State of Decay 2 Review

For survival’s sake

State of Decay 2 Review
Source: Press Kit.

I have always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic scenarios, especially those involving zombies. There are, of course, a myriad of zombie-related media out there; everything from popular films (28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead are my two favourites) to a proliferation of comics, novels, and of course, video games. In fact, there’s so much content out there related to our shambling, undead friends, that there’s actually now an apparent problem of zombie fatigue (the developers of Days Gone on PS4 have directly called out zombie fatigue as a problem they seek to solve).

I’m no zombie expert, but it seems to me that one way of keeping the subject fresh is to tackle it from different angles. The movies I mentioned above, for example, couldn’t be more different. 28 Days Later is a bleak, lonely, viscerally-horrific experience. When rays of sunshine do break through the clouds (a quiet meal that people share by candlelight or a brief jaunt in an abandoned supermarket), they are fleeting, and are quickly overcome by the inescapably bitter and endless dark clouds of the apocalypse. On the other hand, Dawn of the Dead — while certainly containing its moments of terror and dread — is regularly light-hearted, ludicrous, goofy, and wacky.

One thing both films have in common — and I’ll venture to say this is true for most zombie films — is that they deal with the immediate aftermath of a zombie outbreak (28 Days Later takes a slightly longer view than Dawn of the Dead, but it seems trivial for the sake of argument here). What happens months — or years — after the initial downfall of society? How do small groups of survivors rebuild, and what kind of life can they create for themselves in the context of a fallen world? Is it even possible to adapt to a “new normal” that is so severely disconnected from the pre-apocalypse world?

It’s this territory — the almost mundane day-to-day experience of rebuilding a society— that State of Decay 2 tackles. It’s definitely true that other forms of media have cast their lense on this context (The Walking Dead, most famously), but it still feels like the well is much deeper than most video games have explored thus far.

Finding home

You’ll begin State of Decay 2 by choosing a pair of characters from a palette of options. Each pair have their own back story, and accompanying stats. Usually, the two characters will offset each other in some significant way. So, for example, if you choose the siblings, you’ll find that Ava has more stamina than strength (enabling her to run long distances and perform extra weapon swings) whereas Dalton lacks stamina but is strong in combat and has decent mechanical skills.

It’s important to consider the dichotomy, because although you’ll start off by controlling one of these characters, you’ll soon have the ability to swap between them on the fly. Choosing which character to play as at any given moment is important, for reasons I’ll come to a little later.

In addition to choosing your starting characters, you’ll also be able to select a starting location — there are three large, interconnected maps in State of Decay 2. It doesn’t really matter which location you start in, save for the fact that you’ll be spending most of your time — at least early on — in that particular location. Don’t worry though, you can ultimately explore all three locations through a single play through.

Source: Press Kit.

Shortly after the game’s opening sequence, you’ll come across an abandoned home to call your own. The game gives you a very brief introduction to its key mechanics by way of displaying static tutorial cards for you to read. There are some tasks (like going back to refuel and pick up an abandoned vehicle) that act as mini tutorial-style missions. But it’s fair to say that you’re very quickly left to your own devices — there will be a couple of initial missions to tackle, but you can approach these in any order. You can also ignore them entirely, if you want, though the consequences of doing so aren’t immediately clear.

As you explore your new home, you’ll notice that each room has a function (obvious stuff, really — the kitchen is used to feed your residents, and the bedroom is where they sleep). Each functional part of your home is called a facility, and there are various things you can do with each facility — they can perform specific time-sensitive functions (which usually require consumption of one or more resources), they can be upgraded, and they can even be modded in various ways to customise their performance. As well as the “fixed” facilities that already exist (like the kitchen and bedroom), there are spaces in the front and backyards to build entirely new facilities — for example, one early facility you’ll require is the Infirmary, which is used to treat wounded/sick members of your budding community.

Demands of daily life

There are some overarching goals that drive the narrative forward, but it’s important to point out that regardless of anything else, your number one priority — always — is to ensure that your community survives. At least, that’s the bare minimum requirement. Beyond ensuring fundamental survival, you’re incentivised to build a thriving community — one that feels safe, happy, and has abundant resources available so that they are not just scraping by moment-to-moment.

“This may all sound great, but beyond the really basic stuff, it can be difficult to know how to best utilise the facilities you have — and to identify which ones you should build next.”

How do you ensure survival? Well, that part is fairly simple.

Your community has some basic requirements to ensure their survival. These include a set of fundamental resources such as food, medical supplies, ammunition, and fuel. Your community consumes a set number of each of these supplies on a daily basis. The amount of resources consumed each day depends on a) the number of people in your community, b) the number of facilities that automatically consume resources each day and c) specific activities/tasks you’ve triggered at facilities that consume a set amount of particular resources.

This concept underpins the core gameplay loop in State of Decay 2. Aside from anything else you do, it’s always important to make sure you have enough resources stocked at home so that your community can survive each passing day. As time passes, you’ll end up with surplus resources, which means you’ll be able to invest in extending your home (either through building new facilities, upgrading them, or putting them to work on specific tasks).

