America - Front
America - Back
By Brandon J. Wysocki 17th May 2018 | 4,508 views
State of Decay 2 is a menagerie of game genres – (zombie) survival, role-playing, action, and management simulation combine to offer a deep and entertaining game concept. However, while the concept and framework are excellent, the game stumbles in execution, resulting in a title that's good but could, and arguably should, be better.
The premise is fairly simple. There’s a zombie infection running rampant, and you have to survive. That is neither original nor noteworthy - what you have to do to survive is, however. Sure, there is still foraging for weapons and other useful items, but the added complexity and dynamics provided by the role-playing and management simulation set the game apart and, in that respect, above other offerings.
As part of surviving the dire circumstances, you're tasked with managing a community. After the tutorial, you’ll have the first three members of your community. You can control any of them, but only one at a time (you can also have one accompany you as an NPC). Death is permanent for characters, whether you’re controlling them or not. Additionally, you can exile unwanted members and recruit new ones.
Each character in the game has different traits and abilities, some good and some bad. Hilariously, I had one character who had both optimism and a bleak outlook as two of his traits. Each character has health, stamina, morale, and standing. Health and stamina are straight forward, but both can be depleted to the point where only med kits (a rarer health item) or rest (especially in a base with a level 2 infirmary) will allow full recovery.
Morale is usually a product of the condition and resources of your base, though sometimes a character will have a particular mission that will increase their morale if you complete it, or decrease if you neglect to do so. The latter option proved to be the final straw for a good member of my community during a particular rough patch. He literally left the community as I was returning with needed supplies. I was going to undertake his mission next (I swear), but apparently I had waited too long.
Standing is simple, but important. Each character’s standing increases as you perform useful tasks, from killing zombies, to contributing resources to the community base. To really progress in the game, you must eventually elect a character as the community leader, which you can only do once their standing is high enough.
In addition, there are five upgradable skills. Four of the five upgradeable skills start off as the same respective skill (Cardio, Wits, Fighting, and Shooting), though, as each can be upgraded, most with a branching option, they can and will diverge with progress. The fifth slot is reserved for a unique skill that can be learned (via books that can be found), but also may already be learned by the time you acquire a character. Regardless, once that skill is learned, it cannot be changed, only upgraded. The “fifth” skill will usually add abilities to craft additional items or build new facilities (or upgrade existing ones) on your base.
Base building and management is a major element of the game. There are a variety of facilities to build or upgrade within a base, as well as the ability to move to different bases that might offer more slots for facilities, and/or some built-in perks that others do not. Effectively managing the base and your resources, and utilizing the strengths of your community members, is a critical part of State of Decay 2.
Lastly, there are survivors and “enclaves” (factions) all throughout the open worlds (there are three unique maps that you can try to survive on). You will receive random requests for help of one sort or another. Responding or not, and how you respond, all have consequences, though they weren’t always, if ever, too significant in my two playthroughs.
Rounding out the population are zombies. Most are generic, but some are plague zombies, and have the ability to infect your characters with the blood plague, for which you have a limited time to treat. In addition, there are four types of unique zombies that present a greater challenge. Infestations will arise at various locations. As with many other things in this game, addressing those can boost morale; leaving them to fester will lower morale and can increase the chance of a zombie siege at your base.
With all of these elements, the pace of the game is relentless. Trying to balance tasks such as tending to the needs of individuals in and out of your community, eliminating infestations, gathering and effectively managing resources, and simply just surviving, can be incredibly difficult. At worst, it feels too contrived. A good example of this is when a new member of my community, who hadn’t even made it back to our base yet, inexplicably started a fight with an existing member at our base because of low morale – and our morale was a little above stable.
However, overcoming the challenges, contrived or otherwise, can be wonderfully fulfilling. Inspecting the map for locations that might contain needed resources, then gearing up and setting out, and ultimately returning with the resources and adding hope to the community is genuinely satisfying. Losing daylight while doing so is disconcerting. Running out of fuel, stamina, or, as happened to me, overturning your vehicle or having it destroyed by a horde of zombies (and some shoddy driving) is outright frightening and exhilarating. But again, prevailing over such adversities and hardships feels like an authentic, rewarding achievement.
Moments and experiences like those are where the game shines. Other aspects are a mixed-bag. I found combat responsive and pleasing, but the simplicity of it might make it feel repetitive for some. The graphics are so mediocre that, at first glance, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were any better that the original State of Decay on Xbox 360. At times, they’re just fine, but there are some truly bland or ugly textures. The general art direction is good, the graphics just don’t really complement it.
The game controls are customizable, and are mostly fine. My biggest complaint is how often the “interact” button (Y by default) is used. Case in point: fuelling up a four door car can be a chore. You have to find the sweet spot between the rear driver’s side door and the trunk - miss it, and you’re managing the trunk inventory or hopping in the car. The same issue applies for looting with an NPC around. In a bind, that can be really frustrating.
That brings me to the game's general lack of polish. Even after a 6GB patch was recently made available, it seems the majority of the issues I’ve encountered remain. Some are innocuous, however distracting, like zombies spawning in the air, or doors appearing open but behaving as though they’re closed. Additionally, I’ve had NPCs block my path, or yell at me for aiming my gun at them when they step in the way, and I’ve had my character ignore using a ladder, instead walking over the edge. This hasn’t resulted in death, but it has inflicted injury every time.
I had a survivor request help at a residence, only for me to clear it out but be unable to find him there. Looking at the map, I saw he was now down the road at another house. I drove to that house to watch him run out of it… and down the street to where he was originally supposed to be. Better yet, when I went back and talked with him at that first location, he asked if I would accompany him to the house he had literally just run from. The one time I died, my body disappeared, whereas when some of my community members died, I could loot their bodies. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, until just before beating the game, I found myself near the area I had died, and suddenly the body reappeared so that I could loot it like normal.
Perhaps the most disappointing unpolished element is the multiplayer. Cooperative gameplay is probably the biggest addition and improvement in this sequel. Indeed, it does add some fun and possibilities, but in my admittedly limited time playing co-op (thanks Donovan and Jed), more issues manifested. From performance problems (usually not affecting the host) to issues of items and actions not appearing for all members of the game. At one point I had to quit because I was unable to see or access the item storage at our base in a multiplayer session.
In seeing an ending for two different types of leaders (of which there are four) I suspect a Mass Effect 3-like ending system. They are different, but only marginally so, and I’m not sure how much of an impact your actions make in the end. In one playthrough, despite me making friends with five enclaves, my Warlord leader was met with a lot of resistance because of his “tyrannical” conduct.
All the same, each leader type unlocks a “Legacy Perk” for future playthroughs. You can select up to two of the four for subsequent playthroughs, as well as up to three community members who have made it through previous playthroughs. This adds some nice replay potential.
In the end, although no one glitch or unpolished element is game-breaking, they combine to noticeably hinder the experience. I will note that the developer is “committed to fixing issues up to and beyond launch”, but this is where the game is now. The story never really does anything more than serve as a loose form and guidance for your gameplay experience. In two playthroughs, no character or plot point was memorable. And yet, I’ve had a hell of a time playing the game, and many memorable moments during my time with it. Some of the execution has more room for improvement than you’d expect from a sequel, especially one published by Microsoft, but overall it provides a unique, fun, and satisfying gameplay experience.