On 5 June 2013, Undead Labs rewrote the book on how zombie games worked. No longer was it about kill count or headshots; rather, the brutal reality of merely surviving a zombie apocalypse. When a member of your group died, they were gone for good. When supplies were used, you went hungry. Or injured.
State of Decay focused on the immediacy of making decisions and the brutal consequences of those choices. Mix in a storyline about wanting to get out of the valley and you were presented with a simple, yet effective game. Strip away the storyline and you are left with just the need to survive.
Flash-forward to 2015 and that all still applies, though in a love-it-or-hate-it re-release. Say hello to State of Decay Year-One Survival Edition, a current-gen offering that promises “new missions, weapons, and extra content, along with improved lighting, textures, animations, and combat mechanics,” according to Microsoft. Not to mention a 1080p experience without low-res penises.
State of Decay is Undead Labs’ first game to come out of their Seattle-based studio, and they’ve come out swinging. The game’s open world sandbox style gameplay is coupled with content that changes in real-time with your actions. The premise of the game is relatively simple: in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, you’re to find a home base and set up defences. In charge of the minute details of your survivors and your defences, you’re to dig in and try to take back your town whilst working with the local government (which is in disarray, of course) and helping the army to uncover just how the zombie uprising started.
The game starts off as you and your friend return home from a hunting trip only to find that you have stumbled upon a group of fellow campers who are all sick and clearly mad (so basically, like the start of every zombie movie ever). After fending off these madmen, it clicks that something is not right at all and a nearby Ranger station is going to be the best way to get some answers. Once there, you are introduced to some of the more clever features of State of Decay: you can climb certain structures and survey the land looking for points of interest, Assassin’s Creed-style.
With its third-person perspective, State of Decay has still managed to find a way to have zombies stay out of your field of vision until they are upon you, not only reacting to sight but noise. This results in a requirement to always be on-guard and move carefully. Your character can speed through sections by holding down the left bumper, but that results in a louder movements. Trust me, having a Bloater zombie surprise you whilst looting medical supplies means that extra speed isn’t worth it.
Side missions are abundant in State of Decay, and chief among those are finding additional survivors to rescue. Escort missions are coupled with the task of finding more resources to bring back to the safe house to keep your troop happy and healthy. Your safe house is where the game really shines, rolling the game into another genre. It’s akin to that of The Sims, with that same vibe of maintaining, building and upgrading rooms, setting people to work and micro-managing your time and resources. Throughout your treks, you will also find empty buildings which you may set up as outposts. Those outposts generate resources and allow you to set up of traps to dispatch the zombie hordes.
As you progress through the game, you’ll rescue more and more people to add to your family of fellow apocalypse hunters. That provides for a real RPG feel as you can switch between any survivor at any point from your safe house. This system allows survivors the chance to rest as you build up the stats of a fellow comrade. The more you use a specific character, the more they learn and level up stats for whichever task they’re involved in. If you belt a zombie, you’ll increase your melee stat. If you use guns, you’ll level up your shooting. All these skills will help each survivor to function independently when you’re not using them. A good shooter will double as a great lookout, for instance.
As great as your fellow survivors are (especially if you level them up), an AI-controlled survivor on a fetch quest usually means you’ll have to go and rescue them. That’s one of our main gripes about State of Decay: 90% of the time, AI-controlled characters have super-buggy orienteering and combat scripting. It’s been improved since the original release, but there’s still some work to be done.
The re-release also comes coupled with both of State of Decay‘s two pieces of DLC: “Breakdown” and “Lifeline”.
Unlike most other DLC, “Breakdown” doesn’t offer an additional story, added areas to explore or even the chance to check in on a favourite character to see what’s going on. Rather, “Breakdown” asks the player to do one thing and one thing only. Survive. Live to see the next day.
“Breakdown” drops you into the same valley as the original game, but with no story. Instead, the world and your actions are your narrative. You will need to enlist the help of other survivors to build up a camp and keep everyone happy and healthy. Scavenging nearby houses, warehouses, super markets and anything in between for supplies. As in the main game, resources are finite and as such require planning and proper management to make it through.
