Review: State of Decay

I’ve been thinking about stress in video games a lot lately. It seems to be the theme of the year that every second game I’ve played has built up some form of stress within me as I’ve played. And I count that as a good thing – stress means investment in what’s happening, you’re only stressed because in some way you care about some aspect of the game.

Stress was always the first thing I felt when starting up State of Decay again, after my initial jaunt with it the other week. If you haven’t read our preview and prefer the abridged format, here’s what I thought so far:

  • the AI companions who join you on occasion throughout can have a few pathfinding issues but are surprisingly competent in combat. You could stand back and let them handle a small group of zombies if you were so inclined, but at the loss of potential stat improvements for your character.
  • you can and should switch between available characters as you play, as each has their own skill set and you’ll want to periodically improve their stats to be level with everyone else.
  • if you’re me, you’ll get a real kick out of the game’s scavenging system, which has you weigh up time against potential unwanted zombie encounters.
  • the game has a tendency to throw features at you all at once, rather than introducing them slowly. Upon arriving at the first safehouse I spent some twenty minutes reading all of the tutorial information, which mostly left me confused.
  • just exploring the world can be fun on its own – particularly if you’re driving – though the experience can be hampered a bit by some frame rate issues. There’s variety to locations and the day and night system is changes things up nicely.

But the key point of the game that I hadn’t yet reached properly is the safehouse management system and the constant struggle to keep a community of survivors alive. This is undeniably the core of the game, and there’s definitely something refreshing about a game that seems centred on just surviving rather than making any progress towards escape or a cure or what have you. When I finished my preview I had just reached what could be considered the first point you really come to learn about how to manage a safehouse. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot to learn in the system. The game is centred around these locations, and there’s a wealth of decisions to be made and a big commitment to managing everything. It’s daunting at first, and remains daunting for a very long time.

You start off with a relatively small community of around maybe eight people, each of whom plays their own roles at the safehouse and can be reassigned based on stats or on what areas you think are more important. For example, you’ll want somebody on the watchtower at all times to keep an eye on any zombies getting close or else you might quickly find the area overrun. It can get even more intricate than that – you should assign somebody to the kitchens if you don’t want your survivors getting food poisoning. You can make outposts and change your base location – there is so much to change and it’s all up to you and what you think is best given the current situation.

More than that, you’ll need to ensure a constant supply of the resources your community needs to just barely continue surviving. Food, ammo, medicine, you’ll constantly be making supply runs to stock up on each of these and it’s very important to do so. Having no food means your survivors are starved and tired, not as efficient as they might otherwise be, and everything impacts the overall morale of the group, as well as your own reputation within it.

Reputation is its own system and one that fits very well into a zombie survival game. It’s earned by completing missions or supply runs – basically anything that helps the overall wellbeing of the group – and acts sort of like a reward system. Points can be used to take supplies out of storage (they’re also given for putting supplies in storage) meaning that you actually have to earn the right to use the items you want to use.

State of Decay is a game where there is always something happening. As a result, it’s a world that feels alive, even if most of its inhabitants are dead. Something new happens every five minutes or so, and seemingly at random. And it isn’t all focused around you and your immediate area. While scavenging for supplies in a faraway house you might be alerted to the fact that your base is under attack from a zombie horde. You make your way back over there and clear the area out (or you don’t, and let your survivors use precious resources to take care of it themselves), then examine the map again to figure out your next action only to discover that focused infestations of zombies have cropped up in several more locations. It’s a looming threat that always seems to be getting closer and, like some sort of video game hydra, every problem you solve only gets replaced by two more.

Things also happen independent of your actually playing the game. State of Decay includes a real-time system that affects certain elements of the game while you’re doing something else. Leaving the game for a few days means coming back to a veritable flood of bad messages – here’s all these survivors that you could have saved but were killed, by the way we’re running really low on food and everyone is tired also the zombies are getting really close to us you should really do something about that, guy. To get the best enjoyment out of this game means checking in on it often, or else all that bad news might be too much to come back from.

The game can throw too many of these problems at you at once, to the point where it feels completely impossible to manage, no matter what you do. Any number of things can happen while you’re simply traversing the world, and that sense of random surprise has its own merits, but too much is just too much, and if it piles up enough the game can stop feeling fun for a while. It comes down to making decisions – what’s the most important thing for the community right now, and what can I sacrifice to keep things going?

Through all of this management, the last thing on my mind was death, so it was surprising when my first character, Marcus, who I’d primarily played as since the beginning of the game, was savagely torn apart by zombies. The message ‘Marcus has been lost’ popped up at the top of the screen, and then I was back at the base, controlling another character as the remaining survivors lamented the loss of one of their own.

State of Decay features perma-death, and in one of the best ways. Losing Marcus has an impact because as he goes, all the items he has on him go too, but you’re also losing all of the time and investment you’ve put into upgrading that character. It gave for genuine pause as I realised that by relying on Marcus for so long in the game, I’d neglected to improve the stats of the other characters available to me. It meant that I was now stuck with low level characters again, and had to spend time improving them before I could do much else. Learn from my mistakes. Spend time playing as other characters. It’s not exactly all that easy to die – you usually have a chance to recover – but it can happen.

Individually, all of these features work well. If you isolate them and focus on them one at a time, there’s a lot to enjoy. Together, they’re incredibly stressful to manage, which is definitely the point and definitely something that’s enjoyable to an extent. I’m the kind of person who tackles everything one at a time – in life and in video games – so I took issue with some of the ways State of Decay handles these features.

In the end, State of Decay wasn’t really for me. I recognise it’s by and large the result of the way I play games. It may not be for me, but the exact reasons that I disliked the game may be things that anyone else will love, and I can see why they would. It’s hectic, and it’s difficult, and if you can invest the time in trying to sort out the hectic mess and let your community grow, you’ll find it a very worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

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