Review: State of Decay

A solid action-RPG with survival elements which is diminished by some bugs and some jankiness in the game design.  Despite the flaws, State of Decay gives a compelling zombie experience.  This would easily be one of the best zombie survival games out there if only it had a co-op mode.
Review: State of Decay
Date published: Jun 1, 2014
2 / 3 stars

State of Decay is a third-person action RPG with survival elements developed by Zombie Labs and published by Microsoft Games.  While the appeal is no doubt in the survival elements, it is more of an action RPG than a survival game, though the elements present do add enough to the game to give it that survival feel.

State of Decay tells an absolutely generic story of a zombie outbreak, with allusions to government cover-up or responsibility.  Its overarching narrative is therefore very predictable, and the fact that most of the NPCs with a handful of exceptions are procedurally-generated and therefore you don't really become too attached to them.  The ones that aren't have some interesting characters that do manage to somewhat carry things however.

While hardly a true rogue-like in any sense,
procedural generation is central to State of Decay

The procedural generation of the survivors you find does actually lend itself quite well to the theme however, as you will find survivors with randomly-generated appearances and traits which adds to the feeling you're just coming across a handful of people who have survived the outbreak and following violence.  Likewise, the items you'll be able to scavenge from houses (and other areas such as campsites, stockpiles, and the like) is also randomly generated.  This does create a different game every time which is something of a rogue-like element, and moreover it means you cannot just depend on knowing the good locations to loot.  The other side of this, however, is that some playthroughs will leave you with very sub-par loot and you will have a great deal of difficulty.  A common problem is that the firearms you'll find won't use the calibre of bullets you find laying around, so you will have to rely on melee weapons.

That generation also expands to the generation of your enemies, as the game will semi-randomly spawn groups of normal zombies, roving hordes of normal zombies, and a variety of usually-but-not-always-single special zombies which the game calls "freaks".  There's a good bit of variety in these enemies and they each require different tactics to take them down while still being able to be killed with firearms (albeit with a lot of firearms in the case of some of them).  

Again, with enemies the procedural generation can be boon or bane, with one playthrough meeting an abrupt end fifteen minutes in when I was out with the two playable characters I had a the time to scrounge supplies to get the initial outpost going just to get utterly curbstomped by a Juggernaught (or "Big 'Un", "Big One" or "Big Bastard", the game is strangely quite inconsistent with the names on that one particular enemy), which was basically a tank zombie.  Trying to take them on with melee is usually suicide unless you have a high-end melee weapon and a fairly-levelled character, and firearms were something I did not yet have.  I was lucky in this case though - this party wipe and subsequent game over happened early enough in the game that I'd only wasted those fifteen minutes.  While you do gain some resilience with this as you slowly gain more and more survivors you can directly control, all it can take is a string of bad encounters to waste days' worth of playtime, and it doesn't take more than a couple minutes for this to happen.  This is exacerbated by the fact that survivors, when you're not directly controlling them, will go out on missions of their own volition while you are out, and can often get themselves in trouble and subsequently killed.  Their survival in that situation is - you guessed it - again, randomly-generated.

Having perma-death in a long form game has the game
waste large amounts of your time with one bad random encounter

Basically, your gameplay experience is defined very much by that random-number generator.  It's ultimately to the detriment of the game, because every time I felt I began to find some immersion in the game, I would get curbstomped by a random pack of ferals and if I was lucky I'd limp home with my last sliver of health and have to take another character.  If I was lucky.  If I wasn't, well, there goes another playable survivor.  This leads to situations where you have to have a bit of an A team and a B team (and possibly C-team) much like X-Com: Enemy Unknown, but unlike X-Com, you can't just reload if you have a really bad run.  And moreover, much of my gameplay decisions became very much on the meta-game, trying to progress in a way that minimised the chances of the RNG ruining another 10+ hours of gameplay.

10 hours is a large time commitment to make for a game to just randomly and suddenly destroy you, and the frustration from that is going to be too much for some gamers, and I can't blame you.  There was one game I hit that string of bad luck on where I'd put about 28 hours into that game where if the glass on my window was a wee bit weaker the keyboard would have been thrown out the window rather than just at it.

And that's to say nothing of the many crash bugs which still seem to exist in the game.  I put off this review twice because of major patches, but they seem to have only gotten more frequent than less.  The fact that there is a long list on the State of Decay wiki that is growing rather than shrinking doesn't bode well either.  Thankfully checkpoints are generally generous and only leave you having to replay a single mission, but it still happened often enough to be a problem.