An example of a specific task is the use of electric lighting. By default, your home is unpowered — at night, everything goes dark, and your community can only see by minimal candlelight. But if you build a generator, you can trigger it to produce power for a set period of time (each task activated at a facility typically expires after a certain duration). I sometimes activate the generator at night. Doing so bathes the house in warm electric light and makes the residents happier — it’s a luxury, after all — but at the same time, the humming of the generator is noisy, and it increases the base’s vulnerability to zombie attack. Your “zombie vulnerability” factors in things that may increase or decrease it — for instance, the generator might increase vulnerability, but having a well-armed watchtower will reduce it. It is important to find a happy medium that balances luxury and growth with defense.

This may all sound great, but beyond the really basic stuff, it can be difficult to know how to best utilise the facilities you have — and to identify which ones you should build next. Each facility has a different function and different upgrade and modding options, and I felt that many of these were not explained well (or hardly at all) in the game. As a result, managing the more complex aspects of my base felt opaque and confusing at times, and it meant that I didn’t really engage with some of the deeper base-related systems that could have added greater strategic depth to my approach.

Community spirit

It only takes two people to kick off a community, but before long, you’ll encounter numerous other survivors throughout the world. Most of these characters are organised into what the game calls “enclaves”. An enclave is simply a group of survivors who have banded together — much like the people who occupy your home base. Enclaves appear randomly around the map and they won’t stick around forever; often, an enclave will request help over the radio and if you take too long to assist them, they’ll pack up and leave town. In some cases, failure to assist an enclave will result in them becoming openly hostile to you and your community, which adds a pretty significant threat to the world — so far I’ve tried to avoid pissing off enclaves, because getting caught in a firefight with them is extremely dangerous. These survivors have access to the same weaponry you do, at least in principle. It’s painfully easy to lose one of your valued community members in a gun battle, so you’re best advised to tread lightly around other people, especially if you’re meeting them for the first time.

In some cases, the tasks you perform for enclaves are very straightforward; for example, a particular group might need a certain resource and you’ll be tasked with bringing it to them. In other cases though, you’ll encounter multi-stage missions in support of a particular enclave. In one case, I came across an enclave who had their medical supplies stolen by another enclave — I had to confront the latter group, and when I did, the game provided multiple dialogue options in order to decide how I wanted to handle the situation. Was I going to blatantly threaten the thieves (who, it turns out, had good reason to steal the medicine in the first place)? Was I going to let them keep the medicine and betray the slighted group who asked for my help originally? Alternatively, I could have stolen the supplies for my own community and angered both enclaves (in some cases, if you do this, you can actually provide an alternative resource to keep tempers in check).

These multi-stage missions are interesting and somewhat surprising when you first encounter them. But I think it’s fair to say that, over time, they do begin to wear thin; they usually boil down to a set of similar choices, and because the enclaves themselves are randomised, I never had a strong sense of attachment to any particular group of people. It never felt like any particular group of survivors was playing a broader role in the overarching narrative, or in my high-level goals.

Private army

As well as meeting survivors out in the world, you will, of course, have to recruit and take care of the survivors who join your own community. And, like a hermit crab, you’re likely to outgrow your initial base after recruiting enough people — that is, if you recruit people faster than you lose them.

There are a few important things to know about building a family of strangers in State of Decay 2.

First of all — and in case this wasn’t clear already — you’re never really in the position of controlling a single character all the way through the game. You might have your favourites, but you’ll actually need to rotate active control between characters on a regular basis. Why? Well, people get injured, they get tired, and they might get sick and require treatment. Also, it’s in your interest to distribute your time between different characters, because their attributes/skills will effectively level up only through active use; one thing you don’t want is to have a community where there’s only one or two really useful people and the remainder have terrible combat, scavenging abilities, and stamina.

This latter point is important because when you take control of one character, you can recruit another to join you. This second character essentially becomes a cooperative sidekick. It is always advisable to have a buddy with you in the field — you’ll be able to share the burden of carrying supplies, for one thing. And for another, they’ll provide some added protection when you’re scavenging.

Building a community is not always straightforward, though; at various points throughout the game, community members might express particular interests that require your attention — for example, they might want to help a certain enclave, or they may have some other specific goal in the world. If you neglect them for too long, fights may break out in your home base, leading to a significant hit on morale. Ignore a community member for long enough, and they’ll likely storm off, never to return.

This may sound like an added wrinkle that makes the story more interesting, but it really doesn’t, because each new member of your community is essentially a randomly-generated being (with a randomly-generated personality, itself established by certain key parameters). This also means that their individual “missions” are also somewhat random in nature and don’t feel connected to a broader plot. As a result, I never really felt myself particularly caring about any of the survivors due to their own stories .

In order to complete a mission set by a particular survivor, you simply have to take control of that person; this is what triggers the mission.

Living in a zombie world

Of course, all this discussion about survival is meaningless unless we talk about State of Decay 2’s hostile world.

