You wait ages for a zombie game and then – actually, no. You never wait ages for a zombie game, but State Of Decay emerging alongside Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us makes for a fascinating comparison all the same. Both games kick off with a nasty infection, but the two studios have very different ideas about how one should weather an apocalypse, and highly contrasting notions of what games should be.
State Of Decay is the systemic, emergent, player-choice-centred zombie game you’ve always had tense nightmares about. As an open-world survival sim that forces you to juggle resources, maintain defences and morale, venture forth on desperate reconnaissance missions and keep the neighbouring zombie population under control, Undead Labs has thrust an unusual amount of agency into our quaking, unprepared hands. Want to pick a new home to replace the old church you and your allies initially hole up in? By all means go and find one, but whether it’s in a defensible position or a convenient location is up to you. Want to pump resources into your fortifications? That’s fine, but you might have been better off establishing a few outposts farther afield. To play State Of Decay is to willingly submit yourself to an exhausting series of cost-benefit analyses. And you won’t know if you’ve made the correct choices until everyone dies.
It’s the game’s permanence that makes every choice in State Of Decay a fascinating, potentially catastrophic one. Ammo runs out, food supplies dwindle, and survivors perish – and this knowledge repeatedly forces you compromise. At first, it’s minor sacrifices, such as choosing not to help one of your allies on a zombie-hunting trip because you really need to track down more medicine for the HQ. Then come bigger decisions, such as deciding not to go in search of a missing survivor (who you probably should have helped earlier) because there’s a horde marching towards your door. Because State Of Decay lets you flick between characters at will, presuming you’ve earned their trust, everyone is expendable: there’s no player character firmly encased in plot armour for the duration of the campaign.
There’s such a jumble of systems, rules and objectives in State Of Decay that it’s a wonder it holds together. It nearly doesn’t, since the core survival sim is infinitely more interesting than the low-production-value GTA-with-zombies storyline surrounding it. You can defer story missions indefinitely, but the game doesn’t bother to explain this, or to draw a clear distinction between the core storyline and its optional, time-sensitive objectives. And that’s just one instance of the arcane inscrutability throughout, which also manifests itself in the form of unusual controls; crucial, location-sensitive menus hidden behind a downward tap of the D-pad; and overreliance on overlong tutorial texts, which pop up at their own discretion in the top-left corner of the screen. State Of Decay is already unforgiving, and gains nothing from being elusive about its inner workings. Likewise, the impact of its choices and strategic decisions would be in no way lessened had they been presented more clearly.
With so many genres jostling for attention here, it was inevitable some aspects of the game would shamble along less elegantly than others, and it’s the combat that suffers. Undead Labs’ system seems intentionally clunky, focusing on crude melee attacks and a rapidly depleted stamina gauge. But the execution is clunky, too, filled with jarring, instant transitions to finishers and a reliance on an RPG-like levelling system that can make early encounters particularly gruelling. Fighting with allies makes things easier, though the AI is awfully prone to running into the grenades and Molotovs you limply toss in front you. “Trust lost – ally set on fire,” we’re told every time this happens. We’d have hoped we could have trusted them to keep away from a flame. Combat also provides opportunities for the game’s ever-present performance issues to blossom into full-blown environmental hazards, as screen tearing, pop-in texture glitches and framerate drops interfere with dense crowd battles and panicked escapes.
As a base-building management sim, however, State Of Decay fares better, with a clear enough interface (once you find it) and a never-ending procession of dilemmas. Keep rescuing survivors from nearby enclaves and morale in your cramped base will drop until you build a new sleeping area. But that sleeping area will fill the space you had earmarked for a vegetable patch to counter the nearby town’s rapidly diminishing food supplies. Crucially, your decisions here will spill out into the wider game: focus on defensibility, for instance, and you’ll remain secure at the cost of needing to go on more frequent supply runs.
State Of Decay works because it takes the clichés of zombie fiction – clashing survivor personalities, scavenging for supplies, roaming hordes, infested houses, amateurishly fortified safehouses – and successfully translates them into a set of intersecting systems and rules. Sometimes these rules seem arbitrary. Scavenge too quickly through houses for supplies, for example, and you might, somehow, make such a racket while rifling through a backpack that a crowd of nearby undead draws near. At other points, they integrate beautifully, such as when your attempt to clear out an infestation that’s affecting the morale of your safehouse alerts a nearby horde. The game never judges you, offering no morality system despite the frequent dilemmas and difficult choices its systems organically generate. But it certainly tests you. This is as close as we’ve come to putting our lazily daydreamed zombie survival plans into effect.
State Of Decay is out now on Xbox 360.