yet, astonishingly, I’d still recommend giving State of Decay a go. Why? The answer doesn’t lie in the first hour. Stuck with just two playable characters, Marcus and Maya, there’s little room for exploration or enjoyment. It’s a protracted tutorial to the basics of foraging, but it doesn’t teach you anything about the finer parts of character management, handling the relationships between survivors or properly rationing your resources.
The game proper only starts proper once you reach the church. One of the survivors is riddled with disease, so you’ve only got Maya and Marcus to play with. The RPG system quietly awards XP for every action: attacking zombies, final blows, sprinting, searching cupboards and so on. Once you’ve relocated, Maya and Marcus will be legions ahead in skill.
The disparity between survivors seems negligible at first, until you’ve searched your third house and your character is gasping for air, head between their knees, struggling to stave off two zombies. When you’re at full strength, creeping around, zombies are like punching bags, A couple of swings of a lead pipe or a shovel primes them for a knee to the head. You feel strong; maybe this apocalypse isn’t so bad after all.
But every kick, each footstep without care makes a sound, so tracking your noise on the minimap becomes a necessity. It’s entirely possible, patience permitting, to plot out a safe route. Zombies are more attuned to sound than sight, although straying too far from the sensible path will easily attract a horde.
Sometimes it won’t matter though, since the AI will bugger things up for you. If you’re skulking around a corner, the AI will follow suit. Occasionally it’ll even let you quietly kill zombies without offering it a solid kick in the teeth. But if there’s more than one zombie around, your brainless partner assumes you want the extra help, runs over, and starts belting the crap out of the undead for all to hear.
This mindless AI behaviour is at its worst on escort missions. Occasionally you’ll have the opportunity to supervise a NPC during a scavenging hunt. They’ll complete the run unassisted if you let them, but you’ll gain influence and improve morale by helping out, while also eliminating the possibility that they’ll get stuck and need to call for help later.
Holding the fort while they raid the pantry isn’t the problem; it’s afterwards, when the NPC charges out of the building and past three hordes on their way back to base. Some missions they’ll hang around for a lift, but it should be implemented across the board with a simple decision tree (offer help/bugger off).
A larger problem was finding enough survivors so I could relocate. Some events and missions are time-critical, so if you’re too busy fighting for your life or caught up in other matters then that’s just too bad. I lost multiple chances to grow my little troupe because I happened to be on the other side of the map. You can direct Lily, the lupus-riddled radio operator, to find more survivors, but she doesn’t always strike gold, and each search takes 20 minutes.
Luckily, there’s plenty of obvious things to do. If nothing’s available, you can clear out a nearby infestation, establish outposts to improve your supply (while preventing zombies from spawning in that area), complete randomised trades, escort your fellow NPCs or simply ransack nearby houses for resources. Stealing cars is always useful; catching the attention of a horde, reversing a little before running them down in a single sweep never gets old. There’s a certain plausibility to it all, almost like your actions are things you’d properly consider in the face of a zombie apocalypse.
Mouse and keyboard support isn’t fantastic. Whenever you climb atop a tower, for instance, to survey your surroundings, the aiming is astonishingly jerky. It’s too slow and yet too sensitive at the same time, almost as if it can’t quite keep up with the mouse input, and then suddenly spews out a string of movements at once. Aiming with a rifle is far more consistent, but it’s not perfect and I missed several shots because I couldn’t smoothly place the crosshair where I wanted.
On the more positive side, the RPG mechanics work well. Characters unlock specialisations after reaching a certain level, allowing them to scavenge more quietly, run further, regain stamina after a Zed kill, reload faster and so on. You can upgrade your safehouse to build more weapons, repair cars, serious wounds, even grow food.
There’s no reticule or aiming arc for thrown objects; you just have to gain a feel for it. It’s a necessary skill, really, since tossing a firebomb into an infested house is by far and away the easiest method of clearing it. Sometimes it glitches though, with your grenade or molotov getting stuck on the corner of a window or a random piece of debris, and you’ll simply end up setting your allies on fire while mildly distracting the zombies.
It sounds like I’m overly negative, and there are plenty of holes to pick at. The plot isn’t particularly moving. The characters aren’t anything special, and at times, their mood swings are downright incomprehensible. But somehow, somehow, everything works.
Maybe it’s because the rules governing the zombies in Trumbull Valley are reasonable, even fair at times. Being overwhelmed feels more like a byproduct of poor preparation than bad luck. Maybe it’s because the actions and machinations of the in-game world are so reasonable, so logical, that it’s easy to become absorbed in it all.
It’s rare, and strange, that I can take issue with so many things and still have a smile on my face. But I kept reloading the game, night after night, no matter what happened. It really is the sum of its parts: flawed, frustrating, but ultimately fun.
- Enjoyable and sensible RPG mechanics
- Fair balance between the player and zombies
- SUV drive-bys are always entertaining
- A great open-world to explore
- Average PC port; poorly optimised with limited options
- Bugs, bugs, bloody bugs
- AI ranges from ‘okay’ to ‘lobotomy patient’
- Not enough in-game instruction on base or survivor management
State of Decay is available on Steam for $19.99.
This review code provided by the developer.
Screenshots used in this review also provided by the developer.