Friday, 14 June 2013

REVIEW - State of Decay (XBLA)

More Brains!

Zombies are everywhere, and I am not talking about walking our streets in search of brains. I am speaking of the colossal popularity of the undead in modern entertainment. With a plethora of recent zombie games on consoles (Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, and Techland's Dead Island Riptide), MMOs on PC (Dayz and War Z) and a big budget movie in cinemas (World War Z), it would seem that shuffling cadavers on the hunt for human flesh are inescapable.

As a fan of post-apocalyptic scenarios, I have been eagerly awaiting this new open world action RPG from Undead Labs. The chance to explore a sandbox environment, sneaking down ruined city streets, looting chests and shelves for vital supplies, dealing with other human survivors and, of course, caving in the heads of those pesky flesh eaters, is an exciting prospect. Dead Island has been the closest I have come to achieving these survivalist fantasies so far, but now State of Decay takes the crown. It is, without a doubt, the most satisfying survival zombie experience ever created. But it is not without its flaws.

Performing actions such as melee combat automatically increases your stats in that area

We don't get any prior knowledge as to why the outbreak has occurred - indeed, one character early on in the game makes a joke about the possibilities of this undead scourge. We are simply thrust into the world with nothing but a tree branch to defend ourself and a location to head to, and this is all we need. Starting off as a guy named Marcus, with his buddy Ed in tow, you soon meet other survivors. Once you have grasped the basics via a few simple search and loot missions, you soon find yourself leaving the camp site and entering a small town, whereby you are thrust into the main game.

Combat is brutal and bloody and, while fairly limited, it never gets 
old whacking zombies with shovels, crowbars and hockey sticks

As well as the hack n slash combat, running, climbing, driving vehicles and firing of guns, one would expect from a GTA-style open world game, State of Decay requires the careful running of a community of survivors. Five main resources must be constantly topped up in order to keep everyone alive and (relatively) happy. Food, medicine, ammo, fuel and materials can all be found in the world around you. The first four are self explanatory, but materials are used to build vital additions to your compound. These range from a watchtower to keep guard, medical bays to patch up injuries, larger sleeping quarters for a good nights kip, workshops and even a garden. Also critical to your survival is the morale of the group. Much like The Walking Dead series, emotions run high and various parties can become overcome with fear, sadness or anger. These crisis can be averted by taking the offending individual for a walk to clear their head – by which I mean beating multiple zeds to death and giving them a generic pep talk.

Sneaking around is vital to your survival. State of Decay is a genuinely tense 
experience and you will really want to stay hidden and quiet for the most part.

The game also centres around the concept of Influence. Every time you successfully complete a mission, whether rescuing a stranger in need, clearing out a zombie infestation from a building, or surveying the area from a lofty vantage point, you are awarded influence points. These points can then be used as currency to call in favours such as runners to retrieve the spoils of your looting, snipers to lay down covering fire and small mortar bombings to eliminate zombie hordes. Everything looted can be stored in the community stockpile, earning you influence, but it also then belongs to the group, and costs you influence to take. It is also required to establish outposts – the act of converting an empty premises into a safe zone where you can store items (much like the box found in the typewriter rooms in Resident Evil).

Surveying the area from a vantage point shows up new locations, and 
even zomvie hordes, on your map - as well as earning you influence.

You can change to other members of the group when visiting your compound (as long as you are not in the middle of a mission), and every character has their own skill tree which gets levelled up with use – For example, shooting guns will build their firearms stats, while running and jumping over walls increases their cardio skill resulting in increased stamina. Stamina is very important as using a weapon or running will deplete it, rendering you slow and lethargic – devastating in the middle of a zombie fight. Your player will also become exhausted if they don't get any rest, reducing your overall health and stamina levels. At this stage returning home to switch to another person is key, as all non-player controlled survivors heal and rest while not in use.

The sandbox world is pretty large and extremely engaging to explore. Vehicles 
are essential for covering the vast countryside, but drive carefully as 
destroyed cars do not return.

