The first State of Decay game is about as close as we’ve got so far to an all-encompassing zombie apocalypse survival situation. The various The Walking Dead games, Resident Evils, and countless other zombie games do an admirable job of presenting a plot based around an undead plague, but it’s State of Decay alone that has put players in the role of managing all the facets of building a community a world where humans are critically endangered.
The original State of Decay was terrific for the time, especially given its origins as an Xbox Arcade title from brand-new developer Undead Labs It did so good that Microsoft Game Studios snatched up Undead Labs and supported them on their work for State of Decay 2. The first game was a little rough around the edges, so I had hoped that the support of a large publisher would allow Undead Labs to hone the combination of resource management, base-building, and combat that made their debut game so intriguing.
For better or worse, in almost every facet of State of Decay 2 is a replica of the original, and this includes bugginess. In the push to get more exclusive titles out there, I feel as though Microsoft Game Studios might have jumped the gun on State of Decay 2 a bit. After the reception of Sea of Thieves and the sentiments that game was released before development had really finished, I figured that this game would be a more polished experience. However, like Sea of Thieves, it feels like State of Decay 2 could have used a few more months of work before it hit shelves.
State of Decay 2 Review: The Living
As in the first game, the core gameplay loop in State of Decay 2 focuses around your base and community of survivors. Initially, you’ll have three survivors huddled in a somewhat fortified two-story house, desperate for supplies and utterly alone. Your first goal is to scavenge what you can from around the map to improve your situation, gain more influence (the game’s currency), and eventually move your group to better digs.
The beginning is where this game shines. You’re exploring the map, likely with a lousy hatchet, some bandages, and a few bags of chips being the only things between you and the abyss. There are few scripted events in the game, and there’s indeed a sense of emergent horror as you slink around in the dark hoping the next building you enter has the supplies you need to push your group just a little bit further towards security.
Eventually, you’ll find a firearm, and then a vehicle and your bleak existence will get a little brighter. You’ll start getting calls from other survivor enclaves in the area, and you’ll start meeting more and more potential allies. You’ll also set your sights on taking out the Plague Hearts that litter the map, which is the overarching goal of the game.
It’s during this mid-game hubbub that things start taking a more mechanical feel. You’ll still have to keep a steady stream of supplies flowing to your base, and there’s always the threat of biting off more than you can chew when going up against a Plague Heart, but the challenge of the game fades early on.
State of Decay 2 Review: The Point
Unlike the original, State of Decay 2 doesn’t have a cohesive plot. State of Decay‘s story was far from award-winning, but it at least kept driving you forward. In the second game, the plot is limited to radio transmissions between people that you don’t meet in the game (at least I didn’t) and generic missions from other survivor enclaves that seem to occur at random.
Instead of linear story trees, one of the primary objectives State of Decay 2 tasks you to do is eliminate all the Plague Hearts on a map. This can take a while since each one you take out makes the rest stronger but isn’t too tricky once you start finding/crafting explosives.
You also have to pick a leader among your survivors. Each survivor has a standing according to how much influence you’ve earned. Everyone starts as a recruit, then progresses to a citizen, then a hero. Once a community member is a hero, you can promote them to the leader of the enclave, which then sets one of four goals for your band of survivors.
Sherriff leaders will get missions that have them settling disputes and rescuing others. Warlords will desire to build an armory and take out other enclaves that threaten to outgun your community. Traders want to trade with as many other survivors as possible. Finally, builders want to build up your home site as much as possible.
Each of these four leader types gives you a unique set of random missions that are added to the rotation you can get from other enclaves. It also unlocks a bonus building and some exclusive upgrades. Once you’ve taken out all the Blood Plague Hearts, you will get a unique mission to leave a legacy for your community. Fulfilling this ends the game for your community and allows you to start a whole new one with bonuses earned from your first playthrough.
State of Decay 2 Review: The Damned
Once you have a car, getting around the map becomes more of a chore than a risk. No zombie can keep up with any vehicle, and only one of the unique types can withstand being hit by one. Plague Hearts too become less of a worry as you’ll find (and later be able to craft) enough flammables and explosives to pulverize them within seconds.
