nateandrews's State of Decay 2 (Xbox One) review

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State of Decay 2 is a great time, even if it isn't the ideal sequel

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2013′s State of Decay brought us on to potential of a zombie survival game with resource gathering and base management, one that would have the player spend nearly as much time looking at menus as they do swinging baseball bats at the undead. It was the sort of game that entertained through sheer novelty alone. It practically begged for a sequel, one that would hopefully iron out its rather significant performance issues. The very concept sounded like a perfect game.

State of Decay 2 is not that game; in fact, it’s just as messy as its predecessor. But I would be mistaken if I didn’t confess to having a terrific time with it.

Rubberbanding

At the start of State of Decay 2, you select a pair of survivors and, along with a couple of other AI companions, establish a safe house on one of three maps. The community starts small, and after growing can be moved to different safe house locations around the map.

There are two primary day-to-day activities: scavenging the map for supplies, and managing the community of survivors. The latter entails building, using, and upgrading facilities. You’ll find nothing to enjoy here if going through menus looking at various color-coded numbers holds no appeal. But the menus are well-designed, save for maybe the supply locker that can get a bit crowded over time. Everything else is rarely a hassle.

You’ll need to head out into the world to scavenge buildings for food, medicine, parts, weapons, and ammunition, and one AI companion can accompany you and help carry supplies back to base. Crucially, additional supplies can be stored in the trunks of vehicles. I quite enjoyed the challenge of having to (you guessed it) manage fuel consumption while out and about. Running out of fuel with no gas cans around or getting the vehicle stuck somewhere (an all too frequent occurrence) could mean hiking long distances back to base. I remember one such odyssey a newcomer to the community was forced to go on, hiking halfway across the map through rugged terrain with cracked ribs, a punctured lung, and the plague. It sucked, but it felt like I gave them a story to tell.

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The crux of State of Decay 2 is that the game never, ever wants you to get ahead. Virtually every system that makes up the base management works against you at all times. Food and medicine supplies decline daily. Building materials disappear quickly when constructing new facilities. The ammo count decreases when an attack on the base is repelled; these attacks directly correlate to how much noise the community is generating. Scavenging new areas every day is required and often times, especially for the first few hours, a lengthy run will only give the community enough to make it through the next day.

The regular depletion of supplies can be lessened by constructing certain facilities that produce materials. Most significantly, buildings around the map can be converted into outposts, many of which will feed regular materials back to base. Every outpost comes with a universal supply locker, giving you a dumping off point for lengthier expeditions.

Helpfully, the base management menus are efficient at detailing exactly what resources are being drained, what’s consuming them, and how much is being lost each day. Dealing with this constant depletion of resources is mostly an enjoyable challenge; I often have to think about what resource to prioritize when heading out, knowing that I’ll likely still be in the red in several categories even after returning with my bounty.

A gaggle of humans

One of the biggest draws of State of Decay 2 is its enormous cast of survivors, all of whom come with various traits and skills and all of whom can permanently die. There is an unbelievable amount of traits; some of them directly affect skills, while others are miscellaneous interests or quirks that have no impact on gameplay.

The most exciting part of getting a new community member is having a glance at who they are as a person and how it affects them. A character who loved camping will get a morale bonus when sleeping in an outdoor bed. Someone who has “Awful Fashion Sense” will actually lower the morale of irritable survivors. My favorite that I encountered was a man with the trait “Built the Worst Deck,” which lowered his craftsmanship experience rate by 33%.

All of these quirks do a wonderful job of reinforcing the fact that these are people coming from different backgrounds, with various interests, fears, and pet peeves, and seeing how those traits interact with the game’s various systems—or even just how they influence my perception of a character—was one of the enduring joys of State of Decay 2.

No fear

Surprisingly, even with its various systems working against the player and hordes of zombies standing in the way of every bit of resource, State of Decay 2 could really use a harder difficulty setting. Much like with the first game, I found my groove in the new one rather quickly. First, once I had facilities running and I had figured out the optimal way to get resources each day, I never struggled at home again. And second, once a survivor’s fighting skills have been fully upgraded, they become unstoppable, with a huge pool of health and nearly unlimited stamina. Having several of these superheroes in a community will ensure that no one ever dies.

The game has a few systems in place that limit how long any particular survivor can be out exploring the world, the only real obstacle for these human tanks. Injuries will begin to pile up, lowering the character’s maximum health, and fatigue will set in, affecting stamina. They’ll need to rest up at base for a bit to heal. It’s telling that the only thing that can stop a fully upgraded survivor is a decimated body, but even then, only for a day or two.

