To add a twist to our regular review format, The Wach and I have decided to both write reviews of Undead Labs’ debut title available currently on XBLA, and soon to be released for the PC. The Wach’s impressions are up right now, at Postgame Carnage Report!
Zombie games, are likely the most over-done, dried up, and most common place genre to hit the gaming industry since the proliferated side scrolling platformers of the 80’s and 90’s. It seems that almost everyone has released a title cashing in on the zombie obsession which began a few years ago most notably with games like Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, and later titles like Undead Nightmare (a 10/10) and Dead Island.
What is it about the un-dead appeal which encapsulates all our darkest apocalyptic fantasies? A zombie scenario is easily the most impossible to survive, an end of the world scenario where it’s only a matter of time despite your best efforts to survive until you slip up, and turn into delicious nom-noms for a horde of salivating, slobbering, shit sucking zombies. And I don’t care who you are, how many times you’ve read Max Brooks’ “Zombie Survival Guide”, you are either going to get eaten, or owned by marauding survivors who want your food, weapons, and anti-biotics more than they want your heart warming company. Just don’t bother arguing…you will get schooled eventually in any “real” zombie event.
Now, enter Undead Labs, and their debut title for XBOX Live Arcade (and soon PC) State Of Decay. What is State of Decay? It’s not a question with a short answer. This game is many things, layered into a dynamic, and deep game of suspense, action, sociology, and most of all: SURVIVAL. And yes, there are zombies. Lots, and LOTS of hungry, persistent, and determined zombies who want nothing more than to find you, and leave your consumed carcass rotting on the ground.
When I had first got a glimpse of this game at PAX East 2012 I was instantly smitten. Finally it looked like someone had contributed something to the already cluttered collection of zombie games that offered fresh and innovative concepts to a genre plagued with mindless zombie slaying, or light RPG elements topped off with more mindless zombie killing. Undead Labs boasted that their game would offer a dynamic world which operated in real-time, with real consequences, real risks, and real bad outcomes as a result of making mistakes and boo-boos in their game.
Now that I have put a whopping 8-10 hours into State of Decay, (and have barely scratched the surface of the game world) I can truly appreciate the nightmarish, and quick to punish you for your transgressions style of game they have crafted. This game is about not only keeping your character alive, but also sustaining your ever growing community, with an ever growing level of needs which go beyond the essentials such as food, medicine, and ammo. You can also add to the list items like Fuel reserves, building materials, and yes: psychological babysitting. You read that correctly.
As State of Decay starts the developer dispenses with the hand holding tutorials, and thrusts you into the role of Marcus, a big city corporate working stiff who along with his friend Ed have decided to escape the vices of the big city and just get away from it all on a camping/fishing trip in the Trumball Valley. Although there is no fishing or marshmallow roasting as you and Ed are instantly pitted against a small group of zombies, your only weapon: a stick. That’s right. Your first zombie de-animating device of ultimate destruction is a measly stick. And trust me, it won’t be long before you’re itching for a pile of assault rifles ah-la Left 4 Dead but you can kiss the spray-and-pray zombie killing goodbye here.
After your brief scuffle with the walking dead Marcus and Ed decide to make their way to the ranger station (like that’s going to do any good.) and find out why walking dead people are trying to make a meal out of their sweet sweet butt cheeks.
Even this early in the game as you explore a National Park/Campground the level of detail Undead Labs has painstakingly worked into their world is evident. As I discovered one particular campground I was overcome with a bad feeling as I quietly crept up to the grisly scene unfolding before me.
The tent was wide open and crudely barricaded with a folding table, of which two corpses were doubled over. It had appeared that someone had a last stand here, and it wasn’t looking good. As I peered into the tent the true carnage revealed itself. The ground was red with blood and gore, and several headless corpses (obviously dead zombies) littered the floor. Whoever dug in here, had taken a few Zeds down at least. The trio of skeletal eviscerated carcasses arrayed beneath the downed zombies however indicated that their heroic defense had been for naught, and they had been devoured…the pleasantly plumped zeds who had feasted on them had long since moved on in search of another meal.
Moving around the world, and searching houses, and other buildings is a challenge in itself as everything you do generates noise. Zombies will hear you, and if you are not careful you will have to waste your characters precious stamina battling anywhere from two, to over two dozen zombies, and can get into some real trouble. A good example of this, is while creeping through an abandoned house I snuck up on an unsuspecting Zed standing by a window. The fire-Axe I was wielding made short work of not only the walker, but the window he was standing beside in an undesirably loud explosion of broken glass.
