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State Of Decay: Breakdown Review: The Fantasy (Almost) Comes To Life
Breakdown, the new infinite-play expansion for the fantastic downloadable title State of Decay, nearly reaches the potential of zombie apocalypse movies we’ve been watching since the ’70s. The potential that games like Dead Rising and DayZ have been trying to capture for years.
On the later levels of Breakdown, in an incredibly realistic manner, survival comes down to the small things.
Akin to the brilliant, unique zombie flick Zombieland, I ended up having a few rules to ensure one’s survival: #1 Silence is golden. #2 Always close doors behind you. #3 Always have snacks. #4 Cardio.
Silence is golden: when outwith safezones, in Breakdown’s later levels one must perpetually creep. Make just a little too much noise on a scavenging run and you’ll have a nearly Dead Rising number of zombies, nearly a hundred, all around you within literal seconds (and without Dead Rising’s super-heroic-strength protagonist.) Always close every door; I’ve nearly lost my best characters by simply leaving a door open. Unlike in the too-easy regular State of Decay game, unexpected zombie attacks from behind is very common- especially later when your radar displays fewer zombie-dots. Always have snacks; you never know when you’ll be stranded somewhere and need the energy from snacks to outrun the zombie hordes. Cardio: like Jesse Eisenberg’s character in Zombieland, making your character sprint frequently to upgrade their cardio stat is… essential.
Coming up with your own method for survival? Also essential. This is a true zombie survival simulator.State of Decay Breakdown escalates difficulty in levels, you see. Not “levels” as in “new maps”, but “levels” as in “levels of realistic degradation.” To move onto the next “level,” one must (after just surviving, obviously) fix up an abandoned RV somewhere in the map, choose the 6 people who will fit the vehicle, then hit the road. Hitting the road resets the map with randomly generated survival-essential resources, and dumps you in one of twenty five new starting points. And as the Breakdown levels ascend in number, so ascends the number of zombies. So ascends the scarcity of resources; food, medicine, ammo, cars. By later levels, you’ll be lucky if there are a handful of cars every time you start. Over the whole many-kilometer map. And on-foot travel is dangerous.
The first three levels seemed to me a breeze; essentially what State of Decay originally threw at you. There are a handful of zombies in every encounter. The occasional freak zombie. It’s definitely not a challenge. But by level 4, I noticed a distinct change. Upon beginning at the RV with my handful of now excellently trained zombie apocalypse survivors, I nearly died when I left the safezone marked on the map. What started with the usual bashing of a couple of zombies left me suddenly terrified when I turned and saw six more running at me from behind. Too many to handle, even with the game’s straightforward combat system. I glanced at the minimap and noticed it was swarming with dots, all moving towards me- the most zombies I had ever seen in the game. And having used the fantastically implemented RPG levelling system to improve my dude, the last thing I wanted to do was die and lose all that work.
I fled. I fled, occasionally turning back to whack a zombie who had nearly caught up with me. I climbed fences ala Shaun of the Dead, I slammed doors behind me; I eventually resorted to diving through windows and running through houses to lose the savage hordes. I was frantic and my pulse, in real life, was racing.
I had never experienced zombie survival in a game like this.One of the disappointing aspects of the original, still great, State of Decay, was that there were never enough zombies. Even by the end of the game, you only encountered five or six in a group at most, usually. Breakdown has fixed that. After Breakdown 4 or 5, when you creep up to the edge of a field and survey it for resource piles, zombies are scattered as far as the eye can see. Sometimes houses are full of them. You finally begin to feel the threat of this world. In a Dark Souls-esque manner, you realise that your survival is in your hands. Make a mistake or rush into a situation, and you could lose a character you’ve painstakingly levelled to have level 7 Cardio (so he can run like Usain Bolt).
And of course, the strategy and safehouse-building mechanics of State Of Decay thrive in Breakdown. Your resources; Food, Medicine, Ammo, Materials and Fuel; run down towards zero on a daily basis. You must collect Materials to build new parts to your house; beds to sleep people comfortably, an infirmary to treat the sick.
Rooms I never bothered to build into my house in the original- like the Library or Training Room- suddenly seem very enticing in Breakdown. Especially if you decide to stay at your level and play the game forever, which you are free to do. You realise that you could do with extra 20% stamina for your characters. You could do with an occasional buff to Ammo if you’re willing to share info with other survivors (of which there are, thankfully, plenty) using the Library. But as usual, there are only a handful of free room spaces per safehouse (of which there are eight), making the decision to either build more bunk beds, or to build a Garden to perennially harvest food… Tough. And the decisions only get harder. We nearly have a full-blown Walking Dead simulator here on our hands- if only the developers had thought to work in more psychopaths and turncoats into the social fabric of the fallen society we partake in.
On the whole, Breakdown’s developments are implemented brilliantly- including a new, compelling “Challenge” system which lets you unlock new, unique starting characters- but there do exist some serious issues in execution.Lily, the hand-holding tutorial character who is helpful in the original release, feels obsolete in Breakdown and becomes an irritation within seconds. Surely the DLC is about you, alone starting off on your own survival adventure- not you, and some radio-operating organisational genius who tells you where everything is and what you need to do next.
A more worrying issue is the implementation of the RV mechanic. Once you’ve learned the ropes, finding, fixing and preparing to leave with the RV is an excellent mechanic; you have to reach it on the map, fix up any issues with it (like a busted engine or messed up interior), and then choose who comes with you in person or in the in-game menu. But on your first time through the game, they don’t explain how to do the latter. When it comes to choosing who to bring with you when you leave, issues arise.
The game doesn’t tell you that you have to pick people before you leave in the RV. The first time I fixed it up, I nearly moved onto Breakdown level 2 without any survivors. It would have been doable, but difficult, and they all would have disappeared with the important weapons and items I left them with. The game could do with a tutorial screen or two to say specifically that the player has to talk to their characters or use the character-check menu to say “On RV!” and take them with.
Frankly, a bigger issue with State of Decay Breakdown is potential boredom.
There’s no upper limit on the levels you can reach; which sounds great on paper. But as you progress through the levels, it gets increasingly difficult to repair the RV. Again, this is a clever mechanic; but you get to the stage where it takes a lot of resources, time and genuine effort to even repair the thing (which also made reviewing the game a difficult process). If you’re happy to stay at your level and just survive, that’s fine; but if you want to get to a solid level of difficulty with minimal time commitment and survive away… You have perhaps twenty hours of gameplay ahead just to reach that point. And what’s worse, the game doesn’t seem that difficult until you near level 10- if you use Outposts to create safe zones around your home base effectively enough, you can scavenge materials to last you for days and days. It’s largely a waiting game.
But it is worth it if you need something to commit yourself to. This mode also perfectly caters to those who only have ten or fifteen minute gaps in their schedule- it’s easy to pop on, do a handful of 2-3 minute long survivor quests, then pop off again.
The level I’m at now- 6 or 7- isn’t a huge innovation on the formula on the whole, but it is getting getting progressively more challenging by increments. Some PC players have managed to debug the game to levels above 100 and you can still play it. It’s just an insane survival nightmare.
If you ever get the tiniest itch for a zombie survival experience; or if you want a tamagochi of apocalyptic survivors; or if you need a game which will let you blow off steam beating zombies to a satisfying pulp, State of Decay Breakdown is your game. UndeadLabs have nailed the importance of State of Decay to the genre’s metaphorical wall, once again.