Sega CEO Hajime Satomi says he wants to improve the quality of their games moving forward. That could mean a lot of things. It's nice to hear, but what they do next with their games is the real answer.
State Of Decay Review
While playing State Of Decay, I was reminded of something from my past. Several years ago, I pencilled down my dream idea for a zombie game. Pencilled is putting it lightly- I spent days, if not weeks, churning out a huge design document for my game. It’s tens of pages long.
It detailed lots of small systems in an open world which would add up to a simulation of a zombie apocalypse, and be a survival simulator to boot. You could choose one of several characters who were roughly evenly matched. You had a backpack to start with, and could swap it out for larger or smaller ones which would contain more survival kit. You had hunger and health and fatigue, and had to barricade places. It also had a co-op mode. Your only objective was to get from A to B, but survival was the name of the gameplay.
Almost all of these ideas are present in UndeadLabs’ first game, State Of Decay, published by Microsoft Studios, but taken much, much farther than my dream-zombie-game scribblings.
State Of Decay a mix between the best bits of Dead Rising and Dead Island. The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead. It may sound improbable that the game mixes all of these together, as their genres and styles are so drastically different- but that’s State Of Decay’s strength. You get the detailed open world of Dead Rising and Dead Island. The close combat similar to (but better than) Dead Rising. The personality and survival politics of The Walking Dead. The stealth and unforgiving, savage consequences of The Last Of Us. Yet it is distinctly it’s own game, unafraid to throw you into its huge open world and give you utter freedom to tackle this apocalypse in whatever way you like, with its complicated survival and persistent world to boot.
How does it do this, you ask? The trick is in the ingenious layering of State Of Decay’s game systems.
This isn’t just a game where you have health and stamina and an open world and need to kill zombies. It’s not a game where you’re forced into a story to discover the “why” or the “how” of the zombie apocalypse. Like The Walking Dead comic and TV show, it’s a relentless tale of open-ended survival.
Early on, you are introduced to a group of survivors hiding out in a church. The game doesn’t do an incredible job of teaching you how to take care of them as there are a few too many complicated screens for resources and room orders and survivors, but given a few minutes examination, you see how clever State Of Decay’s systems are at dragging you in.
You need the group of survivors to support each other and to give you, essentially, more lives. The character you’re playing will get tired and his or her maximum stamina or health (called vitality) will decrease. You’ll have less stamina to strike, or run from, or kill zombies. The more survivors you have hiding out, the more characters you can swap out with, tag team style, each who have their own similar but distinct starting stats. If a survivor, including the one you’re playing, dies, they’re gone forever. Permadeath is a feature of the game. Thankfully with at least 20 playable NPC’s, you should be fine.
So, you need to collect survivors. A good long-term strategy in a real apocalypse, no doubt.
However, more importantly, you need to maintain a stock of resources to keep the survivors healthy, happy, and armed. The resources are found by scavenging in buildings in the game’s large open world, or trading with other groups of survivors (called Neighbours) or doing certain missions.
- You need Food, which decreases daily by the amount of survivors you have.
- You need Medicine to keep people healthy. (If someone gets bit they’ll probably get sick- and it’s a matter of time before you have to kill them yourself. Unless you can fix their fever.)
- You need Ammo to hold the zombies off effectively .
- You need Materials to build new bits of your Homestead (a kitchen, another sleeping area,) and to give one-off bonuses like a good meal.
- You need Fuel to keep electrical generators and certain items in function.
- And most survivors have a Special attribute alongside Strength etc., for example the ability to cook special meal, or be adept at healing.
All of these resources tie together for incredibly tense play. Playing the game just last night, we were in desperate need of food. We only had the stuff to feed five of our ten inhabitants. I used our radio room to source some food, and when our radio operator got back to me, I was off into the night. If I took a car it would have attracted a local roaming horde, so instead I went, flashlight off, at a bent creep.