The first game struck a better balance when it came to difficulty, and I feel like a bit of the urgency and challenge is gone. Also, the only random events that I’ve encountered are ones in which a small number of resources are expended for one reason or another, or if morale is low someone gets mad and threatens to leave if I don’t get x resource.
The original game had your community members going about their business, gathering resources, or hunting zombies. There was a chance for them to get killed, or bring back materials. In State of Decay 2 though, the only real threat any community member faces is if you take them with you. As long as they’re at the base in this game, they’ll never do anything but stick around there and fight any zombies that might wander in.
I can’t say I’m not disappointed with the lack of initiative shown by NPCs now. Another missing feature is the passage of time when you’re not playing. In the first game, time passed even when you were logged out, and survivors would move about doing their own thing. You could come back to positive news, like new items/supplies being scavenged by a community member, or terrible news like someone going missing or committing suicide.
Since they just chill in your base, only really wanting to go on the random mission now and again (in which case you have to control them) or complaining when you don’t have enough food, ammo, or other essential, everyone in your community feels like an extra life now.
State of Decay 2 Review: The Dead
One of the big disappointments of State of Decay 2 is that enemy design hasn’t meaningfully changed in comparison to the original. Only one new enemy type can be encountered (as far as I’ve seen) and that’s the Plague Heart. Plague Hearts are big, stationary, pulsating mounds of flesh which can spawn in Blood Plague Zombies when attacked.
Plague Hearts and Blood Plague Zombies are both parts of a new mechanic introduced in State of Decay 2. Regular zombies (yellow eyes) and freaks can kill you by wearing your health down, but Blood Plague carriers (zombies with red eyes) can infect your character with Blood Plague. When a Plague Zombie hits you, a bar will start to fill above the mini-map. Once it’s full, your survivor contacts Blood Plague and only has a limited time until they turn into a zombie.
The progress of the plague can be arrested at an infirmary at the cost of medical supplies. However, if the timer or your medical supplies run out, your survivor is permanently reduced to a zombie. There are a few options to deal with the plague, the best of which is synthesizing a cure. However, you’ll need a survivor who knows the medicine skill and Blood Plague samples.
With the initial community you get after the tutorial you already have someone trained in medicine, so Blood Plague will likely be a none issue in your first playthrough. However, in random starts, you may find it more of a nuisance. In any case, it’s not that hard to get the cure, which makes the mechanic seem more imposing than it is.
Another area I believe State of Decay 2 suffers in comparison to the first is the number of undead it’s constantly throwing at you. In the first game, each zombie or freak was more lethal, and it threw less of them at you. This made hoards attacking your base a big deal, and it wasn’t impossible to be overrun.
State of Decay 2 Review: Basic Bases
In the second game, it seems like there’s a constant low-level assault on your base, with zombies just running in throw your gates all the time. Individual attacks and hoards attacking your home are practically meaningless though. If you’re away, your community will always be able to defend itself successfully, and if you’re on the premises, it’s just a few waves that will net you some influence.
Also gone in the second game are meaningful defenses you can set up. In the original State of Decay, it was almost essential to man at least one guard tower no matter where you lived. In State of Decay 2 when I built a watchtower, I don’t think I once saw a survivor man it. Whether this is a glitch or a dumbing down of the AI, I’m not sure, but the whole thing seems less dynamic than before.
Instead, your base is more of a place to build stats and modifiers and deposit items at. The excitement of moving your community to a new home is blunted by the fact that none of them feel different than any other this time around other than having more space and a few unique built-in facilities.
Additionally, I never found any massive home sites like the trucking warehouse or fairgrounds from the first game, and building a community any larger than ten members starts becoming increasingly taxing on your resources since there’s not enough space to grow food and construct beds. The whole base system was one of the draws of the first game, and I was hoping to see an expansion of the mechanic with the new game. Instead, it seems like it has taken a step back.
