Undead Labs; Xbox 360; 1600MS Points
In 2011, Undead Labs announced ambitious plans to develop the ultimate zombie survival simulator. Originally codenamed ‘Class3’ – in deference to the taxonomy of outbreaks chronicled in Max Brooks’ seminal book, The Zombie Survival Guide – the game’s intention was to drop players into the midst of a county wide undead epidemic, giving them free reign to put their skills and theories to the ultimate test. The result was State of Decay. However, releasing into such an oversubscribed genre in the same week as industry favourite The Last of Us, the game faced its own battle for survival.
Developed on CryEngine3, State of Decay is certainly a very pretty – and extremely gory – open world game. Visually, it draws on pretty much every Rockstar release from the last five years, in terms of character animation, driving and shooting mechanics, even right down to the in-game HUD. However, it’s obvious that Undead Labs don’t have quite the same resources as the larger studios, as there are some framerate issues here and there. But beyond the sporadic screen tears lie a set of unique and quite addictive features.
For starters, you don’t play as one central character. By way of introduction, you start the game as Marcus, a Store Clerk returning from a two week fishing trip with his friend, Ed. While they’ve been gone, all hell has broken loose and we meet them on a river bank vigorously bashing seven shades of shit out of a small group of zombies. It’s not long before they hook up with other survivors at the local lodge. That’s when things get interesting.
Rather than opting for the usual superhuman protagonist, able to mow down swathes of undead from dawn to dusk, the game focuses on group survival. This means that you have to regularly switch between survivors to allow other playable characters to rest. It also allows you to rank up the skills of the survivor you are playing. Some characters are natural leaders who hold massive sway over group morale; some are sharpshooters, honing their precision with every rifle round fired; others still are great fighters, using brute strength and melee weapons to keep the undead at bay.
Throughout the campaign you are introduced to a huge variety of playable characters, and although some lines of dialogue are repeated a little too often, the voice acting is good and so you identify the stronger personalities quite quickly. You even begin to like some of them, which is another feature that can be quite difficult to deal with. Perma-death. Each character in your rag-tag bunch of survivors only has one life. If they die, they’re gone for good. There’s no reloading; no backpedalling. If you make a mistake which results in the untimely demise of one of your group, you just have to live with it. This can be very difficult if you have spent a significant amount of time with your characters, levelling their skills and abilities over the course of several in-game weeks.
To give an example of the above, my favourite character, Ed, was bitten quite early on in the game. It took many nights of daring raids with the other characters to obtain the vital medical supplies for him to pull through. I was so elated when he finally recovered, that I effectively ran him into the ground in the days that followed, causing him to fatigue through over exertion and succumb to an alerted zombie horde. I was quite devastated.
Obviously, no matter how careful you are, your group will always have problems. Through an intuitive diary system you monitor morale, supplies and individual points of view. This last facet should not be overlooked. It doesn’t matter how well fed and provisioned the group is, or how well fortified your camp is, every now and then some of them will get sick, lonely, or depressed. If left unchecked, these symptoms can manifest into dangerous acts of desperation – individual characters can place the whole group in jeopardy. If you identify an issue, it needs to be aired, even if it’s only to take a disheartened survivor out for a drive to blow off the cobwebs.
As money is worthless during a zombie outbreak, the in-game currency is Influence, which is earned by doing good deeds for fellow survivors around the impressively large map. You may be hailed on the radio about a zombie horde attacking a family somewhere, or asked to assist the local Army with one of their routine artillery bombardments. You can choose to help or look the other way. Many times you will be faced with such a stark choice, as the amount of concurrent activities and requests vying for your attention can be overwhelming and many of the tasks are time critical, expiring quite quickly. You can’t save everyone.
The immediacy of some situations also presents problems. When raiding the local houses and businesses, you have to physically search through lockers and draws, which takes time and creates a certain amount of noise. If you’re in a rush you can just smash’n’grab, but this will inevitably attract a lot of unwanted attention. Or you can send mission runners from your group to scavenge on your behalf, but you always need to be conscious of their whereabouts as they can sometimes get into trouble when you’re not around.
The supplies and resources you scavenge throughout the map allow you to create extra facilities at your base camp, such as an infirmary to tend injured characters or a workshop to repair vehicles. You can also establish outposts to keep an eye on the local hordes wandering the countryside. Clearing these infestations out at regular intervals and ensuring your walls are barricaded help keep morale up and tensions down. Sometimes even simple things like cooking a big meal can perk up the whole camp.
And checking your survivors’ wellbeing needs to be a regularly occurrence, due to a rather clever metagame mechanic which simulates events based on how long you’ve been logged out. So in theory you can shutdown the game with a full morale meter and a happy bunch of campers, but boot up the next day to a total shitstorm. Members can be missing; the horde can be clambering over the walls; you never quite know what to expect. You never feel safe. And I love it.
Mixing elements of combat, shooting and driving with resource and time management, State of Decay is certainly an ambitious game that will test you in more ways than one. Undead Labs have created a living, breathing, undead world that continues to turn even when you’re not in it. And it thoroughly deserves the commercial success it has garnered, racking up a record breaking 550,000 downloads in its first two weeks. This has been achieved without an advertising budget or any discernible lip service from the gaming industry, but moreover with a dedicated community driven by a team who are clearly passionate about delivering the best experience possible. They continue to engage with their fans to provide patches and updates, fielding all manner of requests including multiplayer co-op. They have recently updated the game so that players can continue to survive long after the story arc is finished. How long we all last is anyone’s guess.
Undead Labs have confirmed that State of Decay won’t be their last foray into the zombie survival genre. Their next project hinged on the success of this debut, but there is now little doubt that the MMORPG currently codenamed ‘Class4’ will eventually see the light of day. If State of Decay is any indicator of what to expect, I for one am very excited.