Death is imminent and death is permanent; that's the number one fact to keep in mind at all times while playing State of Decay. It all comes down to a simple mistake, miscalculation or distraction and before you know it, your favorite and most experienced character is gone for good. State of Decay doesn't hold your hand and it doesn't take any prisoners.
State of Decay is the flagship title for its developer, Undead Labs, originally debuting on the Xbox Live Arcade almost two years ago for the Xbox 360. It's easily comparable to other games of the same genre and themes, such as Dead Rising or Dead Island, but the difference is the fact that State of Decay focuses more on actual survival, stealth and evasion, securing diminishing resources and moving through the game world more than hack-and-slash zombie combat. At launch, it had a surprising $19.99 price tag and it was an absolute steal.
It wasn't until a few hours into the game where I first experienced the true permanence of death and it was truly upsetting. After stepping into the shoes of Corporal Maya Torres about twenty minutes into the game, I spent most of the time playing as her until she was tired and injured and needed a bit of rest. That's when I switched to Marcus, the first playable character in the game and miscalculated by abilities against a Juggernaut (imagine a Bloater in Left 4 Dead but with the power of a Demolisher from Dying Light) and was ripped in two.
The issue herein is that there's hardly any character development in State of Decay, save for the characters pertinent to the ever elusive campaign; so when you lose a character, you're not sad because they've died, you're sad because you've lost a playable character and now you're down to five. Survivors can be recruited and befriended to allow for playability, but early on in the game, the playable population isn't in abundance. Sure, you may have twelve characters in your community, but some are designed for certain tasks and will not accompany you into the world beyond the fortifications or are already on a mission and cannot be played at the current moment. So if your current character is fatigued, injured or what-have-you, you'll have to either push on or head home and wait until someone else is available to take the reins. Death is disturbingly permanent in this game and there's no getting around it. Fortunately, you'd have to be a complete fool to lose all of your characters without picking up some more unless it's deliberate. I'm not sure what happens when all of your characters are dead. I'm not about to attempt it either.
State of Decay is surrounded by the concept of delivering a true, survival experience and permanent death is certainly the leading factor in that intention. However, so is the topic of surviving itself and that comes by way of gathering supplies. Your main goal in the game is to essentially build and maintain a community of survivors and that means scavenging for resources like food, weapons, oil and gasoline, building material, etc. You are basically the leader and, of course, like in typical video game fashion, that means you have to do all of the hard work. You'll be the one to venture out for supplies and radio ahead for fellow scavengers to help bring the rest back. Just be sure to clear the way, because survivors can and will die even without your direct control if they're overwhelmed by the undead. You can locate places of interest, nearby vehicles, zombie hordes or even "special" zombies with their own behaviors, abilities and complications.
In addition to the community under your wing, there are other survivors in their own enclaves to communicate with, visit, assist and possibly recruit. Some may have supplies to trade, missions to complete with your help or simply exist to fill the void of being potentially alone within a deadly apocalypse. The latter often reside in plain sight with no fortifications, so it's not uncommon to drive down the road and catch them out of your peripheral vision being attacked by zombies. Lend a hand or don't; sometimes they'll survive on their own, sometimes they won't. That's my ultimate gripe with State of Decay, is that the game pretty much puts you on a pedestal as the hero of the game and you have to save everyone because they're too useless to fend for themselves. Nine out of ten times, you might just feel guilty for not stopping to help because you really just want to get a mission done and there's the little notification saying so-and-so died.
Scavenging for supplies is both enjoyable and daunting. You'll often find rucksacks which are filled with supplies to boost the count back at home and allow for building, cooking meals for the survivors, etc. and you can only carry one at a time. You're able to load rucksacks and individual items into the trunk of a vehicle and transport more home at once, but your only other option is to either radio for a runner to gather the rest or return yourself. Scavenging also makes a bit of noise and takes a few seconds, but you're able to search for items faster, at the cost of a random, loud crashing sound that attracts a massive amount of zombies to your location. Scavenging is the most important activity in the game, alongside survival itself. Without enough supplies, your community's morale will decrease, survivors will be forced to go without and may just leave for good.
Weapons are available by way of edged and blunt melee objects as well as firearms, though the latter will attract the undead without a suppressor and ammunition is understandably not in abundance. Firearms are usually best saved for hordes of zombies and the most challenging ones, such as Juggernauts which are able to kill you with a single attack if your luck is poor enough. Firearms are also slightly rare in the earlier parts of the game though I did manage to find one about half an hour in, but quite a bit of time in between finding a second. Pistols would appear to be more rare than rifles, but once one is located, it seems more become easy to find as well.