Once the goods of the valley run dry, the only option is to leave via an RV. In order to get that RV up and running, you will need to find parts and gas. Layout wise, that new valley is the exact same map, but that’s where similarities stop. Supplies are never in the same spots and each time you move to a new valley, the difficulty only increases. Managing survivors, supplies, and hordes of zombies is both challenging and exhilarating. There is a certain intimacy in knowing all you have to do is survive, it’s hard to play a well-crafted game about zombies and not think of The Walking Dead. “Breakdown” is how we envision living in a zombie apocalypse: unforgiving and brutal.
“Lifeline” takes place during the early days of the zombie outbreak. You are thrust into the action right away as part of a military unit called Greyhound One. You and your squad arrive in the city of Dansforth after everything has started to fall apart. The initial way point on your map leads you to a military controlled compound at the Black Friday Mall where you get in touch with your superiors and find out exactly what you are supposed to do to help the city.
Your mission is as simple as when the game initially released, though with new directives: locate and extract high value targets (HVTs). Who are the HVTs? A group of scientists that your superiors believe can cure the zombie outbreak. They appear on your map in red. Like all things zombie-related, finding them and getting them back to Black Friday Mall is anything but a walk in the park. You will also get radio communication of civilians (white on your map) and soldiers (green on your map) that need help as well.
While rescuing the scientists is your main mission there are also benefits of helping the other civilians and soldiers as each grants different bonuses, or added strength and firepower to fend off the increasing zombie numbers. However, ignore too many scientists and your mission will be scrapped. The decisions on who to help are not always as clear cut as you think they would be, especially since you usually have to make a split second decision and by helping one the other usually dies.
Once you help a civilian or scientist and get them back to Black Friday Mall, you will need to clear out the hordes of zombies in the area to allow the Evac chopper to come in. The presence of the chopper — as you would expect — is loud. Even the most casual zombie fan knows zombies are attracted to noise so expect a large battle to get people on the chopper safely. These Evac moments make for some of the most intense action I have played in a game in quite some time.
The one thing that impressed us the most about “Lifeline” is the amount of additional features that Undead Labs has crammed into this it. “Breakdown” stayed on the same map as the base game, but with “Lifeline” the city of Danforth is quite large, with an interstate highway around almost the entire map allowing for fairly simple navigation. Undead Labs has eliminated one of our biggest complaints from the past: vehicle storage. In the past you had to fill up a rucksack and had to trek all the way back to base camp and then back out. Now, you can access the vehicle’s trunk and store multiple rucksacks or other items to make scavenging for supplies much less tedious.
Other additions include upgraded defences. Gone are the days of just fences and small lookout towers. You can now add traps and distractions as well to help you cut down the zombie hordes. The helicopter landing zone is not just used for evacuating scientists and civilians, you can also call in supply drops from time to time as well. The Ops Centre allows you to do research and more tactical things and the generator allows you to have access to an even greater number of advanced upgrades. There is also the addition of military outposts. With these you can call in artillery strikes, reinforcements and even drone recon to help you locate survivors or zombie hordes to better access your situation. Lastly, you can also add a latrine to stave off disease in your camp.
One thing that was curiously absent was radio chatter. This may be nitpicky of us, but when we think of a military operation, we expect to hear all sorts of things on the radio. Conversations between squads, units, superiors; for the most part that is absent from “Lifeline”. It would have ramped up the immersion factor and made it feel like the Greyhound One unit was part of a larger operation.
State of Decay has come a long way since its release in 2013. It may be cliché, but it’s the zombie game that many people have always wanted. It’s not about putting the most lead into a zombie’s head and charging headlong into endless zombie hordes. It’s about playing smart, scavenging for supplies and trying to keep your community safe. Undead Labs has really raised the bar and been willing to listen to player feedback.
That all said, this is a re-release. If you already own the base game and its two pieces of DLC, why buy it again?
State of Decay Year-One Survival Edition was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.