On the surface, not much has changed in terms of enemy types since State of Decay. You’ve still got regular zombies, wandering hordes, and occasional infestations you’ll have to clear out in order to reduce the threat to your community. There are also still a decent number of zombies within the “freaks” class — these are special zombies that differ from the garden-variety shamblers. For example, there are SWAT zombies that are fully armoured and more tricky to kill, there are screamers, whose high-pitched shrieks attract even more zombies to their location, and there are ferals that run exceedingly fast and can pounce on you from a distance. Functionally, these enemies operate similarly to how they behaved in the original game.

The most significant new additions are Plague Hearts and Plague Zombies. I discussed these briefly in my preview of the game.

“I’d say the bigger threat from Plague Zombies — especially when they swarm you — is the potential for immediate death, rather than infection.”

Plague Hearts are essentially stationary targets — they spawn in random locations around the map, typically inside a building. One of your primary objectives in the game is to destroy Plague Hearts, which increase in difficulty with each one you kill.

Yep, that’s me, up close and personal with a Plague Heart. Source: Author.

The challenge with Plague Hearts is that a) they take a lot of damage before going down and b) the minute you start attacking one, you’ll be hit by a swarm of Plague Zombies. Being in a house full of Plague Zombies is possibly the most dangerous scenario in State of Decay 2; in my experience, Plague Zombies will stream in every entrance of the building (including climbing through windows), and will attack from every possible angle.

Plague Zombies are dangerous primarily because they spread a disease (“the plague”), which can infect your survivors. It will take a few hits to actually become infected, but once an infection is triggered, a countdown timer will appear, indicating how long your character has before they succumb to the illness. While in an infected state, your character will become a lot slower and will therefore be much more vulnerable — in this scenario, it is always wise to head back to base as soon as possible to treat the victim.

Treating the infection is actually pretty effortless; it won’t take you long to have both the facility and materials required to treat victims. Also, it’s not terribly common to actually have an infected survivor on your hands; it’s only happened to me once in about 25 hours of play time. I’d say the bigger threat from Plague Zombies — especially when they swarm you — is the potential for immediate death, rather than infection.

One of your overarching goals in State of Decay 2 is to destroy all the Plague Hearts on the map. And while it’s true that these encounters require a little more strategy than you might normally use (for example, this will be perhaps the only occasion where you’ll actually use tools to distract zombies, or specialised weapons like molotov cocktails and such), they aren’t terribly interesting after the first couple, and again, they don’t ever feel like they feed into a broader narrative goal.

Find a friend

One element that adds to further replayability in State of Decay 2 is the fact that you can summon a cooperative partner at any time during the game — it costs nothing (that is to say, you won’t need to spend Influence points on summoning another player in to join you).

I waited in the empty pool behind the Messed-Up House until help arrived. Source: Author.

I’ve read numerous accounts of the matchmaking system not working for people. For me, it was a little slow and there were a couple of failed attempts, but it didn’t take too long to find someone. When they joined my world, I didn’t come across any noticeable lag or major bugs; moving around the map together was pretty seamless. There is apparently a tether connecting both players, but it’s not something I ever directly faced during my time with the game (as I was never really far enough away from my companion).

Adding another human player to the experience does allow you to progress a little faster. Human players are naturally more capable than their AI counterparts, and I found it much easier to tackle Plague Hearts while playing cooperatively.

I was able to guard an entrance while my buddy went for the Plague Heart. Source: Author.

Another element I liked — but which isn’t universally loved — is the fact that when you play online coop, the loot in the world is colour-coded so that each player has their own searchable objects. I like this because it means you never feel like you’re competing with someone for loot; you’re not racing each other to search a property. Instead, it truly feels like you’re each getting a fair cut of the supplies at a given location.

The only gripe I have about online cooperative play is that it’s inherently pretty limited. Yes, someone can join your game and help you with your missions — and they can get some loot, and even drop that loot off at your base to help you speed things up — but that’s about the limit of the interaction. You can’t, for example, jointly develop a base with another player…or create a world where two players have their own bases. Perhaps it would be a bit much to ask for such functionality, but nevertheless, it’s worth noting if you are picking up this game primarily for the cooperative side of things.

Final thoughts

There’s a lot more I could say about State of Decay 2. As I mentioned in my preview of the game, it can be pretty rough around the edges, which is disappointing given that I was hoping to see a big improvement on the original game in this area.

I was also hoping to see a deeper and more interesting base building element, which never really masterialises here.

There’s also really nothing terribly interesting happening in terms of plot and characters, which actually feels like a slight step backwards from the original release.

Having said that, State of Decay 2 does make improvements in a number of areas. The cooperative play — while limited — is still a welcome and genuinely fun addition. The graphics are obviously greatly improved over the original, and I found that the combat and movement feel a lot better than the original too — including the gunplay, which is surprisingly robust here.

If you dearly loved the first State of Decay, then there’s a lot to like here. But if you’re even remotely on the fence — especially if you never played the original — I recommend exercising caution. There’s a lot to like about State of Decay 2, but there are just as many frustrating limitations and issues that restrict the overall experience.


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