Undead Labs’ State of Decay has been a long time coming. Originally unveiled back in 2011 (under the name of Class 3) the development team have made no secret of their plans to have this Xbox LIVE Arcade title stand as a stepping stone towards their bigger project: zombie survival massively multiplayer online (MMO) title Class 4. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: State of Decay is a videogame in it’s own right, and a hugely enjoyable one at that.
You start the videogame with next to nothing: no information, no goal set and almost no equipment. As the camera fades in to reveal yourself and your friend on a beach overrun by zombies. Armed with only a stick, you and your pal have to take out the attacking horde before, well, anything. Learning that the X button is used for attacks, B for crouch and that your inventory and statistics screens hold much useful information, the videogame is now yours to command. Heading in land seems the wisest thing to do, but what when you get there?
The videogame does have some preset objectives of course – what would the videogame be without some scripted sequences? A low rent Grand Theft Auto with nothing more than a wide open space and occasional bout of horrific violence – but these moments unveil themselves naturally upon player discovery. Arriving at a bookstore you’ll find survivors keen to share resources with you, as long as you help them search for additional members of their party first. Climbing a water tower to survey the landscape and you will hear a gunshot in the distance: the curiosity to investigate becoming a mission in its own right. These are obviously scripted moments, the artificial tripwires as clear as day for any who choose to look, but it’s a commendably inventive way of delivering such story progressing content.
The unique delivery of zombie survival experience over that of a more traditional videogame set-up continues throughout State of Decay. Much like ZombiU¸ a death for the player does not result in a respawn, but a dead character. Their next embodiment will have different skills, equipment and statistics, but there’s never a feeling of having to start from the beginning. You’re sent out to finish what your former team mate started with the hope that you’ll do the jib right this time.
Throughout the campaign you’ll establish safe zones and bases of operation, but it’s not a straight forward case of claiming the land and forgetting about it. Zombie hordes will move on your home in great numbers, and despite getting a warning when this happens it’s always going to be a tough decision as to whether you abandon your current objective to return home, or hope that your AI team mates can handle themselves.
Despite the reliance on emergent gameplay there are many activities to partake in across the sizable map, and plenty of distractions that all-too-often will lead to your demise. State of Decay is a videogame about survival but it’s also about experimentation: it doesn’t punish you too hard for being curious, but will do if you don’t ensure that you’ve got every point of entry covered. Distraction techniques work well, fighting hordes as a lone gunman on foot does not.
For all it’s renovation of traditional gameplay design and innovation in player freedom, State of Decay does suffer in other areas. Visually it’s frequently a mess, with muddy textures and poor collision detection noticeably weakening the immersion. The control system is also questionable, as while the context sensitive jump is a blessing the combat and menu navigation haven’t been given the same care and attention. State of Decay’s character development is also pretty poor despite the best efforts of its voice cast.
State of Decay is a very impressive proposition, presenting as the most immediate instance of an interactive zombie survival simulation that would spring to mind and yet has never been done before. Its closest comparison would be the ill-fated The War Z, a videogame which made all the right moves but failed to convey them to an audience willing to invest. State of Decay simply doesn’t face the same problems, and as such delivers a remarkably innovative, but flawed, videogame experience.