It’s easy to get in over your head in the open-world zombie survival game State of Decay 2.
A call for help came in over the radio, and my follower and I set out for a nearby farmhouse. We had plenty of ammo, full health, and brand new melee weapons. The sun was shining brightly. A few stragglers dotted the field behind the house, but I took them out stealthily and didn’t attract any unwanted attention. Gunshots rang out–a sign of desperation, as the noise will only attract more of the undead–and we hustled to help the stranger who’d contacted us.
The house was dark and full of zombies. I hacked away at them with my machete, blood and body parts flying (none of them mine, thankfully). We were gonna get out of this, rescue the stranger and reap the rewards. Then the Screamers showed up.
These were special zombies who, as their name might indicate, yell a lot and attract hordes of their undead kindred. I was running outside to quickly take out the Screamers when I heard the roar of a Juggernaut. A massive, hulking brute, the Juggernaut isn’t taken down easily. Dodging as he charged, I fired off as many shotgun rounds as I could while trying to keep the all the biters around me at bay. Finally the Juggernaut doubled over, leaving himself open to my finishing melee move. Impossibly, we were actually going to get through this with no casualties.
Then my HUD completely disappeared. I couldn’t speak to the stranger, I couldn’t switch control to my follower, I couldn’t reap my rewards. I was forced to quit to the main menu and restart, fingers crossed that I’d spawn back at the end of this fight with all the rewards intact, hoping that I hadn’t just used up all that precious ammo in vain. When I got back in the game, my characters were in the same spot but the NPC we’d helped was gone, and he took all the potential rewards with him.
State of Decay 2, to be released May 22 for Windows and Xbox One, is buggier than a hot summer night in Louisiana. Even after a 6 GB update that came in while I was mid-review, I experienced freezes, disappearing and invisible NPCs, and many moments where I had to restart or relaunch. Even so, I had a grand ol’ zombie-busting time. It’s engaging, challenging, terrifying, and just plain fun enough to mitigate the frustration.
At one point during my 65 or so hours with the game, I thought back to a conversation I once had with my landlord. We were talking about this type of apocalyptic scenario (as you do) and I admitted that I would be screwed because I have no practical skills to speak of that would be useful. I can’t fix a car. I don’t know how to wire things or grow things or shoot things. I have come to accept that my role during the zombie uprising is simply to fall down and get eaten so that my friends will have more time to escape the horde.
“Nonsense,” my landlord said. “What are the first things you have to secure when it all goes to shit?”
I thought for a moment. “Umm. My cat…?”
“Food, water, shelter,” he said, shaking his head. “Yeah, you’re screwed.”
Thankfully, the characters in State of Decay 2 are better prepared and more capable than me. To wit: a survivor’s diary accounting for my first hours in the game:
It’s been about a year and a half since the world went to shit. Civilization has collapsed. Resources are scarce, the undead outnumber the living, and judging by the looks of this army refugee camp, the military has given up the fight. My girlfriend Natalie and I made our way here hoping to find help, but there’s nothing left except some first aid items, a couple of weak melee weapons, and some zombies. Natalie got bit by one covered in red, blood oozing from its pores, and now she’s sick. We met up with a soldier and a doctor who told me this is a “plague zombie” and we need plague samples from dead ones to craft a cure.
To craft a cure, the doctor needs medical facilities, and we’re not gonna find them here. The soldier handed me three maps and told me to pick one as a destination, so now we’re headed to the valley. Hopefully there we can find a new home and help Natalie before it’s too late.
We found a place, small, but it’s got potential and it’s good enough for now. I need to find resources–materials, food, fuel, ammo, meds–if we’re gonna build this place up and survive. I climbed a cell tower and scouted out plenty of possible supply locations, but also plenty of dangers. There are hordes of zombies wandering around, and I spotted a plague heart not far from our home base. I know I’ll need to destroy it and any others I find if I want to make the town safe, but I’m not strong enough yet.
I met another survivor, Grace, holed up in the house down the street. She tagged along as I went to find enough building supplies to craft an infirmary at the home base. It was tough going on foot (still haven’t found a usable car) but we did it. Grace asked if we had room in our group for her to join and so she’s one of us stragglers now. How could I say no after she helped me out? It’ll be tight. We need to make sure we’ve got enough beds and food for everyone, which means it’s time to go out searching for supplies again.
Nights are so dark. It makes sense, of course. No one is running the power plants anymore. But I try my best to do my heavy scrounging in the daylight. I’ve got a small flashlight, but even with it on I can’t see more than a few feet in front of me. And seeing the red, glowing eyes of plague zombies in the dark really creeps me out.
Finally took out a plague heart today. I had to use molotovs, grenades, and more bullets than I cared to count. As it got weaker, it seemed to call more and more zombies to its aid. We were almost overrun, but when it finally died, all the plague zombies in the area dropped dead. Grace got hit, though, and contracted blood plague. If we can’t treat her within a couple of hours, well, it won’t be pretty. Luckily we can craft the cure, and any other medical supplies we need, at the infirmary back home.
There are seven of us now. Not a large number, but it’s still a lot of mouths to feed and to listen to. Art and Yolanda are always fighting about something. Everyone is pressed because too many infestations are cropping up around town. Yeah, they’re bad, clusters of zombies and Screamers that’ll multiply if we don’t destroy them. I know all this. And it all falls on me because my reputation grew enough that everyone decided I’d make a great leader. In theory, I’d like to use my position to restore some kind of law and order in this town. That’s my long-term goal. Right now, though, I’m just stressed the hell out.
