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There’s an old saying, that war is months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Turns out the apocalypse is remarkably similar. When the world ends, provided you make it through the initial die-off, the reasons you might perish afterwards are embarrassingly mundane. A poorly maintained weapon, for instance. Rattling some screws too loudly while searching for toilet paper. Or maybe just falling off a billboard because you’re too dumb to climb down the ladder.
In State of Decay 2, zombies are honestly the least of your concerns.
A fresh take on old ideas
Your biggest concern is the game breaking in one of a million different ways, but I’ll get to that later. State of Decay 2, like its predecessor, is a zombie-filled survival game. You’re given control of a group of survivors, average people with average skills, and tasked with corralling them into some semblance of a society.
Food. Fuel. Ammo. Building materials. Medicine. These are your primary concerns in State of Decay 2, the supplies you need to prolong your group’s survival. Every day, your stockpiles dwindle a bit more. Your only recourse is to build them back up again, gathering treasures big and small from the empty buildings around your base and hauling them home. You’ll build out your base, adding a watchtower or a garden or a generator in the limited slots available to you. Occasionally you might even add a new person or two, expand your fledgling society at the cost of more mouths to feed. You’ll head back out for more supplies.
Once the nearby buildings are empty, you’re forced to roam further and further afield until eventually it makes more sense to raise stakes and build a new base, start the cycle of looting all over again.
It’s a simple loop. It’s a shallow loop. It’s also an effective one.
“What would you do in case zombies attacked?” Everyone’s got a different answer. Maybe you’d barricade the local ammo supply store. Maybe you’d take over Home Depot or another business with an abundance of lumber and barbed wire. Maybe you’d secure that small and impractical building that nevertheless has a commanding view of the surrounding landscape.
State of Decay 2 is maybe the best survival game I’ve played when it comes to capturing that fantasy. Not to say it’s the best survival game I’ve played period, because it isn’t. I loved what I played of Subnautica for instance, and I don’t think State of Decay 2 is nearly as unique nor as polished. But Subnautica’s uniqueness was also a barrier. It’s doubtful I’ll ever be trapped on some sort of ocean planet, forced to survive by consuming various underwater flora and fauna.
State of Decay 2 is eminently recognizable. With the exception of a soldier-type you meet early on, its characters are mostly normal citizens, ill-equipped to survive in this new world—a nurse, a pair of best friends who like movie trivia, a musician, and so on. The voice acting is spotty and the animations are mostly bad, but you know these people. You’ve met these archetypes in real life, even if it’s just in a friend-of-a-friend way. If the apocalypse were to happen, it’s easy to envision a future where circumstance throws these very ordinary people together.
The same goes for the locations. State of Decay 2 shines best when you’re just wandering the streets of its nondescript suburbs and admiring the scenery. I’ve become particularly fond of a town called “Lowl,” dominated by a church on a small pastoral hill, with numerous restaurants and a few office buildings in whatever qualifies as its downtown. It’s home to me.
State of Decay 2 manages to make landmarks from the mundane, and does so surprisingly often. In one town, I forget its name but it was near where I started, there was a donkey statue in the central intersection. Suddenly that’s something to latch on to, a touchstone to guide you. And it doesn’t even need to be that obvious—down the street was a military checkpoint, a generic assortment of concrete barricades and chicken wire fences, and yet every time I saw it I knew I was close to the safety of my base again.
There’s also a comforting logic to these locations. The construction site on the edge of town? Full of building materials. The local pizzeria? There’s food there. The army checkpoint? Lots of ammo, as you’d expect.
It’s mundane to a fault, and that’s (oddly enough) what makes it compelling. State of Decay 2 banks off the same appeal as European Truck Simulator to an extent, or Planet Coaster or Cities: Skylines or Project Cars. It wears the trappings of a simulator, despite its patently unrealistic setup.
And it’s oppressive. Not too difficult, mind you, but the tension in State of Decay 2 is palpable. Nights are dark here, and that’s actually one of my favorite aspects. Most games feel like this old film term, day-for-night, where nighttime shoots are faked (poorly) by limiting film exposure. Surprise, it looks like poorly-exposed film shot during the day. You can see everything.
Not here. Nighttime in State of Decay 2 means maybe five feet of visibility. Zombies lurch out of the darkness with zero warning, even with your flashlight on. Why go out, then? Well, you don’t have to, but every minute you waste is another minute where your supplies are running down. Choosing to stay safe at home all night isn’t always an option.