Should you find yourself overcome by zeds and torn to pieces your character is then lost forever, along with all the upgrades they have earned. This can prove frustrating the first time you are killed, but it soon becomes clear that this enhances the overall experience. It means that you need to be extremely careful when exploring the world, and never rush headlong into a fight. It is this element of mortality that gives the game its incredibly tense atmosphere and gameplay. This is the first game that makes you feel truly vulnerable, and keeps you on the edge of your seat as you desperately evade the undead and try not to make unnecessary noise while exploring.

While never particularly scary, State of Decay creates an excellent 
atmosphere, rife with tension and nervousness.

There is always something going on in State of Decay. If it isn’t rescuing a runner who has foolishly ran into a hoard of zombies for the 10th time, or looking for a missing survivor, it is being called to climb up to vantage points and scout the area, or help someone hunt down one of the 'special' zombies that can make life more difficult than it already is. The missions do get slightly repetitive as they are basically the same thing repeated, and it is annoying when you head off to explore, only to be told to rescue someone (for the third time) right next to where you have just come from. These missions are time sensitive too, so ignoring them can result in the death of a survivor. Thankfully, you can always find new people to save and add to your group.

Other team members will assist you in combat, but be sure to return the 
favour as death in this game is permanent.

One of the best things in State of Decay is resources and items don't re-spawn. Stole a car and left it burning in a ditch somewhere? It will still be there next time you load up the game. It is the one main element that Dead Island lacked. After all, the whole point of zombie survival scenarios is the constant feeling of hopelessness due to the dwindling supplies and need to move on. Less amazing is the fact that each time you boot up the game, it deals you a random selection of events that occurred in your absence. So you might start up the game only to find that half of your group are sick or, even worse, your best character has died. This is a slightly unnecessary addition and just feels like a kick in the teeth if you are dealt a shitty hand.

Despite some extremely shoddy textures and graphical annoyances, State of Decay can often look amazing.

The main problems with State of Decay lie with its presentation and performance. Screen tear, terrible frame rate drops, and some of the worst texture pop up I have seen since Daytona USA on the Sega Saturn, occur regularly and jerk you out of the immersion the game offers. It is not a game breaker, but it definitely soils the overall package. As well as these graphical issues there are constant bugs which cause zombies to glitch through walls and floors and NPCs to get stuck running on the spot. The camera can also be a pain, leaving you completely unable to see your character – usually as you are being attacked. I wish that Undead Labs has spent more time and money polishing State of Decay and releasing it as a retail product, as it would have been truly exceptional.

Night time is never a good time to explore a graveyard. What was he thinking?

But you let all these negative elements slide because the core game is so maddeningly addictive. The overpowering urge to explore another shop or office building, grab a few more resources, or just lose yourself in the post apocalyptic sandbox world will keep you playing for hours. It is exceptionally gripping and really quenches your survivalist instincts. It will appeal to any survival or zombie fanatic as much as anyone who gets easily addicted to hoarding loot. While I still think that Dead Island is the better game due to its first person view (always more preferable to third person), more satisfying combat and the wonderful island resort setting. State of Decay of Decay is an outstanding experience that really nails the survival element we all crave from an open world zombie environment. 

The Good:

  • Huge and exciting open world to explore
  • First true survival sandbox game
  • Sneaking, looting and surviving are very immersive and addictive
  • Resource management, and tower defense elements are implemented brilliantly
  • Great fun to play

The Bad:

  • Terrible graphical hiccups really breaks the immersion
  • Lots of bugs and glitches make the game feel unfinished
  • Randomly generated missions repeat too often
  • It would have been nice to manually assign the skills you earn

Developer : Undead Labs

System Reviewed : XBLA

Also Available On : N/A

Price : 1600 points

Also Play : 

Dead Island and Dead Island Riptide
(X360, PS3, PC)

2011 / 2013

The Walking Dead 
(PC, X360, PS3)


Organ Trail : Directors Cut
(PC, Mobile)


Zombies Ate My Neighbours
(SNES, Mega Drive)