I feel like I’m juggling thirty plates and they’re all made of knives and also they’re on fire. I can’t drive across town in search of food without a group of strangers calling on the radio for help, without running out of gas, without someone at home creating a problem or ruining some of our meager supplies, without a horde of zombies attacking our base, without another plague heart or infestation being spotted. All this while fighting for my life because there is always a zed nearby trying to bite me. I can’t relax for a minute.
So that group of strangers who radioed for help yesterday? They called themselves the Trash Pandas and they tried to extort us for a rucksack full of ammo. Even if I wanted to give in to their demands, we simply don’t have the ammo to spare. I told them to go screw, they threatened to shoot me on sight the next time I got too close to their enclave. Great, now we have walking dead and walking alive enemies. Something something who is really the monster here?
That said, tomorrow I’m gonna load up and take the Trash Pandas out before they decide to make a move.
I feel myself getting stronger. Go figure: the more I shoot my gun, the better I become at shooting. If I run a lot, my cardio skill gets better. It’s like practice makes perfect or something. I found a gardening textbook and gave it to Grace, who had room in her repertoire for some new tricks. She’s not an expert, but now we can grow more food, so that’s cool.
As we upgrade this home base of ours, we have to make some tough decisions. Is it better to have more beds so we can recruit more people? Strength in numbers, after all. Or would that space be better used as a workshop, which would allow us to repair our weapons? What about a lounge to boost morale? Can we survive and be happy whilst doing it? I would say it doesn’t matter, but if people get too angry or depressed they might leave…or I’ll kick ‘em out.
Resources have always been scarce, but they’re getting scarcer. After all, no one is restocking or replenishing supplies in, like, the abandoned hardware store. What if we run out altogether? Pick another map and move to a new location, I guess.
When we left base in the morning, she was acting weird. She started telling me about her husband and how they planned for retirement, and I was like… but I’m your girlfriend? We’ve been together for a long time now? Sure, we hadn’t mentioned our relationship at all beyond that first day in the refugee camp–we acted like strangers with no history at this point–but it’s not like I didn’t remember we were together. Maybe it was residual effects from the blood plague? Maybe she was having a break with reality?
I just didn’t want to believe that our relationship was like all the other relationships between survivors: completely superficial and interchangeable. But I let it slide, and we continued on our way to destroy a plague heart.
It went awry quickly. The plague heart attracted hordes. Screamers showed up and attracted more. We were overwhelmed and when it was all over, Natalie was dead. I pilfered her body (supplies are precious) and saw that her gun was empty. I didn’t comment on her death or the fact that she was my girlfriend. It was like she could have been anybody.
I guess I finally learned that being too soft isn’t a survival skill. You can’t save everyone. You can’t help everyone. You can’t please everyone. You just can’t do it all.
The story in State of Decay 2 is less developed than the one in its predecessor. In fact, it’s similar to the State of Decay DLC “Breakdown,” wherein you’re tasked with little more than surviving as long as possible. In the sequel, once you rid a town of plague hearts (no small task, as they are numerous and difficult), you begin to build your leader’s “legacy.” The goals change depending on the role of your leader, be they sheriff, warlord, builder, or trader. When I got to that stage in my game, however, I never got a leader goal quest. No other enclaves were having issues my sheriff had to resolve. My only legacy, it seemed, would be watching supplies dwindle to nothing. I loaded a truck full of rucksacks and drove to a new map, hoping that would trigger the leader quests.
Perhaps I should have expected that a new territory would mean all-new problems, because it was essentially like starting the game over. The truck full of resources disappeared once we crossed the county line, leaving my group stranded in the dark, depressed and starving. Once again, I set out on foot to find a new home. The map was full of plague hearts, which I’d have to eradicate before I could hopefully begin building my illustrious legacy.
It was another seven or so hours of work before the plague hearts were gone and the leader quest line kicked off, and it was ultimately short and underwhelming. A handful of missions and I was finished, the town cleaned up as best as I could clean it, my legacy secured. From here I had the option to begin a new community. I could bring up to three characters from the last, and I was promised to receive a boon from time to time from grateful survivors.
It’s not the story that shines in State of Decay 2, it’s the sandbox. It’s the small moments that emerge from the gameplay and the world itself that are the most compelling. Running out of gas far from home can mean the difference between life and death. Or you decide to check just one more building for supplies before heading back to base, everything turns to chaos, and somehow you make it out by the skin of your teeth. Or maybe you don’t, and that survivor is dead forever. Or maybe they’re dead and then they rise undead and then you have to re-dead them. (It’s awesome when that happens.) Don’t worry, you won’t be too sad when they’re gone; if you get attached to any characters, it will be because they’re great fighters or they have another useful skill, not because you have deep conversations with them.
For as much fun as I had with the game, I expected a bit more polish. Ladders were generally a bigger threat to my survival than the zombies, as wonky controls sent me plummeting to the ground as I tried to descend. Sometimes I couldn’t pass through open doors without closing and reopening them. Followers would become invisible. While their carat indicated their position on the mini map, they were nowhere to be found. I couldn’t swap them out for a new partner or switch to control them, which forced a reload—always a risky proposition in a game that only features autosave.
You may fare better with multiplayer companions. Up to three online players can join your game, but I was never able to find any to join me (or vice versa) during my pre-release playing. Perhaps one day I’ll answer another player’s call for help, even if I just fall down and get eaten, giving them enough time to get away.