"State of Dismay."
State of Decay (SoD) is a 1600 Microsoft Point Xbox Live Arcade title that features a game world filled with legitimate bouts of trepidation. Unlike most zombie related games, SoD infuses a number of aspects to a zombie outbreak that one would expect to encounter, with survival instincts topping the list. Players will focus on collecting food, ammunition, medicine and other necessities that come into play throughout. A home base becomes established, the population rises as more scavengers are located, with even some new playable characters that show up. Each said character can gain a number of attributes that are automatic (Cardio) or ones that have one time selections, such as specializing in a certain weapon type. Sound plays an integral par of the adventure; sneaking around produces less sound, while barging through a front door could alert nearby zombies.
On paper, it all sounds like a brilliant concoction to a zombie survival game. It’s a shame that when all of these ideas are put together, it feels almost as decrepit as the decaying flesh on a zombie.
That’s not to say that SoD is DOA. Developer Undead Labs manages to construct a number of singular elements with SoD that do work, whether it’s temporarily or long term. With sound playing a vital role throughout, players have to thoughtfully approach most situations, lest they want to see a possible bum-rush of zombies head their way. Sneaking through homes or by other undead creatures may slow progression down, but it will lessen the chance of becoming overwhelmed. More often than not though, it’s easier just to sprint by certain areas instead of keeping it safe, especially if there are no red or gray blips on the radar.
Safehouses, PC’s and NPC’s help give the illusion that the player is not alone and that they need to help fortify said bunker, restock necessities and help deal with internal drama here and there. As the safehouse is built and more people stay within it, new options open up in terms of add-ons that can be erected, which will help all of the playable characters in certain ways, from raising maximum vitality to the ability to repair vehicles when they become damaged. The problem is, players can bypass most of this and never feel hampered in any significant way. Safehouses more or less become nothing more than a hub to store weapons, food and medicine that would normally not all fit within the inventory space provided with each character.
On top of that, SoD features permadeath. If the player loses a character during gameplay, they are gone for good. All of the attributes they gained, all for naught. The game will then pick back up from another playable survivor within the main encampment. The problem here isn’t the fact that permadeath exists, but that a smart player will never need to fear death. During my time with SoD, I lost all of my health twice, and each time I was given an opportunity to mash the A button to get back up, which refilled my health bar and got me back in the game. There’s also supposed to be some sort of fatigue and injury system involved, but I’ve yet to see any drawbacks to keeping my character out in the field (outside a rarely reduced stamina bar), so there’s been no reason to even switch to another character, especially to one with base level skills. Carry enough meds, return enough meds to the bunker and there’s almost no real fear of death throughout most of the game.
The game world provided, while not the most visually pleasing, offers up something that most every sandbox title of its ilk lacks – the ability to invade nearly every home, office and building that’s available. This aspect alone feeds into the notion that SoD is supposed to thrive off of survival, scavenging and making the best out of the most dire situations. While this concept is apparent, it’s marred by technical and accessibility issues. Many of the rooms in many of the homes quickly start to look too familiar to each other. They deviate here and there, though that déjà vu feeling never does die. There’s quite a bit of real estate to explore here, but a majority of it all involves long stretches with little to no encampments to search, with rather long drives between each location. One could say that the long distances that need to be charted by vehicle add to the immersion and the overall experience. I do agree to an extent; I’ve been a huge proponent of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its large areas of “dead space”. The problem with SoD is, combined with several other aspects to the game its self, these drudges through long stretches of nothing feels more like padding to the monotony up ahead, rather than compounding what one would have to struggle with during a zombie invasion in a manner that feels both inviting and worthwhile.
There are occasional frame rate stuttering while driving, which are not isolated to moments when the game is initiating an autosave. Combined with underwhelming visuals as a whole, pop up issues and even some draw distance problems, SoD isn’t going to be winning any artistic prizes. Its simplicities wouldn’t have been a sticking point were it not for the fact that the performance as a whole is sub par. At least the audio is serviceable, mixing sparsely heard, but mood setting tunes with voice acting that teeters closer to poor than lazily phoned in, as well as sound effects that are average at best.
Everything else about SoD doesn’t feel as fully fleshed out as it should. They storyline is completely forgettable, to the point where a half hour into SoD, I gave up trying to dedicate myself to caring. It becomes evident about two hours in that mission variety is nothing more than storyline progression with little shuffling in its formula (drive to X, find someone, chat, drive to Y, kill), to locating scavengers in trouble and rescuing them, to rescuing people the player sent out to pick up items, and little else after that. I didn’t expect a high level of diversity with the mission structure, but once mission types begin repeating, it feels more like a chore than a game. Coincidentally, that does fit the motif of what I would envision a zombie outbreak harboring, though that doesn’t translate into an engaging and memorable journey in the end. Weapon decay comes into play, though there are so many points in which a weapon can easily be located, there’s little to no reason to every worry about getting caught empty handed. There are even several “special” zombie types, from an armless screamer that alerts the undead from far away and staggers the player, to a beefy, tank-like zombies that will charge at players, as well as take a good full speed car crash or seven. It fits the typical zombie game mold of “boss type” zombies, with very little to segregate its self from the status quo.
SoD also suffers from a number of embarrassing bugs throughout, although none that I’ve encountered so far has outright broken the game. There’s the whole clipping issue when executing zombies near a wall, where the player goes through said wall to take out the undead prey, and then either stay on the outside, or teleports back indoors. There have been a number of instances in which I’ve driven down a road and hit invisible debris. When those items get hit, an occasional white hood from a car would pop up. This invisible trash actually did cause damage to the vehicle as well, as smoke began to emanate from under the hood on one occasion. There’s also this inability to successfully pull off 90% of all sneak attack attempts. Sneaking up too close to a zombie from behind will alert them, which negates the purpose of a sneak attack, as the players needs to sneak behind close enough to initiate it. Add in zombies that occasionally walk through the ground and headshots that don’t register and that about sums up the lack of polish on display for the majority of the adventure.
Which makes the fact that SoD is somewhat addicting to play, even with the numerous roadblocks and lack of fleshing out, sound even more preposterous. As much of a sloth as it feels to drive through massive stretches of dead space and as monotonous as the experience bogs down to, it still has its hook. Interiors don’t have much of a diverse feel, yet it’s still a bit nerve-wracking trying to sift through each room, through each item of interest, without drawing attention to the players current location. Coming across a new melee or ballistic weapon is always interesting, even if headshots are the only way to really fell an enemy with a gun, which is a bit of a haphazard, thanks to the somewhat janky aiming mechanics. The feeling of dread and panic does come into play more often than not (even if a smart player wouldn’t face the fear of death for the majority of the time), and that helps pull the players in a bit deeper, even if the archaic mission variety and relative ease in staying alive pushes players away.
State of Decay is an ambitious concept for a console title, even more so as an XBLA release. The fact that it’s available for $20 seems impressive, but a part of me wonders how better the experience would have been if Undead Labs had a higher budget and perhaps released it at a reduced priced retail title. What they did manage to put out flashes a number of brilliant moments and concepts as a whole, but perhaps they were a bit too ambitious with the staff and funding they had. Apparently it’s the second fastest selling XBLA title to date, so the interest in the game is there. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to push State of Decay as a “must play” title. Zombie fanboys will eat this one up and find quite a bit to latch onto, despite the flaws. For everyone else though, the repetition, technical quibbles, lack of mission variety and other shortcomings makes it hard to outright approve its purchase. If you can tolerate a lack of polish, a thick layer of monotony and a number of gameplay aspects that just don’t matter in the end, there’s still a bit of content to search through here.