State of Decay 2
Available on: Xbox One, Windows 10
Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: May 18th, 2018 (Ultimate Edition), May 22nd, 2018 (Standard Edition)
Reviewed On: Xbox One X/Windows 10
Price: $29.99 USD (Standard Edition), $49.99 (Ultimate Edition)
When Undead Labs first released State of Decay in 2013, the game quickly found a faithful following. There was no denying it was an indie title, one with plenty of janky issues at that, yet people loved it. It went on to sell extremely well and Undead Labs formed a multi-game deal with Microsoft. That collaboration has finally started to bear fruit: State of Decay 2, a game which builds on the foundation of the first while delivering much-requested features like co-op. I wrote my initial State of Decay 2 impressions and if you haven’t read them yet, I recommend checking them out, because a lot of what I said then is still true. With that in mind, let’s dive into this review.
The overarching story in State of Decay 2 is the backdrop of the game, not the focus. Eighteen months ago, there was an outbreak of the virus that caused the zombie infestation. Throughout the game, your group of survivors will receive or intercept radio broadcasts, some of which give exposition on just what is happening in the world. Theories on the outbreak, hints of government conspiracies and the rise of a new mercenary group named Red Talon are all chronicled in this fashion. There’s also the concern of the Plague Hearts, fleshy nests that are a new development and seem to be the cause of the virulent Blood Plague zombies. At the start of the game, you’ll pick a pair of survivors, each with their own unique traits, backstories and relationship. From there, you’re thrown into an opening mission that also serves as a tutorial, setting up your motivations and the initial members of your community. The remainder of the story is unique to your particular playthrough, with the narrative and missions formed by different day-to-day events.
Early on in my playthrough, I had to negotiate trade deals with different groups, then tried and failed to recover some medical supplies, instead having my negotiator gunned down. In vengeance, I returned after making some new friends and wiped out the group who had refused to deal. Any and all combinations of diplomacy or violence are viable. If you want, you are free to set up a trading hub, building goodwill and establishing peace with as many of your neighbors as possible. On the other hand, you’re also free to wipe out anyone who won’t give you supplies, establishing the society of a ruthless warlord. Regardless of what path you take, you’ll eventually establish a legacy, should you choose to end the game. This legacy then affects any new communities started with survivors from previous communities, creating a very unique new game+ that’s creative and refreshing. Overall there’s definitely replayability, as well as a narrative that takes on a very fluid structure depending on many different variables specific to each playthrough, and it’s ultimately a narrative structure that I enjoy.
All things considered, State of Decay 2 looks really good, and I have to give it particular praise in regards to its lighting. Dawn and dusk simply look fantastic, and the way light breaks down through fences or windows never ceases to catch my eye. The majority of the textures also look good, though the character models aren’t the best they’re certainly serviceable. The Xbox One X version runs at native 4K, which provides a crisp amount of detail on most objects. Foliage looks good, as does the various run-down towns, gas stations and suburban centers you’ll be looting for resources in. Most of the textures also look good, especially on the Xbox One X or the higher-quality PC settings. Speaking of the PC settings, they’re pretty standard fare: texture options, character details and the like. They’re not the most comprehensive but they’re not super-underwhelming either.
Unfortunately, while the PC version runs fairly well on a variety of hardware at different settings, the Xbox One X version still isn’t quite ideal. Now, Undead Labs provided a new patch and performance has definitely been improved as a result. That said, there’s still some poor framepacing, which can result in feeling some judder even though the framerate is at 30 fps. With the improvements made with the first patch, hopefully a second one follows soon and eliminates the issues altogether. Fortunately, these performance problems are primarily limited to when you’re in a vehicle mowing over zombies or driving near a busy base, so it’s not a constant issue by any means. I do still believe offering a 1080p or 1440p mode with unlocked framerate to Xbox One X owners would be a good idea.
The gameplay in State of Decay 2 is focused around keeping your community alive. Find resources, kill or avoid infestations and hordes of zombies, build up your base and deal with different human factions peacefully or non-peacefully. Characters control relatively well, while there might be an occasional a bit of janky movement or slight clipping it’s not too noticeable. Shooting feels extremely good, and special care has been given to the reloading animations: skilled characters will slide in new magazines with military precision and nail unlikely headshots, while unskilled shooters fumble to reload even a revolver and will struggle to shoot a zombie seven feet in front of them. These animations (and accompanying sound effects/controller feedback) are extremely satisfying.
It’s this difference in traits that really hammers home the importance of a community. These aren’t just mere stat differences: if one of your characters has low cardio, they’ll find themselves gasping for breath after running for just a short time. You want to build a garden at base? I hope one of your characters has horticultural knowledge (or finds a gardening textbook). Someone has a trait saying they’re hot-tempered? That’s not a joke, they’re likely to start fights and cause morale to drop. Even if community champions emerge as a frontrunner for your leader and favorite, no one person can do everything by themselves. The way all these gameplay systems work together really can’t be praised enough.
By far the most-requested addition (and one of the biggest differences from the first game) is co-op multiplayer. Up to three people can join the world of a host, helping them and their community. While any rucksacks of supplies they find have to be deposited at the host’s base, the co-op players are still free to stash away whatever supplies are in their backpack, as you have access to your community inventory even in another player’s game. You’ll also get rewards for helping a player, with items of increasing value and quantity gifted the longer you stay and accomplish goals with your companions. Also, I’ll reiterate what I said in my impressions: the tethering system is not an issue and will not come up if you’re playing the game and attempting to actually make progress.
This also gives players the ability to swap supplies, making sure everyone’s communities have what they need. While the game is enjoyable in singleplayer, going building-by-building with my friends, clearing rooms and piling into vehicles was a ton of fun. The only real issue with multiplayer is the inability to conveniently swap characters. I played several hours of co-op with some friends and none of us could figure out how to swap character’s while in a host’s world. Considering how fatigue will eventually set in on even the most enduring characters and only goes away with rest (or guzzling energy drinks and coffee) it seems counterintuitive. It’s definitely just a small mar on what is otherwise a fantastic co-op mode though. Additionally, if you don’t friends to play with, you can engage in matchmaking with others through the use of your radio.
The audio design is great, with very minimalistic, atmospheric sounds punctuated by a frenetic soundtrack whenever danger arises in its many forms. The main menu theme mainly features a strumming guitar, setting perhaps a false expectation of peace and calm compared to the inevitable carnage that will unfold throughout a playthrough. I highly recommend using a headset, as the sounds of the game are incredible, especially at night. Slowly creeping through the pitch-black environment and suddenly hearing a horde screeching and groaning is horrifying, even with a well-equipped character.
The soundtrack accentuates this, with frenzied chords ensuing whenever you’re chased by a horde. By contrast, the tunes when wandering through the woods without encounter are calm but constant, readying you for the idea that anything could happen at any time. When resting at your base or an outpost, it changes to soothing, quiet tunes that reinforce an idea of safety and peace.
I’ll freely admit I didn’t play much of the original State of Decay. While I enjoyed the concept, I was ultimately too put off by the lack of polish to want to experience it for a long period of time. That’s not the case with State of Decay 2. What Undead Labs has created here feels like the vision of the first game, truly realized. The choices you make to ensure your community survives no matter what can take a wide variety of forms, in turn providing a wide variety of consequences. While there’s definitely some performance issues and a couple of odd design choices, I honestly believe that the gameplay systems and the way they interact with each other while creating the story, more than make up for any janky issues. If you’re interested in the concept of survival horror and managing a community, I definitely recommend checking out State of Decay 2, especially since it’s on Xbox Game Pass.