The game doesn't seem to play well with Steam and its frequent crashes grew much less frequent when I disabled the Steam overlay, though they still occurred.  In general it feels and controls like a rushed PC port, with minimal graphics options (resolution, v-sync on or off, and a handful of presets only) nor real accommodations for keyboard and mouse controls.  Thankfully the keyboard controls are rebindable, as the initial layout I found didn't work too well for me (having the action keys so close to the WASD it uses for movement had me often doing things I didn't mean to).  In particular the driving controls on keyboard put you all over the place and are difficult to acclimate to with how extreme they make the driving.  I did eventually get used to them, but its definitely better suited for a controller.  While the Steam page claims full controller support, I wasn't able to get an X-Box controller to work.  Apparently there's bugs regarding the game's detection of controllers, but I couldn't get it working after several minutes of fiddling so I just settled for keyboard and mouse.  On foot, these controls are absolutely fine, it's only vehicles which seem to suffer, and I did (eventually) get used to the touchiness.

Combat in State of Decay is simultaneously
a strong element and yet quite frustrating

While it helps the theme of the game that combat and especially melee combat is something that you don't want to do too much of, especially when against groups of normal zombies and especially against special zombies, it makes the game frustrating.  Melee combat has a moderate but effective depth to it, with straight dodges, a dodge that offers a chance to counterattack but also of still getting hit, and a variety of light and heavy weapons which are edged or blunt, the inclusion of a stamina system that dwindles rapidly in combat makes it usually unfeasible for anything more than a handful of zombies, even with a decently-levelled character.  While, again, this adds to the theme, having to be intelligent with your combat decisions and sneak around larger groups of zombies, the perma-death with no saves element again means that oftentimes you can get yourself easily over-extended, and since by then you can't at all easily disengage - it's all but impossible unless you can climb up onto a roof or vantage point - you're going to die a lot of the time through no fault of your own.  And that is what truly gives it the frustration.  When you're fighting skillfully but still dying because the stamina went out and the game is clown-car-ing fifty zombies out of a house because they heard one zombie crash through a window, a lot of people are going to get a little angry, understandably so, since escape is not usually an option unless there's that vantage point or a vehicle nearby.

Firearms are similarly a mixed bag, because of that element of noise.  Noise draws zombies to you, and if you do that with any number of them around you'll probably be eaten.  One can get suppressors, or make them at your home/base location if one has the proper facility, but they are quickly consumed and don't usually make the guns too much quieter.  Combine this with a friendly AI that was recently tweaked to be less reluctant to use firearms in a patch, and I found myself quickly avoiding taking AI companions with me.

Scavenging is what a lot of one's playtime will be,
but it is implemented decently

One of the biggest time sinks in the game is scavenging in fact.  Importantly, I never felt the scavenging was wasting my time; I got enough of a variety of weapons and other items that for a fair while I was still finding new things, and you had a chance to find other survivors and other helpful things such as vehicles and resources for the base while afield.  It almost always seemed at least worthwhile, though the possibility of mismatched firearms and ammunition types is a problem as mentioned prior.  The scavenging is done mostly through searching containers in houses and other locations, which can be done slowly and quietly, or sped up with the possibility of being loud and attracting the zombies.  My only real frustration with that was the aggressively-small inventory size (with one pill bottle taking up the same amount of room in a backpack as a full-size assault rifle), and while you can store things in vehicles, their inventory size isn't any better than the player's, and in many cases less so - even in vehicles like a flat-bed truck where one would think one could easily stash a bunch of stuff.  This would have actually made vehicles a lot more valuable had they had larger inventories, as is, they were mostly faster travel devices that were quickly discarded after you hit enough zombies to damage them, and it doesn't take many of them to reach that point.

Other survivors that are not directly allied with your group will often be set up in small outpost-style bases of their own, and occasionally you will receive requests for aid from them, which lead to missions you can complete to increase their "trust" with you.  A higher trust allows you to "buy" supplies with "influence" for a cheaper rate, and a higher trust rating allows for the possibility of a mission coming up where they will join your group.  This, along with finding and assisting survivors in need while out on the field, are your two main ways of increasing your group size.  It plays pretty well, if a little repetitively since the missions are randomly-generated and almost always the same other than whom exactly you're saving.

The lack of cooperative play is a huge missed opportunity

Where you always have someone with you, from the very start of the game, unless you choose not to, the fact that you cannot play cooperatively is definitely what comes between this game being simply "good" and being a great game.  With the venerable Left 4 Dead 2 showing what fun a zombie game can be, and the massively popular DayZ being essentially multiplayer-only, the fact that you cannot even grab a second friend and play State of Decay with them is a big disappointment in the game, and it's without a doubt what holds it back from classic territory.  It was claimed that there were technical difficulties in adding it, but the real difficulty was that this would have taken time they spent making the DLC instead, because that had the actual dollar signs attached.  It's a real shame that they put the money ahead of the game design, because this game, cleaned up of its bugs, given some better porting, and with co-op, would have been the definitive game of the genre to me.  Instead, it has settled for merely "good".

A solid action-RPG with survival elements which is diminished by some bugs and some jankiness in the game design.  Despite the flaws, State of Decay gives a compelling  zombie experience.  This would easily be one of the best zombie survival games out there if only it had a co-op mode.