Almost instantly I heard the dreaded sound of several nearby zombies exclaiming “Ruuuh?” followed by a sizable group of them jumping and smashing through the windows of the neighboring house. In self cursing horror I watched as they sprinted across the yard and over the fence directly toward me. Instinct would have had me stand my ground and defend my salvage site. But knowing I would tire my character I instead booked it out the front door and into my truck and peaced out.
Stamina is one of your many playable characters most important attributes… in my opinion more so than your health-bar. You can’t exclusively play as any one character as they will grow tired over time, which has a huge negative impact on the characters ability to regenerate stamina, and the amount of stamina they have. Instead you must “Swap-out” your character so they can rest.
As the game progresses, you leave the cursed campground and group up with a larger and much better equipped group of survivors holed up at an old church. This is where the social/strategic element of State of Decay is introduced. From here after acquiring building materials and resources from various sites, you can upgrade your stronghold with larger sleeping quarters (insufficient beds will negatively impact community morale, AND the ability for your playable characters to rest.) as well as upgraded storage for food, outfitting for your infirmary do deal with sick, and infected community members. Yes, getting bit can and will have consequences as there is a chance that person will turn leaving you with no other option but to either exile your team-mate or mercy kill them.
I learned this the hard way during my current play-through. While playing as Marcus, I was defending a run-down farmhouse and boldly ran out the front door to clean up a small handful of zombies. I wasn’t fully in the know about the stamina element, and did not realize my character was severely fatigued. After just a few short swings of my axe the character literally slunk his shoulders and looked like he was about to pass out as my stamina bar flatlined. The seemingly easy group of zeds then latched on to Marcus and began mowing down. I didn’t just get bit. I was partially eaten. I barely managed to escape and leap back through a window, and slurped back enough painkillers to replenish my health.
For the remainder of the house defense I remained on the sidelines, limping around and barely useful to the NPC’s desperately trying to defend the house. When I later returned home and switched to Ed, I discovered not soon after that Marcus would turn. Ed then had to mercy kill his best friend, who he was camping and fishing with only days ago. So this is what they mean by REAL consequences.. Undead labs has assured players that the State of Decay experience is “never the same twice.” So I can likely start a new game after completion, and perhaps not have to part with Marcus if I am smarter.
The game comes with the expected bugs, and minor glitches of a studios maiden release… There is some framerate issues where the game gets laggy – however I find that this only happens at the very beginning when I load my current game. It gets a bit sluggish for a few moments as the game generates the world around you. It is quick to subside and doesn’t really impact gameplay at all. In fact, for their first game I can say with confidence that Undead Labs has hit a home run.
They have done what many studios fear to do, and released a game into an already popular and cluttered genre that pushes the boundaries of change, and does little to coddle the player. This ain’t yo mama’s zombie survival game. You will be ruthlessly punished for your mistakes, as will your companions and community members you work tirelessly to protect. Ignore infested houses, and the plague will spread until the undead swath is ready to crawl up your ass *sans* lube. Inaction will not only present a huge threat to survival, but also to the emotional well-being and morale of your community. Characters will fight, and if you do not step into a leadership role and deal with this, bad things can happen.
All in all, this game is challenging, hair-raising, fresh, and most of all ADDICTIVE. It does have some minor (and funny) glitches – but they do not in any way disrupt or spoil gameplay and can easily be patched with a title update. And in my judgement of State of Decay, this doesn’t even register as a factor…It’s just too minor to hold any weight AGAINST this game.
So we can dispense with the traditional 9/10 cliché here, and simply say that:
State of Decay is a MASTERPIECE in the survival horror/zombie action thriller category. Some real honest love, thought, planning, and creativity has gone into the making of this game. I’m also going to go ahead and say that Undead Labs is my Developer Of the Year, for doing the right thing, and taking this genre and literally turning it on its head.
The only potentially negative thing I can say about this game is instantly cured by a positive. There is a bit of a learning curve to this game, but the immense re-playablity of State of Decay negates that, as it’s not difficult to get the hang of it after a few big time, and humiliating mistakes. And few games give you humility these days. The mission structure is so deeply layered that it’s virtually impossible to complete them all – many times you have to prioritize mission selection preventing you from completing them all as many are time sensitive. So in that, the player is encouraged to start all over again so they can go about the world differently. And this incredible game is different every time. Stop reading this, spend the twenty dollars, and start playing this game NOW.