State of Decay 2 Review
The original State of Decay launched back in June 2013 and became somewhat of a sleeper hit on the Xbox 360, despite being widely slated for its technical performance and huge dose of jank throughout. The game’s core gameplay loop found an audience and whilst many struggled with the way the game ran, it did really well commercially, spawning an updated version for the newer Xbox One two years on from the original release entitled Year One Survival Edition. The upgraded version didn’t change a great deal other than take advantage of the improved hardware and removing some, but not all, of technical issues. Undead Labs didn’t rest on their laurels and got to work on a sequel which they then duly announced in 2016 with a slated release date of 2017. Well, that didn’t work out as planned and was then pushed to 2018. Whilst no one likes a delay, State of Decay 2 utilises a completely new engine (Unreal) so we could forgive them if the game was technically accomplished and bug-free. We could...if only that was the case.
State of Decay 2 starts with what can only be described as a very short, bare-bones tutorial. You find yourself briefly being introduced to the game’s basic combat systems in a county overrun with zombies —- grab a blunt weapon or a gun, preferably both, and head out to the open world to set up an initial base and start to build some sort of community. You are given the choice of three starting base locations on a map littered with other abandoned buildings potentially full of supplies to get you going. Storywise there pretty much isn’t one; during the tutorial your randomly generated survivor is pointed in the general direction of a town and a base, then it’s left up to you. The first game had some semblance of a story but the sequel abandons that in favour of you creating your own emergent experience.
As you start to build your base, the game stops being helpful and it’s on you to figure out what the game wants and needs from you to succeed. At its core this sequel isn’t much different from the first game, build your base up and in turn your community; scavenge for food, resources, fuel and medicine to keep it all going; destroy plague hearts (this is new and found in the world) which are causing the infections across the town, wipe out infestations (houses full of zombies), tend to random side missions to bring in new people to the community and above all survive. The gameplay loop hasn’t changed from the original — it’s a budget zombie survival game after all, and what separated State of Decay from the plethora of zombie survival games that have flooded the market in the last few years is the base-building and survival elements. As your community grows you can start to create outposts which supply you with daily increases in your core resources as well as allowing you to build things like a farm so you can start to feed yourself. This adds to the micromanagement of your community and in time you can start to ease off on the resource gathering as you will become self-sufficient. Creating your community and managing everything is arguably more fun than your bog-standard zombie slaying but it’s still not enough to alleviate the disappointment.
Keeping enough of everything to allow your community to thrive is much more of a driver to push forward than chopping down the infinitely spawning zombies which roam all over the map. The zombies themselves are pretty much the same as in the first game, with the addition of the plague-carrying red-eyed zombies that can infect your community members (easily fixed back at base though, so carries little threat), the feral zombie (World War Z-style zombies with pace) or the juggernaut zombie (big fatty who takes some putting down). Whilst these guys provide some variety they are few and far between and pose little threat if you have the right gear.
So whilst the game has a new shiny Unreal engine driving it, the game’s structure, tasks and gameplay loops are pretty much the same as the original, which is disappointing. As much as we thoroughly enjoyed the original we’ve played through both iterations multiple times and were looking for more than new shiny graphics and improved performance. Adding to the disappointing feeling of deja vu during the initial five to ten hours the shiny graphics and improved performance aren’t there to save the day. State of Decay 2 has many, many technical issues. Graphically it looks cheap with some really poor character animations throughout, the combat is as bad as it was in the original, with the controls amounting to the use of one button (later with skill unlocks per character you can add in a special move like a leg sweep). All in all the game looks and plays like a last generation budget title which is fitting really as it’s a rehash of that very thing. Performance-wise it’s a real mixed bag, incredibly even on the Xbox One X the game isn’t capable of maintaining a stable framerate and whilst the normal Xbox does it’s at a much lower resolution. 4K and HDR on the X help a little but it’s cleaning up something that should be so much better than it actually is. On top of this there is the sometimes eye-bleeding motion blur when controlling your character or attempting quick movements, combined with general bugginess found around the world. This may manifest in having to open a door that simply isn’t there, to cars randomly leaping in the air when you drive over a tiny bump. The whole package just feels unfinished.
What the original really missed was four player co-op, as slaying zombies was always going to be much more fun in a group of friends and State of Decay was no different. The sequel delivers this but at a slight cost. Up to an additional three players can join a host’s game filling the roles of random avatars along for the ride but there are some caveats. Only the host’s community benefits from any progression, while co-op buddies take back any resources found but nothing else as essentially you are simply helping the host. The overall campaign — and your community — is on you. As a result the game really is a single-player game, with a tacked on multiplayer component, very much like Metal Gear Survive was earlier in the year. Co-op also introduces some serious performance issues and the bug rate goes through the roof, neither of which were that great to start with so while playing co-op is a little more fun (well everything is more fun in co-op) it’s not particularly a rewarding use of your time and ups the issues.
State of Decay 2 redoes the original and adds a handful of new features but nowhere near enough to warrant the hype that’s been generated around this Microsoft exclusive. While this may be another case of Game Pass coming to the rescue again, having played....Sea of Thieves we’ve changed our thinking. It no longer feels like Microsoft are giving away their top exclusives. Instead, it seems as though they're handing out mediocre titles to try and get more people signed up to their Netflix-style subscription system, so that hundreds of thousands of people won't feel as disappointed when they get given an unfinished "exclusive" for free.
State of Decay 2 feels like a waste of a new engine and a good few years of development. That said, if you liked the first one and you are happy to go again with much of the same then it may be worth your time. Having enjoyed the first one we found ourselves cracking on and enjoying the survival and collection hooks of the game for the first ten to fifteen hours, but as we progressed the lack of anything noticeably new or different slowed our progress and it became more of a chore than a joy to play.