State of Decay 2 Review: A Bug’s Life
So, State of Decay 2 has some gameplay changes I didn’t enjoy. However, I could have been a little softer on what I consider to be the dumbing down of the series if the new game wasn’t so buggy. There’s nothing I’ve run into that’s quite game-breaking, but there’s plenty of issues that are just irritating.
For one, there’s a function in the radio menu to get you unstuck. Meaning that the developers were so aware of how easy it is to get your vehicles or player character stuck in the game’s geometry that they added a function to unstick you. Instead of solving the collision issues in the game, it seems like Undead Labs just stuck a band-aid on it.
NPC AI also leaves a lot to be desired in State of Decay 2. Your community members are useless in a fight to the point where I quit taking them with me when I was out scavenging. Countless times I’d be searching a crate or something for some items to salvage and hear the moan of a zombie. I figured since my partner was nearby, surely they’d take out the zombie without my input. Nope.
For some reason, the partner AI seems to have a delayed reaction to the undead being nearby. There were plenty of times where multiple AI companions would sit slack-jawed while a zombie crunched on my neck. At other times they were almost too lethal.
When the AI finally gets in gear, it’s an almost unconquerable force of nature. I’ve had NPC partners surrounded by eight or more zombies and not seem like they took a scratch. They can face down freaks like Ferals and Juggernauts too without batting an eye. I feel like the AI would eventually die, but I never saw it happen.
When the AI doesn’t have questionable combat skills, it’s disappearing. There’s a bug where sometimes your AI companion falls off the face of the earth. When it’s a community member, I found that they’d eventually reappear back at base. However, if they disappear, it counts towards your follower max. That means you can’t bring anyone else along until the disappearing NPC warps back to, and you dismiss them. This is especially frustrating with non-community NPCs because it can make completing an assigned mission impossible.
There are also issues with zombies spawning in the air and falling to the ground as you approach, which typically happens when you’re driving. At least one vehicle’s textures would continuously flicker while it was on screen as well, though this bug was localized to PC only.
State of Decay 2 Review: Multiplayer Hater
One of the significant drawbacks of the original in fan’s eyes was the lack of multiplayer, and one of Undead Labs’ major goals for State of Decay 2 was to include support for online play between human-controlled communities. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check it out during my time with the game so far.
During the review period, I could not connect to a multiplayer game. Whether it was that there weren’t enough people with early copies for matchmaking to work or that the servers weren’t on yet, I have no idea. The way it’s been described to work is that the host player will have free reign to go wherever in their game as usual. The second player will be tethered to the host so that they can’t get too far away without being warped back near the first player.
So, if you were hoping to build a community with a friend (or a rival one to oppose them) the multiplayer seems a lot more simplistic. Inventory and influence gained in a friend’s game will come back with you to your base when you return to the single-player mode, and you can access your base’s inventory even when a friend is hosting a game.
Permadeath also seems to be a thing in co-op. You die as your character in a game hosted by someone else, and that survivor is dead in your single-player save as well.
State of Decay 2 Review: Don’t Pass it Up on Game Pass
State of Decay 2 is a flawed game, and it seems to suffer from Microsoft’s increased demand for exclusive titles. If it had about six more months or so of development time, it’s likely that the tone of this review would be very different. However, it’s undeniable that aspects of this game were rushed and there’s not any significant jump in gameplay or design from the first game. In fact, in several areas, I feel like some of the more unique aspects of the first game have been chopped down to make a much blander package.
However, if you own an Xbox One, it’s worth a play on Xbox Game Pass. The original State of Decay is also available via game pass, and if you haven’t played it, it’s a great game as well. I’m not sure I would recommend picking up the standard edition for $30 (releasing May 22). I definitely wouldn’t grab the ultimate edition for $50 (releasing May 18) because the four days early access isn’t worth $20 and even though it includes the upcoming DLC there’s a genuine chance the game might not be your cup of tea.
There’s still plenty of fun to be had in State of Decay 2, though, especially if you liked the original. The multiplayer looks to add a fun, new twist on the formula as well, and perhaps with some TLC via patches the game will turn around and outshine the original. For now, though, I recommend checking it out on Game Pass where you’ll get the best bang for your buck.