State of Decay 2: Telling Your Own Zombie Survival Story [Hands-on Preview]

I’ve always considered myself as the “get mauled in the first wave” type if the zombie apocalypse ever plagued our planet. My self-deprecating suspicions were confirmed during my recent State of Decay 2 preview where I got torn in half mere minutes after I loaded in. If this were a zombie movie, I wouldn’t have even lasted past the opening credits. But my handful of minutes in State of Decay 2’s world were my story. A short story, but mine nonetheless. And, according to design director Richard Foge, that’s what developer Undead Labs is going for.

“The story that is happening is your story,” said Foge. “It’s not a traditional narrative where I have this beautiful story that I want to take you through from beginning to end, where I know what’s going to happen with specific characters on this journey that you’re gonna go through. It’s really driven by the choices.”

State of Decay 2, unlike its predecessor, doesn’t have a thin plot that stitches together the survival mechanics; it’s just the survival mechanics. However, similar to the Breakdown expansion from the first game that inspired this sequel’s direction, State of Decay 2’s many variables interact and create those stories. Think about the revenge tales you created chasing rival Uruks in Middle-earth: Shadow of War or how hilarious it was when the (animal/vehicle/person) came out of nowhere attacked the (animal/vehicle/person) and they both (exploded/shot into space) in Far Cry 5. State of Decay 2 wants to, in its own way, emulate that brand of storytelling unique to video games.

Although instead of a rogue plane hitting a moose, the spontaneous moments revolve around the game’s core loop of building your base, gathering supplies, helping (or not helping) fellow survivors, and fending off zombies hordes and how all of those systems interact with each other. Keeping your survivors satisfied and collecting enough resources is nerve-wracking and, since your stamina and goods continually deplete, you must quickly choose where to go and what to bring with you when you head out. After all, building your base is the name of the game and you can’t do that cowering in your bunk.

State of Decay 2 Preview: Supplies and Demands

State of Decay 2 Supplies

Supply runs feed off the tension of limitation. Your backpack is small. Your ammo count is puny. You melee weapons break rather easily. People get tired and morale can drop if you aren’t efficient. It doesn’t sound overwhelming on paper, but it is, given how heavily base-building leans on menus and simulation-style micromanagement. Bases have limited spaces and choosing what facilities comes down how you want to specialize and what resources you have to build and repair your stations. Do you want guard towers to improve your defense against zombie hordes? Or an infirmary to better treat the sick and wounded? Or would you rather just install an original Xbox to raise morale and call it a day? I’d imagine that last one wouldn’t last you very long but at least you’ll go out playing Halo 2.

Spinning the plates is where State of Decay 2 is trying to push players into having their stories. Since you won’t have the luxury of infinite time and resources, you’ll eventually crack and make some mistakes. Or the game will make them for you. After getting mauled a few times after not taking enough supplies from my headquarters, I eventually wisened up. I was going to finally take out this disgusting, hive-like Plague Heart. I pulled up, shotgun in hand, blew a few zeds away and was quickly met with the horrifying click that signalled that my gun had jammed. My bat shattered soon after and, since Plague Hearts attract more aggressive zombies, I was stuck inside of World War Z with only a dinky pocket knife to defend myself. I think you know what happened next.

State of Decay 2 Preview: Surviving the Apocalypse with Friends

Even though almost every story I have from my demo is a slight variation on “I turned my body into a buffet,” the way I got pushed into that situation is different and that extended to the co-op. Up to three other people can jump into a host’s game and help them gather supplies and survive. They can’t overtly sabotage the host, as it is specifically geared towards cooperating, but they can work towards their own game by collecting gear in player-specific loot chests scattered around the map. And while the world doesn’t change or adapt to more players, the dynamic does while keeping the soul of the game intact, according to Foge.

“We wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that the heart of State of Decay was still present regardless of how many players that were interacting,” he explained. “It’s another layer: what that player brings to the mix, how they are making noise, how they are interacting with the simulation, how they are able to help you. It brings a lot to the existing game.”

Foge’s words made more sense when I jumped into the co-op portion of my demo. It felt like the same game with more people but not in a cheap way. Co-op fits both thematically and gameplay-wise and not in a way that feels like a band-aid covering a mediocre game. Since you can bring AI survivors with you anyway, recruiting friends felt like a natural extension of that but with the added joy of seeing what human interaction does with the many interwoven systems. As we were looting a police station for a specific mission item, one of our members shrieked out loud. I didn’t really pay attention until I absentmindedly followed his footsteps and was ambushed by a huge Juggernaut tucked away in a corner on the far edge of the building. Again, it’s still relatively the same exact game but with up to three more variables for the game’s sandbox to interact with.

State of Decay 2 Preview: Infected but Not Buggy

State of Decay 2 Launcher

Although a game-breaking glitch halted our co-op session, it served as the only jank I encountered in my four hours with the game. It’s odd to congratulate a game that didn’t collapse in on itself more than once, but it’s noteworthy given the numerous technical shortcomings of the first game. Not only did State of Decay 2 seem less buggy, it also looked and moved far better than its predecessor. The visuals were more colorful, the animations were smoother, the controls were more responsive, and the overall presentation seemed to have finally looked like it was from the decade it was produced in. While switching from CryEngine to Unreal Engine 4 caused them to basically “remake pretty much everything from the first game,” Foge claimed State of Decay 2’s newfound polish was because of Microsoft’s support.

“We were a small team rushing right up to the end [for the first State of Decay],” said Foge. “This time, the additional support from Microsoft, the relationship and support we have from them, and the QA front has helped a lot for helping to iron out a lot of the bugs and situations that we’ve been running into.”

Playing through a handful of hours of State of Decay 2 made that extra help abundantly clear. The great zombie survival sim core from the first game was a gem that was buried beneath a rough, rocky exterior. But, like any good precious stone, it just needed a little bit of polish to really shine. Venturing outside to upgrade and build your base is a bit repetitive in and of itself, but the grander scale of fostering a community and obsessing over the details was where the game was at its best. How long will that loop stay fresh? Will it become too much? It’s hard to tell but, if it all comes together, State of Decay 2 could finally successfully gamify how long we could survive the zombie apocalypse.