Shambling its way onto the Australian Xbox Live Arcade marketplace after a tumultuous run in with the Australian Classification Board, the open-world zombie survival game State of Decay is a refreshingly distinctive take on a zombie game that sinks its teeth into you and rarely lets go.
Throwing you into the deep end right off the bloodstained baseball bat, the debut title from Seattle-based Undead Labs isn’t shameful of its near non-existent narrative thread. Your journey for the most part is non-linear. Where most games steadily feed you a meticulously crafted story at every turn, State of Decay features no such structure, rather taking joy in its charmfully raw form where you’re asked to create your own path.
You play a variety of characters, starting as Marcus, a regular bloke who’s just returned from a canoe trip with his mate Ed, only to find every person at the base camp suddenly has an appetite for brains. With your flimsy 2×4 in hand you eventually meet other survivors and soon learn that the goal to ‘winning’ isn’t a matter of killing everything that moves. Instead, you’re asked to use your powers of logic, creativity, exploration, stealth and tact to survive in this unforgiving world that at every turn is trying vehemently to stop you from accomplishing just that.
Expectedly, the first method of doing this involves fighting off hordes of the undead with the tools and weapons at your disposal, which for the most part aren’t easily found. While the close combat system is very simple in its button-mashy action form, its depth of combat can be found in the choices you make both prior to and during your engagement with the many “zeds” that infect the world. Rely too heavily on using your sturdy crowbar to dish out damage and you’ll soon find yourself fatigued, depleted of stamina and unable to fight or retreat. However, choose to utilise the more effective but minimal ammo in your firearm and your echoing discharges will quickly invite neighbouring zombies into the fray.
Sound isn’t restricted to the amount your firearm produces either. Throttling cars, choosing to sprint, searching impatiently through drawers, fridges, cupboards and the like all generate audio bait for the hordes around you. Using this to your advantage becomes a necessity the further you progress, so be prepared to carry firecrackers or an alarm clock in your backpack as a means of auditory distraction before approaching an infected household. Unless of course you’re audacious enough to trust in yourself and anyone of your partnering survivors: buddied NPC’s that may choose to help you as you explore provided you’ve earned enough of their trust through the game’s Influence system.
Almost every action you take has a certain impact on how your fellow survivors trust you. Return to basecamp with a stash of food, building materials, medical supplies or fuel and this will grant you more Influence, allowing you to make decisions regarding how you upgrade your camp whether it be through the construction of a workshop to repair vehicles and weapons or more beds to house struggling survivors nearby. Combine this resource economy system with the ability to establish outposts in buildings you’ve secured and trading supplies with other surviving folk in neighbouring townships and you soon find yourself a small part of a world that is slowly regaining its once imperceptible pulse.
The more you accomplish, the more this becomes evident and it shows in the way the world expresses itself. Simply take a stroll around your basecamp after clearing a few infected buildings, rescuing a survivor and stumbling upon a cache of ammunition, and celebrate a small personal victory as a subtle and heart-warming acoustic guitar piece serves as a gentle and beautiful reminder that, for the moment, you’re doing ok.
However for every resounding, emotional triumph there are several visual bugs and glitches that at times remove you from the seamlessness of the experience. AI pathing issues are the most prevalent causing zombies to pursue you by illogically leaping out of a window and then back through the same window to attack you. Other times you’ll crash whatever vehicle you may be driving into a taxi that hasn’t quite loaded into the world just yet, or hit an invisible wall beneath a fallen tree that you should clearly be able to crawl under. On top of occasional frame rate drops, these issues aren’t game-breaking by any stretch of the imagination, simply common symptoms of an imperfect open-world sandbox that unfortunately remind you you’re playing an XBLA game and not struggling to survive in an otherwise incredibly immersive world.
Despite these slight imperfections, the player journey that ebbs and flows from times of turmoil and trepidation to moments of relief and revelry cannot be denied. Deprived of any traditional cut scenes and floundering with substandard voice-overs, the connection you have with the survivors – your teammates, your only friends – is miraculously unmistakable.
Like a welcome ray of sunshine after a treacherous night of scavenging, State of Decay is a testament to just how much the concepts of player choice, creativity and exploration can enrich the open-world genre. The daring developers at Undead Labs have created a true sandbox that places its trust in the player and proves that an action zombie game is nowhere near as interesting as a game about survival that happens to feature action and zombies as well.
State of Decay is available on Xbox Live Arcade for 1600 Microsoft Points. You can hear more of Shane’s thoughts on State of Decay on his podcast here.