Like The Last Of Us, incredibly threatening, tense stealth was the name of the game. I crept across town, into a suspected food-bearing house, and began holding the Y button down to scavenge every cupboard or cabinet I could find. I popped my light on to make scavenging easier.
Scavenging sometimes makes noise. And in State Of Decay, noise is everything.
I made a huge crash. On the minimap a soundwave spread out from my character and encompassed the local area. Immediately groans and moans from around the house rose up in a grumbling roar. On the map I saw little grey dots quickly moving towards my position. I still hadn’t found food. I decided to Fast Search the rest of the house. To fast search, the player holds the Left Bumper down while they hold Y to search, and containers are searched in several seconds instead of half a minute. But it makes more noise. I fast searched, stood up as the first zombie started slamming on the front door- and threw a mewing toy baby out of a nearby window into the street. It’s human-like noise attracted all the zombies, who went rushing off to attack the certifiable human. While they were distracted (I spotted a Feral Zombie, too. A deadly creature not unlike Left 4 Dead’s Hunters, the only zombie in this game which can kill you with ease), I crept out the back door, hopped the garden fence Shaun Of The Dead style, saw a car across the way, and made my getaway.
Damn, that tale already makes me want to play again.
State Of Decay is basically a constant survival narrative generator. It’s tense, it’s fun. There’s a good amount of management and a good amount of action.
Like Dead Rising, missions and events in the world continue whether you engage with them or not. A lot of zombie-infestations appear in nearby houses? Don’t deal with them, and you’ll have tons more special zombies to deal with. You get a distress call from a group of survivors nearby? Ignore it and you’ll get a notice a day later that they seem to be dead, the line’s quiet.
Often the game layers up so many of these events that you sacrifice some for others. Again this is like Dead Rising, only without an ulcer-inducing “STUFF YOU HAVE TO DO OMG” interface, and without the nightmarish “JIMMY OLSEN IS DEAD” notice on your screen the instant someone passes away. State Of Decay is much more subtle, much more balanced.
The only missions which don’t decay are story events- which is a godsend. I’ve put off “story” missions for days at a time while I try to keep my enclave going. Unfortunately, however, these story missions are one of the few areas where State Of Decay’s persistent, but usually not gamebreaking bugginess gets in the way.
The problem arises with NPC AI. Usually it’s fine. I did a mission the other day where I decided to assist a group of Army Officers in going against their orders to save some nearby civilians in peril. It was in farmland, and there were four of us altogether, running across the fields to get in a big ‘ole zombie fight. That mission was fine. And was incredibly immersive and fun for a minor mission in a big game.
But I had no such luck in one of the game’s first missions, where you must scout out a Veterinary clinic looking for medical supplies. After doing our stuff out there, I had to give a lift back to one of the characters. I got in one side of the car, she went to get in the other, and just… stood there. She was attached to the car by an invisible running board. If I drove forward, she hovered alongside. If I got out, she remained, staring at the car window, attached and motionless. I needed to get her back- she had medicine. But she wouldn’t get out of the car when I arrived, she just floated there. Eventually I had to restart the game- and lose around 45 minutes to an hour of progress.
It was frustrating. NPC issues crop up in perhaps one in ten missions, so it’s not a game-breaker, but still, one could argue that this is too much, especially when it’s a mission-breaking issue, if not a game-breaking one. In general NPC AI is decent, but the longer you play, the more you’ll encounter little moments where the AI get stuck on patches of ground or can’t interact properly with the world. It breaks the immersion with ferocity.
The action gameplay itself is rather good, too. Characters have traits which level up to give them better aim, more damage in melee, more health.
There are hints of titles like Demon’s or Dark Souls in the game. For example: State Of Decay’s stamina system. Sprinting, dodging, and attacking all take up stamina. So, if you get yourself, alone, into a heavy, large scrap with zombies, you’ll run out of stamina within a few strikes and dodges and be unable to scurry away. The zombies will grab you and you’ll start dying. Unless you can munch some snacks fast enough. Being economical in combat becomes key, though occasionally, backpedalling to get a breather pushes combat into Skyrim’s repetitive territory of backpedal survival. But usually it just feels tense and thrilling anyway, instead of like a frustrating RPG.
