So, zombie games. They’re always kind of around, even as the fad has its ebbs and flows. It’s a malleable genre, able to retain its core appeal while developers explore little nooks and crannies wherever they can pull something distinct out from the usual blood, guts, and muck. State of Decay took the zombie gimmick and opted to explore it as a “survivalist fantasy,” essentially taking those eye-rolling-but-unending Serious Discussions about “What would you do?” during the zombie apocalypse. Of course, taking it that seriously in video game form means stats, menus, and other forms of spreadsheet fodder. It also means a whole bunch of potentially uncomfortable language like risk, labor and benefit, economic terms applied to the concept of wagering human lives for larger numbers.
State of Decay 2 is more of that, plus lots of interesting multiplayer features that add some frantic fun and bonus looting opportunities to the mix. Watching the game as demonstrated made it feel a lot like work, but the kind of work a lot of gamers can sink hours and hours of time into. State of Decay 2 is all about building a settlement based on generated maps, enriching it with survivors and facilities, and maintaining your ragtag group until it evolves into a functional community. Of course, problems can and will arise along the way, and not all of them will be because zombies are trying to eat everyone. Sometimes, as generally works out in classic zombie films, the worst problems come from the survivors themselves.
The E3 demonstration of State of Decay 2 introduced us to a group set up especially for the demo, with enough variety to show off the different systemic situations that can develop over the course of a map instance. Each survivor can have all kinds of traits, which then interact with their flaws to make a person who can be both a huge help or a huge hindrance if the player doesn’t work them into appropriate roles. The demo started with a survivor who used to be a stuntman for movies, meaning he was a capable fighter good for making supply runs. He had developed to the point of being a hero, an established member of the community who provided extra bonuses from all the trust he’d built over time. He snored, though, and without enough beds for everyone already, compounded a bit of stress and caused a bit of a resource drain.
The demo group also had a dearth of food supplies, with more people than the community could keep up with. The newest member, however, just so happened to have gardening knowledge. With a few extra supplies, including seed packets, the group could use that knowledge to build a garden, therefore generating regular food stock. Our athletic hero set out in a car the group managed to find earlier and headed into town, but not before picking up a friend online in real-time. The two ventured into town, picking off zombies (mostly by violently opening the car door), and looting various buildings. An abandoned police station still had some ordinance and the needed seed packet turned up in a store. The co-op partner even found a rare weapon, a nice bonus from participating in online play.
While driving the car around didn’t attract too much trouble, building the gardening facility certainly did. The home base was attacked while our heroes were still out on their mission, and radio communication alerted them of the dire situation. The only option was to hightail it back to base to defend the weaker, but still crucial, survivors left behind. The horde came fast and hard, including droves of normal zombies and a few special enemy types – a screaming zombie that obviously attracted more numbers, and a larger one that soaked up bullets and nearly killed the star athlete. The big guys are the ones responsible for the stark bit of entrail-laden violence during Microsoft’s press event.
State of Decay 2 definitely wants you to think like a pragmatic survivor, a leader who can both manage people as resources in terms of risk/reward, but also understand how vital it is for everyone to get along and be as healthy as they can in a zombie apocalypse. It also wants you to devote tons of time to it, as the endless possibilities fueled by the intense variety of survivors and their abilities likely generates all kinds of unique situations and building opportunities. This is clearly a game for people who think about what it would be like to have a fallout shelter in their backyard, or those of us who still wonder about what they would do if a George Romero movie came to life. It’s work, it’s violence, and it’s a mirror into what kinds of decisions people will make when life and death are the only stakes.