There’s so much more I could dig into, just on the singleplayer side. For instance, your characters don’t just level up skills, but also their relation to the community. Top-tier survivors can then become head of your local government, opening up new quests, new building upgrades, and so on. It’s cool stuff.
Survive together, thrive together
But let’s talk about co-op instead, since that’s the most anticipated addition to State of Decay 2—and for good reason! In a game about forming a post-apocalyptic society, it makes sense you’d want to form that society with other (real) humans.
Unfortunately, co-op play is where State of Decay 2 stumbles hardest, and consistently.
The core idea is great, you and up to three friends all exploring the countryside together and killing off hordes of zombies. Like the loot-collection stage of a Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds match, State of Decay 2 is a great side activity while you hang out and chat. It’s threatening enough to keep you on your toes, while also packing enough downtime to encourage social interludes.
As I noted last month though, the lack of a true co-op mode is a real disappointment. You can’t just build a base with three friends, or even share a world where all four of you have your own bases working in tandem. Instead, everyone enters the host’s world, then contributes supplies back to the host’s society. Said host is also the only player able to interface with the base building and management side of things.
In other words: Your co-op buddies are glorified gofers.
I can see why the developers did it this way, but it’s pretty unsatisfying if you’re anyone but the host. You’re putting your characters at risk—they can still die or become infected with the “blood plague”—for almost zero benefit. And you use your own inventory, so your weapons and ammo stockpiles are also negatively affected, again for almost zero benefit.
And even on the host side it’s not perfect. There are some anti-griefing measures in place—as I said, players only have access to their own inventories. Probably smart. But your fellow players can still be a hindrance more than a help. Recording our co-op video at the top of this article, for instance, I was amazed my colleague Adam Patrick Murray could steal my pristine car, one I’d risked life and limb to collect, and just drive off with it, run the fuel tank dry, crash it into whatever. Cars aren’t the absolute rarest of resources, but there was still no protection against him ditching it in the middle of nowhere with zero repercussions.
Bugs won’t die
Then there are the bugs, and I’ve attached this to the co-op section because that’s where the most egregious problems arise.
Not that the singleplayer side is perfect. It’s not. One of my favorite bugs? Zombies spawn in randomly as you explore, and often the game will spawn zombies in 15 to 20 feet above the ground where they’ll simply float peacefully until you get closer. I don’t know if that’s caused by a difference in draw distance between the PC and Xbox One versions? But it’s silly.
Less silly are myriad issues with companion characters disappearing, animations getting stuck, characters being unable to climb up a six-inch ledge, characters neglecting to grab the ladder and jumping off a building to their deaths, and so on. It’s janky. The PC controls are also terrible, evidently a straight port of the Xbox One buttons at times. Using the Right Bracket key “]” to restore defaults in the options screen? Bold.
And State of Decay 2 cheats sometimes. There’s a cool mechanic involved in searching containers for loot—basically, you can search the usual way (which takes maybe 10 to 15 seconds per container) or hold down Shift and “Fast Search” in around half the time. The tradeoff: Searching quickly sometimes makes noise. The problem is State of Decay 2 will spawn in zombies to “react” to the noise, even if you’ve killed all the zombies in the area. I think that’s cheap. If I’ve killed everything in sight, I should be able to search as fast as I want. I’ve earned it.
In any case, co-op is the real minefield. During my time with the game, sneaking characters were often rendered halfway through the ground, or in one case as a T-pose model lying down and simply gliding on their back. Adam couldn’t see the supply crate to access his inventory, so he had no way of getting weapons out or depositing items back in after an excursion. Flashlights flickered or were invisible. Players got stuck on each other, or stuck in animations, or stuck in doors. I’d often see a door that was open, then when I ran towards it I’d smack into an invisible wall with an “Open” prompt—which would then open the door a second time.
Most of these issues are harmless, but they’re very persistent. Playing State of Decay 2 this past week, it seemed like the game broke in new and fascinating ways every minute or two. If that’s enough to put you off it, consider yourself warned.
I had a good time though. A surprisingly good time. State of Decay 2 is a fairly rote experience, but collecting supplies, building your base, collecting more supplies from further out, rebuilding your base—it’s an addictive loop, and one that doesn’t need much of a story framework to sell it, especially when the environments are this strong.
All in all, if this ends up being the zombie survival genre’s swansong, it’s a good way to go out. Better than slipping off a billboard and dying, that’s for sure.