In a gaming landscape absolutely flush with ways to kill zombies, it can be difficult for a zombie game to stand out. We have plenty of horror, first person action, third person action, and survival horror games. We have a couple great narrative-driven adventure games. Usually when there are zombies, there’s something else. What if there were zombies, and you had to save the president’s daughter? What if there were zombies and you were a super secret double agent working for the bad guys with their own designs on the virus? What if there were zombies and you had to protect the only person immune to the virus? State of Decay throws out the second part, the ‘something else,’ and asks “What if there were zombies, and you had to figure out how to continue living?
It’s an interesting place to start from. State of Decay puts the player in charge of a small group of survivors trying to simply continue existing in a dangerous world filled with the undead, dangerous bandits, dwindling resources and, worst of all, their own internal and external conflicts. No one before or since its initial release on the Xbox 360 has done quite as good a job of it.
It stands out in another way, though, that’s not quite as good. State of Decay is a roller coaster built from toothpicks. It feels like it could fall apart at any second nearly every second. The novelty of the concept kept it afloat when it hit Xbox 360 two years ago, but now, with the game supposedly upgraded to work on hardware almost a decade newer, is that something we can still excuse?
How to Scrape By
Telltale’s Walking Dead games capture the powerful narrative of Robert Kirkman’s series and let you make choices along the way. State of Decay could’ve been a Walking Dead-branded game, too. Instead of an adventure game, though, this is a simulation.
In State of Decay, you don’t play as just one character or another. You play as all the characters, switching from one to another when the first becomes tired or gets injured. Whatever character you’re playing as can make decisions about how to upgrade your home base, where to look for resources, and can help to diffuse social issues within your group of characters.
By being in control of all the characters, I felt myself developing an attachment not to one character or another but to the community they comprised. I lost one character pretty early on, before I’d developed that attachment. I got frustrated with her exhaustion and kind of just let it happen. Hours later, I found myself regretting it. Not because she had a certain set of skills that no one else had, but just because I felt like I’d taken something from the group.
The story beats you’ll encounter along the way are pretty stereotypical. There’s the intimidating group of rednecks, the military still trying to act like there’s a government to save and things like that. They aren’t terribly original, but do serve to give the game some structure.
In between these narrative moments, you’ll spend your time collecting and delivering resources to maintain your group’s health and safety and upgrade your base’s amenities, track down other survivors, and help the existing ones take down particularly troublesome zombies. Every event, though, has a timer on it. The story missions don’t seem to, though I’ll admit I didn’t put any of them off long enough to find out. You can miss out on picking up new survivors, or find out one of your community members ended up as zombie food.
All of this works really well, and State of Decay will be, for me, the Walking Dead game we wanted but never got.
A Shambling Corpse a Shambles
Unfortunately, things start to fall apart from there. The game and its subsequent DLC start to look more like the shambling corpses, and sometimes it feels like you’re battling one just by playing.
State of Decay just is not fun to look at. It’s one of the ugliest games I’ve played in a long time – maybe as ugly as Deadly Premonition, the cult hit from the last generation. Like Deadly Premonition, the game’s concept and execution allowed me to look past that stuff quite a bit, but not entirely.
The textures on display wouldn’t pass muster in an Xbox 360 game from 6 or 7 years ago, let alone one from 2 years ago. But now the game is running – two years later – on Xbox One, and it’s still a major eyesore. The textures get the job done – you can generally tell what is what – but that’s it. Animation is the same way. It’s functional, but that’s it. The only time it shines is when you execute a zombie by busting its head open.
The game’s framerate, though, is the worst. I want to reiterate that this is a 2 year old game built for the Xbox 360. Despite the game’s age and origin, it runs terribly on the Xbox One and in this case it’s pretty tough to blame the console’s power. The framerate is constantly dipping and stuttering. I noticed it especially if I hopped into one of the speedier cars littered around the map and floored it. The game would stutter anytime I started or stopped the vehicle.
That, above anything, is inexcusable. While the art lacks any kind of cohesive style, it is functional and ensures the game is playable. The framerate, however, gets in the way of the experience. It resulted in misjudgements more than once as my perceived location on the road and the on-screen location didn’t quite match up when the game locked up for a split second. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it affects it and there’s no reason for it to happen on the much more powerful hardware of the Xbox One as compared to the game as it runs on the Xbox 360.
The purchase, whether on disc or digital, does include the two DLC packs, Breakdown and Lifeline. Lifeline puts you in a new city with a new, albeit shorter storyline. Breakdown, on the other hand, sticks you back in the same map with hard mode turned on and no story. It’s an endless survival mode, essentially. It’s a cool idea, but wouldn’t be worth the $6.99 the Xbox 360 version requires.
State of Decay isn’t a horrible game. It has a compelling idea that it executes well. The team at Undead Labs knows what it is about zombies that makes them so interesting to fans. Despite it being yet another zombie game when there are so many already, its concept gives it legs to stand on. For that, State of Decay is worth checking out.
The continued technical issues, however, hamstring it constantly. If you already own State of Decay on another platform, there’s no good reason to pick it up here. If you don’t own it, you might want to wait for a sale to hit the Xbox Store.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of State of Decay: Year-One Survival Edition for the Xbox One from the publisher. We completed the main campaign and played both DLC packs before writing this review.