Visually, State of Decay is just as immersive as its gameplay, save for a few issues that persist since its original launch in 2013. The environments are absolutely beautiful and really capture an untouched world to the naked eye. Forest regions are still lush and the hillsides and canyons of the mid-west really stand out. You wouldn't know there was a zombie invasion until one actually set foot on the ground, especially when venturing into the three towns, where buildings are ravaged, windows are broken and the only source of "life" roaming the streets are the red-eyed, decomposed, cannibalistic creatures ready to attack anything still remotely human.
The true and unfortunate downside is that the same glitches and bugs are present from the Xbox 360 version; zombies still frequently clip through walls, closed doors and even the floor, which presents an unfair advantage over you at times. There's nothing worse than scavenging for supplies when a zombie comes out of nowhere without the sound of a door being burst open or a window being broken, allowing them access inside. There are also some texture issues in which some textures have a hard time loading or simply fail to do so. While these issues aren't exactly taking away from the experience, there's really no excuse as to why they're still present two years later in a definitive copy on a next-generation system.
Sound effects seem to be unfortunately lacking as well. Some firearms sound almost identical despite their differences, vehicles tend to drive silently (yet still manage to attract zombies) except for muscle cars which seem to be unnecessarily loud. The music, when there is any playing, is decent but nothing to write home about, which is shocking considering that Jesper Kyd was the composer. In my experience, there was more silence and sound effects than actual music and when music was playing, it was either generic, quiet instrumentals or loud noise, depending on the situation. The intense, action music (or at least that's what was intended) was more distracting and unnecessary than anything else, in my opinion. Although, there was one moment early in the game where the music was pretty good and reminiscent of the scene in Mass Effect 3 as Commander Shepard left Earth.
Stealth elements in State of Decay have their uses, but it's rare that I've actually properly utilized the feature. I always found it easier for me to just eliminate any zombies in the area and then proceed with my scavenging and exploration. Practically everything you do makes a noise that will attract anything in a ten-foot radius, so I often found myself attempting to use the stealth to take out zombies quietly just to raise the skill. The zombies literally have no predetermined path, save for the ones who just stand around or linger in the same location, but their vision appears to be that of a hawk with a telescope, so once you're spotted, the entire local population knows it too. It almost makes you question the point, unless I'm just doing something wrong.
The Year One Survival Edition of State of Decay also includes the two downloadable add-ons from the Xbox 360 version: Breakdown and Lifeline, which are standalone, playable expansions that add new characters and weapons, of which are only available in their respective expansions. You won't find any of Breakdown or Lifeline's weapons in the main game, sadly, but are still enjoyable in their own standalone.
Breakdown essentially offers an unlimited, open-ended experience. There's no campaign, there's no final mission and your only objective is to survive. Like in the main game, you'll find your home and fortify it, locate survivors, scavenge for supplies, set up outposts, relocate to a larger base when your community overpopulates, etc. Everything from the main game is available, except the difference is in Breakdown, the difficulty seems to slowly increase until you fail and die. It makes sense though. You're crafting your own story and trying to stay alive, but it ties into classic zombie text: the zombies always win. Your survivors' penultimate peril isn't a matter of if, but a matter of when. Supplies and resources might be more scarce or far and few between, but the more you play, the more competent and effective your fellow survivors will be.
Lifeline is a more story-driven experience that takes place in the city of Danforth where the player controls Greyhound One — a small surviving unit sent to the fallen city of Danforth to rescue scientists, researchers and civilians who are deemed critical to investigating and fighting the outbreak. The essential, non-expendable VIPs, if you will. Like Breakdown, it adds a lot of new weapons, these more military based. Introducing a new location, the city of Danforth is shrouded in some sort of mist, so visibility is much lower than in Breakdown and the main game.
The one, true feature missing from the overall experience is any kind of online co-op component. With a game so large in scope, with so much to do and a strong emphasis on survival, an online component to receive any kind of competent help from a friend would have been a welcomed addition. It also would have been a hell of a lot of fun, but rumor has it that Undead Labs' upcoming sequel to State of Decay will feature online components.
As it stands, State of Decay serves as a beacon for what true survival gameplay is all about. It's been a long time coming that we have a true, open-world zombie survival title on the shelves, and with the State of Decay Year One Survival Edition, we receive the entire package for an amazing price.
You can't go wrong. Unless your characters die; then you went wrong somewhere.