Reviewed on Xbox One, copy supplied by publisher.
It’s a given that a zombie apocalypse is going to be a bleak time, but that doesn’t mean it should be a tedious time. Unfortunately this is a memo that seems to have been missed in State of Decay 2. There’s an awful lot of milling around one location being upset, with the admittedly fun core of the game becoming lost in the depressing cocoon that surrounds it.
Kicking off with pre-set characters, the player will follow a roughly linear story before being thrust into an unforgiving open world in which they control a group of survivors suffering from serious mood swings. You have to keep your base safe by removing nearby infestations, stocked with supplies and constantly grow it by enticing new survivors into the fold.
On paper it’s everything you want in a zombie survival game, and something that should live up to genre heavy weights. To be fair, it certainly does capture the feeling of zombie narratives like The Walking Dead, but it could have dialled certain features down a bit for the sake of enjoyment.
It’s been some time since I played the original, which was a game I thoroughly enjoyed, but I am sad to say I was disappointed how similar this one feels. It doesn’t particularly build upon the original in any meaningful ways, and with a market saturated by survival games and cracking zombie heads open, it could have used a few quality of life improvements.
New improvements like the blood plague zombies – which infect your characters if they’re attacked by them – are a nice touch, but in reality they just add another headache to a game that has its fair share to begin with.
Grinding for materials to keep your settlement fed, armed and healthy takes 99 percent of your time. Any sense of growth and enjoyment is stilted by the overwhelming need to keep your base stocked and happy.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, as the actual meat of the game is pretty fun when you look past the constant grind. Smashing zombie skulls in with a range of melee and ranged weapons is fun. Combat makes you feel strong, yet fragile. Taking on a handful of zombies is a breeze, but when you come up against a horde or a special variant, things become very much a life or death scenario, with perma-death for any of your characters that fall in battle.
Of course zombies aren’t the only threat, as any zombie world worth its weight in brains has shown us the real monster is humans. Unfortunately taking out human NPCs isn’t super polished, as the AI just isn’t there for it to be challenging. The AI for zombies works fine (they stumble towards you and groan – tick), but when it comes to humans who should think tactically things aren’t so smooth. More often than not the enemy encampments I took out simply came at me one person at a time, and when line of sight was lost they just stood there with no urgency.
These fights are few and far between. I must say that even though the AI isn’t up there, the combat is still enjoyable – in games like this context is everything. When you’re desperately fighting to stay alive, with real consequences if you fail, shoot outs are tense with a successful skirmish feeling great. If there were more substance in general these little gripes wouldn’t be such a feature, but unfortunately they stand out in a game where there is technically a lot to do, but also a feeling that you can’t actually do it because of the constant grind.
The map you inhabit is large, giving you plenty to explore and scavenge. Completing supply runs feels great when you have the luxury of looting for fun items like weapons – not so much when you’re looking for medicine because an idiot at your base kicked over some pills and is now freaking out screaming that you need to get more.
Traveling on foot to local buildings isn’t overly challenging – it’s going long distances from your home base and established outposts where things become tricky. It’s not advisable or really possible to run the length of the map as one character, as stamina and resources are at a premium. Fatigue can be fatal, as it essentially nerfs your characters. I’m not a huge fan of stamina bars, but in this game it makes sense and encourages you to rely on the full community at your disposal, rather than just playing as one or two highly specced characters.
Getting around longer distances often requires a car, which you guessed it, relies on fuel – another resource you need to manage. Driving around and avoiding hordes is fun, as is ploughing straight into them. However cars tend to deteriorate fast, especially when you really need them and they’re packed full of supplies.
Some of the more RPG-like elements of State of Decay 2 are hit and miss. It’s cool having dialogue options and decisions to make on behalf of you group, but the text based selector and stifled nature of missions is a bit lacklustre. On more than one occasion I found myself accidentally stumbling into a dialogue option when bumping into people with little context and then having to suddenly decide if we should murder them or play nice. Your options seem to always boil down to kill for resources, or be friendly for slightly less resources.
The sheer number of shitty people you encounter is exceptional too. I’m not just talking about murderers and thieves, but people asking for timed help when you’re in the middle of another life or death task, only to get pissy with you when you don’t drop everything to come and help them. After a certain point the game kind of teaches you to just ignore all the information and quests its thrusting upon you, which isn’t a great feature in my books. It’s also hard to find the time to actually do the tasks when you have to constantly battle for supplies and fix broken amenities.
Co-op is a new feature for the sequel, and admittedly it’s one I didn’t spend a whole heap of time with. I did play online with my buddy Ryan from The PopCulturists, but network issues cut that short pretty quickly (issues with my home internet not the game… woo Australian internet). In the long term this seems like a feature many will like and keep them playing the game, but for my money I prefer this sort of game solo.
Despite the flaws I’ve picked at, I still have a soft spot for State of Decay 2, it’s up there as a zombie apocalypse simulator, and the murky areas tend to be overlooked when you get caught up in the whole survival ordeal. With some tweaks it could be an amazing game, but in its current state it sits firmly in the “okay” camp.