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There is another of these systems in place that’s actually the focus of State of Decay 2’s extremely thin story. An advanced form of the infection, called blood plague, has manifested and must be wiped out to “finish” the game. Zombies carrying the disease are soaked in bright red blood. Taking damage from them will increase a survivor’s infection meter. If it fills all the way, they will contract the blood plague.

Here’s the thing: curing blood plague requires five plague samples, which are dropped by some of the infected zombies. You fight so many of them throughout the game that curing the plague is never an issue. By the time I was halfway through my first community playthrough, I had enough samples to cure the plague five times over. Eventually I took to giving the samples away to other groups that requested them. I don’t even think I had five survivors contract the plague in my entire playthrough.

The blood plague should be more significant of a threat than it is. If it’s not cured in time, the survivor will die. (I’m assuming here, because it never happened to me.) You can even choose to euthanize them or send them packing. A survivor contracting the plague should feel momentous. When Mike, who yesterday was telling me how much he loves record players, suddenly has a doomsday clock hanging over him and is confined to a bed waiting for death, I should feel something. Instead I grab a handful of samples from a menu and he’s back on his feet in no time. It’s a missed opportunity, one of the game’s biggest shortcomings.

There are others. The game’s dialogue is particularly weak; characters rush through what few lines they have, and there is very little interaction with other survivors aside from brief exchanges that are unfortunately stilted and disjointed.

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One of the staples of zombie fiction, at least in a post-Walking Dead world, is the cooperation and conflict between groups of survivors. Radio calls come in regularly from other groups looking for aid. Maybe they need protection from an incoming assault, or they’re looking for particular supplies. Some are more specific, like a group of beer lovers who wanted help building a distillery. Becoming allies with a group grants certain bonuses; I helped out an enclave of doctors and received the ability to call in a drop of medical supplies. I don’t know how the doctors acquired the resources to airdrop supplies, but I didn’t argue the fact.

Stupidly, these groups are also incredibly fickle and are not afraid to pack up and leave town over the slightest inconvenience. One group told me off and fled town after I failed to bring them a bag of building supplies—a task I never agreed to—just days after I cured one of their members of the blood plague. You can go out of your way over and over to help people out and they’ll always abandon ship the first chance they get. Maybe there’s a deeper message here. I was too frustrated to find it.

On the technical side of things, mileage may vary. I never had the game crash a single time, though others did. The Xbox One version struggles to hit 30 FPS quite a bit, as did the first game. The most frustrating bug I encountered frequently was my traveling companion just straight up leaving me. I would see them on the map, running back and forth along a road, and upon approaching them the fools would take off in a different direction. Thankfully none of my treacherous survivors ever perished after leaving me for dead, though I won’t lie—I wish they had.

Legacy

In the face of State of Decay 2’s stumbles, its worth mentioning one of the game’s most exciting features. A community playthrough is finished when you have wiped out all of the blood plague hearts around the map and completed a final encounter. At this point, the community becomes inaccessible. However, all of its survivors are saved in a collective pool. When starting the next community, you’ll go to one of the other two maps set in a different region, and you can select up to three of your veteran survivors to found this new community. Though I decided to go with a whole new cast, I love that I have the option to bring in some familiar faces for a new adventure. The downside, of course, is that the first few hours are when the game is at its most challenging, and bringing in one of your superheroes would likely propel your community into the easier stage of the game way earlier than usual. But it’s a really neat option regardless.

It actually doesn’t stop there. Survivors who have gained enough standing in your community can be elected leader. There are different leadership types, and each allows for building unique facilities. For example, a Trader can build a trade outpost, while a Warlord grants access to better defense facilities. These types, in turn, have an impact on your future communities. Because my first group’s leader was the Sheriff archetype, my new community receives regular supply drops from the locals. The game’s commitment to honoring the legacy of your completed playthroughs makes it worth seeing things through to the end, if only to see how your next run might be different as a result.

There are so many wonderful ideas like this in State of Decay 2. In a sense, it's hugely disappointing that I'm back to where I was with the first: thinking that the sequel to this game should be pretty amazing. With Undead Labs being brought under Microsoft’s wing, perhaps there’s a better chance for a third entry to really be the one. State of Decay 2 doesn’t hit that mark like I had hoped, but it’s made for a fantastic time regardless.

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