Review by iAmTheTot

"A Zombie Apocalypse Simulation"

State of Decay is a highly anticipated Xbox Live Arcade game developed by Undead Labs, and backed and published by Microsoft. As an open world zombie apocalypse game with subtle RPG elements, the game has eagerly been compared to various other zombie titles and mythoi already out there. You may or may not have heard comparisons drawn between it and The Walking Dead, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, or Dead Island. But is it really anything like those?

First and foremost, apart from having zombies, not really. The closest comparison out there right now is probably Dead Rising, but even that's too different to compare for me. What you get with State of Decay is much more like a zombie apocalypse simulation, but delivered to you in a third-person action-adventure manner. The game focuses strongly on resource, time, and person management – three things that would be utterly priceless in such a situation.

The game starts off with you controlling Marcus (a natural born leader, his character card informs you) and his friend Ed, who is already getting bitten by zombies as the game begins. You're immediately called into action to save him with a sturdy branch you have handy. Marcus and Ed have been on a get-away, unaware of the events taking place in the fictional Trumbull Valley. Needless to say they're rather shocked when they come back and have the population looking like something from a horror movie. A succinct interactive tutorial teaches you how to fight, run, sneak, and it's not long before it's teaching you how to rummage through backpacks and cabinets for precious goods.

It also isn't long before the game introduces you to more survivors holed up in a “home.” Homes are exactly what they sound like – a semi-safe haven, a base of operations, and a gathering point for everyone in the same community to band together. These survivors welcome Marcus and Ed as one of their own, and the game really begins. From now on, you won't just be playing as Marcus, but as anyone whose trust you've gained, able to switch to any such character as long as you (or the character you want to switch to) are not in the middle of a mission.

And so, what now? One thing: survival. Might sound simple at face value, but as I said before State of Decay tries to deliver a simulation, not just an action experience. Everything in the game is finite – except zombies, of course. The game focuses heavily around managing your home base, which requires ample stocks of food, medicine, and ammunition. Supplementary resources are materials and fuel, which are vital for constructing new facilities around your home or rigging traps to ensure a wider safe area around your home. Subtle RPG elements like leveling up skills and traits may help you decide who you want on guard duty and who you want going on a scavenger run.

Resources don't grow on trees, either. You're going to have to get down to the nitty-gritty of pillaging people's homes and stores, or trading with other “enclaves” of survivors. Ah, but here's where time management becomes an issue. You'll also be getting calls on your radio for various types of main and side missions: you may be called to see what the army is up to, you may be asked to hunt down a dangerous zombie that is threatening the safety of your home, or you may need to go help out a fellow survivor that got themselves into a bit of a jam. You could, of course, refuse to check these things out... maybe things will work out on their own, right?

As for things working out on their own, a key feature of the game is that it continues to simulate the evolving, random game world even if you're not playing. If you play for a few hours one day, then load that file a day later you will come back to find things slightly different than you left them. Sometimes, not much, while other times it could be quite different. A wide variety of random events can happen while you're offline, some good and some bad.

For example, just because you're gone doesn't mean your home's need for supplies stops. Your community consistently needs supplies in order to survive, so while you're gone they'll continue to consume them to stay alive. Worry not, however, as the AI will try its best, working with the tools at their disposal, to replenish their stores even while you're gone. But thing's done always go well. When you come back, you may find that some people have gone missing, or been injured, or that some of your fellow surviving neighbours didn't make it, or that someone has gotten sick. Indeed, surviving in a zombie apocalypse can be scary and tough stuff.

Undead Labs has made it explicitly clear, however, that they by no means intend to keep you playing this game 24-7 for fear of your people dying to simulation. The amount of time that is simulated is decreased exponentially over real life time. If you're gone for a day, about a day is simulated. If you're gone for a week, much less than that is actually simulated. And if you're gone for over a month, less than a week will have taken place in game still.

The game seems beautiful graphically at first glance. As the opening scene pans out you're overlooking a lake in a forested camping locale. It looks great for an open-world XBLA game. Until you notice some of the glaring issues. There are some things – like blocky shadows – I'm willing to surrender to XBLA limitations. But glaring technical shortcomings are hard to ignore, such as frequent texture pop-in and frame rate reductions, which can become downright awful while driving. On more than one occasion I have driven into an object that had not even loaded into my game yet, costing me precious hit points on vehicles which are finite in a decaying world.

Luckily these issues are not nearly as harsh when outside of vehicles, traveling on foot, which you'll probably be doing plenty of, as cars are noisy, and zombies love noise. A very satisfying feature I found was how zombies are constantly drawn towards noises. Cars, guns, and explosions are obviously loud, but even things like rummaging through drawers can create noise that may attract zombies. Your noise level is constantly displayed in the minimap, giving you a rough radius of how far off zombies can hear you (or any noise). This can also be their undoing, as noises serve as excellent and reliable distractions.

Speaking of sound, though, the game's voice acting is pretty lackluster. The game emphasizes randomization to a degree, and one of the things that's often randomized are survivors scattered across the world map. They're generated with their own skillsets, but there's only so many skins and soundboards you can fit into a 1.8gb game. Not only can it be kind of silly when two characters with identical voices are talking to each other, but even the few characters with unique voices generally offer uninteresting voice-over and dialogue. This leads to things like hearing your radio operator tell you “There are still some things to do out there” more often than you care to hear.

State of Decay definitely packs a powerful gameplay punch. It delivers an interesting and different approach to zombie games, mixing an element of strategy with action. The time and resource management elements in an open world environment are pretty addictive and really shine here, but there are more than enough nagging details and glaring, atrocious technical limitations that put this game in an awkward position between arcade title and retail title. It's almost as if it's a little too ambitious for arcade, but not enough to merit a retail release.

The achievements in State of Decay are about fifty-fifty. About half you should have no problem picking up in normal gameplay, whereas the other half may require a little bit of working off the beaten path or accumulating specifically for that cheevo. But even still, as an arcade title, the achievements aren't too hard to gather up.
Achievements never affect the score of a game and are included by reader request. Only the categories below influence the final score.

Graphics: Obnoxious texture pop-in and frame rate issues mar what is otherwise a visually pleasing open world environment.

Sound: Sounds effects are great from guns to guts, but the voice acting is less than impressive and sometimes downright tedious.

Plot: Admittedly not the selling point of the game, what you get here is a bare-bones uninteresting story with few if any innovation. Don't buy for a riveting drama.

Gameplay: Strong and addictive features stand out in what I'd like to call a “zombie apocalypse simulator,” where open world exploration and resource management are stressed above all else.

Length/Replay Value: For an XBLA title, the game actually shines in this department. After the end of the plot, the game still enables you to play your file until every resource is dry if you'd like. While the map is static, resource locations and survivors are randomized with each game, encouraging multiple playthroughs.

Yea or Nay? If you've been looking forward to this game and following its development but were waiting on reviews to pull the trigger, I'll be bold enough to say you won't be disappointed. If you don't know what to expect of the game, though, I'd recommend checking out the trial before putting down so many MSP on this title.

Final score: 7.5 out of 10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/13/13

Game Release: State of Decay (US, 06/05/13)

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