The sweeping, clever designs of the game are unique. Yet the tiniest clever elements of the game, be they in visual style, control, underlying structure, all come, in subtle ways, from the greatest (or at least, most ambitious) games we’ve seen in the Zombie genre, and elsewhere.
Going out to search for food feels legitimately like Episode 2 of The Walking Dead by Telltale, enacted emergently by your own decision rather than a linear plot. The gameworld isn’t as giant as I’d like it to be, but when you realise how much detail and depth there is in it, it’s hard not to be satisfied. There are three towns, and in every town you can go inside every single building and explore it. There is a lot of countryside, populated by farms, campsites, service and power stations. Everything is explorable. Zombies are everywhere.
And it all looks very good for a downloadable title, although there are a lot of minor graphical hitches. The framerate frequently drops to around 20 frames per second, though it usually gets over the hump within a few seconds. This seemed to become more and more common as the game went on, which was very disappointing. The 360’s processor appears to be struggling with it- reinforcing my feeling that State Of Decay requires an adaptation, on a retail disc, for the next generation. A bigger world, with tighter simulations, would be sublime. Even a full-retail release on disc on the current generation would be a godsent- the extra 4.5GB that this would allow UndeadLabs would probably fix a lot of the game’s issues. The fact that State Of Decay fits in a 1.89GB file is pretty jaw dropping.
Another important issue is that there is a lot of clipping. Zombies have some mad obsession with spawning inside walls. You’ll look down a wide, long street with garden walls on either side, and zombies will be standing with an arm or a leg going through said walls. It’s some sort of buggy predisposition which will no doubt be sorted in the game’s first patch, which is already in checking by Microsoft.
There’s also a bit of a problem with models popping in at fast speeds and long distances. They seem to have prioritized the world’s rendering. Even into the far distance, the world looks great, even if zombies don’t at a hundred yards or more. I encountered an issue common to GTA games a couple of times, where vehicles or objects suddenly pop into existence right in front of you if you’re driving a fast car. I’ve nearly totally two cars in trying to escape, and cars are limited in the game. There are something like 80 to begin with; and they will deplete.
Also, driving physics is fine when all four wheels touch the ground, but the instant you get air time? Things get seriously weird.
Several times I’ve been cast from my car (twice with NPC’s in it, too), for rolling over an object on the ground at high speed, which leads your car to soar very slowly into the air and usually turn over once or twice. It’s floaty and strange. This is doubly frustrating when under chase; not only will you probably be stuck without a car, but even if your car rights itself, flying is so damn slow that zombies get a solid chance to catch up. It’s weird, and I hope they can fix this.
Luckily, there are almost no problems in the game’s design itself. There’s a surprising amount of depth here; later you learn to customise your characters abilities, to use specific weapon types on specific zombies, to gain trust with neighbouring survivors, to train up newer survivors who have lower skill levels. The only problems in game design I’ve seen are a bug where you’re constantly told Infestations are nearby and they’re lowering morale- which leads to the deaths of many characters if you leave the console for any more than a couple of days. This, again, will be fixed in coming weeks. There is also a bug I don’t necessarily complain about where a certain type of pistol appears with 100 bullets in it. I love that bug. License to upgrade your characters shooting ability.
We said in our preview that State Of Decay would be good to tide you over until Last Of Us hits. The fact is, it will do much more than that.
It’s a relatively small package. The plot kind of peters out at the end, and they are determined not to bog you down with story. The “main quest” line lasts perhaps four or five hours. But interspersed with that is the survival mechanics and saving survivors. I played the game for about 19 hours. And save an hour or so of dealing with bugs, it was all fantastic.
It has problems, but this could pave the way for the greatest, most immersive zombie survival series of all time, if UndeadLabs keep up the good work. On the back of Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger in the last weeks, we could be looking at an incoming golden age for downloadable titles.