Finally, a zombie game about survival!
State of Decay
Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
MSRP: $14.99
Release Date: June 5, 2013
Copy purchased by reviewer
After years of searching, I finally have a game about what its like to survive the apocalypse.
Huh? Yes, I'm making a huge assertion here: Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, Dead Space, Zombies Ate My Neighbors... heck, even Plants vs. Zombies, all of them aren't about survival? Well, no, not really. They are about killing, or defending, or getting to the escape shuttle, the room with the bright red door that I know will be safe as soon as I bar it shut. There's an objective, a mission, some sort of grand quest or scheme or boss to look forward to, and you know it, right off the bat. There's an end game, where the helicopter picks up the poor bastards that managed to make it to the finish, or where the giant biological terror collapses to the ground, defeated.
This is where the difference is - in State of Decay, at four hours in, I'm not worried about some final boss - I'm worried about my friend that's sick with fever, and that my garden doesn't have enough topsoil to start producing a consistent supply of food. I'm figuring out a way back to my own base through the small town, where I'm stuck on the far side, hiding. I have a rucksack full of supplies that I've managed to loot for valuable medicine, and every hour I stay stuck or going out of my way home is another opportunity to find survivors lost, or my friend getting closer to death.
I also know that if I run out into the street and die, the materials, and this character I'm playing as, are gone. There is no re-spawn, only the next survivor of my camp, nervous and demoralized, now with me in control.
Trust me, you'll want to go in guns blazing at first, but you'll find
yourself doing a LOT hiding and sneaking soon enough.
State of Decay doesn't have you run and gun through a horrific landscape, but instead forces you to try your dig your heels in and live in it. There is an end objective, I'm sure, but its muffled and distorted - occasionally, over the walkie at the camp I hear about the army, or about a named character who needs help somewhere in the woods nearby, but I'm so busy trying to shore up my defenses and get everyone healthy that its a distant thought. The fact that I've spent the hours I have so far just trying to make sure the three playable characters I have so far are healthy, somewhere safe, and rested says a lot. I'm trying to live, not win, and I'm absolutely loving the fact that this game has decided to go that route.

Plot and Premise

The game starts off like this: two guys go camping for three weeks into the mountains...somewhere in the US. When they walk back into a campground, they are attacked, and quickly try to adapt to the new normal: zombies roam the streets, and trying to find a safe place to lay your head and get some food is an every-day trial. You are fortunate enough to find your way to a church (of course) where one such group is holed up, and you are quickly absorbed into their team scrambling for resources. This is where the game takes the classic zombie tropes and cliches and becomes its own entity.
The two first characters - not main characters - are absorbed into the crew that is attempting to survive. The pastor who tries to rally morale, the uptight and bitter 'cop', the charitable yet helpless woman... all of these people become yours. As trust is gained you can switch from Marcus, the first role, and play as others around you. They each have back-stories, but you only get small glimpses and hints during missions or with idle chat around your new home. Hell, their attitudes are mutable, actually changing as time goes on - if things go well, or they run a mission with you where you save a survivor, they become more charitable and friendly. If they go without sleep or are lost during their foraging runs into the nearby area, they become more bitter and unhappy. Governing morale can mean a lot here.
Did I say foraging? Yes - its unfortunately not seen much in the previews and videos I've seen around the internet, as it isn't quite as flashy as the hordes of roaming red-eyed zombies, but its an inticral part of the game. Keeping supplies coming to your base is huge, and you have to manage your survivors. Run out to a house and find a packet of medicine? You can pick it up yourself to haul back, or call in over the walkie for a runner to come and retrieve the prize. Careful though, as you want to make sure that they have a safe way home, maybe guarding them as they gather before running off to try and rescue a new survivor... or find out what happened to a missing one.
Your base isn't exactly static either - you can build in your compound with supplies bought, upgrading the watchtower you first find so its safer. You can use the kitchen to cook large meals to boost morale, or use up some of your valuable ammunition to have your housemates snipe carefully from the walls. You can even build a garden, so you aren't as hard-pressed to keep hunting for cans of beans every day - careful though, as building a garden takes up the space you could use to make a training range to make sure others in your team are safer, or a workshop to build your own makeshift explosives, or an infirmary to make sure your survivors stay safe.
Never happier to see fresh vegetables.. except maybe Broccoli.
Exploring the world itself can be terrifying, as you have to manage your vitality and stamina carefully... and your noise. Running between buildings seems safest on the town streets at first, but you realize how quickly it drains your stamina. You also make noise, becoming visible to zombies in a wider range about you...what that range is, who knows? They don't go out of your way to warn you most the time, besides the huge wandering hordes telegraphing their movement on your radar. Oftentimes, you might be jogging through the woods, and suddenly a small little red blip appears right next to you, a zombie had been shambling in some bushes that you hadn't even noticed until it was interested enough to attack you. You have melee weapons, but they tire you as well, and can break if you keep being too repetitious. You can use guns, but ammunition is limited, and makes a TON of noise. Using a rifle for the first time to knock down a trail of zombies that had been following me was exhilarating, until I saw the red spots on my radar suddenly wink into view, one, then two, then five... As a stumbled away exhausted, trying to find safety, I really, really did feel like I was living this apocalypse. I wasn't an action hero, I was just some normal dude, suddenly trying to make it from day to day.

Flaws

Is it perfect? No, absolutely not. Combat can feel clunky, although that's part of its charm, as you exhaust and fatigue while out foraging for equipment or people. The graphics are not state-of-the-art, and the image collisions can sometimes be very startling. Driving is a throwback to bulky Grand Theft Auto controls, and while not terrible, there is certainly better out there. Play long enough, and it can get repetitive - I'm sure some players will not be as taken with the end-of-the-world flair and start seeing the constant foraging or saving teammates as simple fetch missions.
The real issue that keeps being mentioned is the bugs I've had missions where I've succeeded, its told me I've failed, and then it goes through anyway. Its idea of a 'day' sometimes varies between real world 24 hours and in-game time. The image collisions can sometimes go from slightly abrasive to physics breaking, as survivors in your base lay down and then are whisked to their beds. I've had a fight break out where I was barricaded inside, just to watch a zombie materialize inside and then past me into another room, flickering in and out of existence.
The fact that these bugs do nothing to dissuade my ever growing fervor for this game amazes me. Even better, the creators of the game already have their first patch coming out this week with a ton of tightening happening to the game. From the way they talk, it looks as if more patches are already being drawn up, and more content hopefully on the way.

Summary and Overview

It might be obvious by this point that I'm well on my way to becoming a fanboy for this game, and its very much incurable at this point. I freaking love what Undead Labs has created in State of Decay, forcing the pomp and circumstance out of the zombie trope that in some ways has become larger than life in our entertainment industry. So much about the game is understated and muffled, which is why it can be so charming and authentic rather than overblown; The story arcs come and go, and are sometimes entirely missed if a character dies or you simply don't want to extend your resources to help people across town. How the music and sound wavers in and out, blending seamlessly into backgrounds, barely noticable when you are creeping about. Only rarely does it bubble to the forefront, and that's usually when your blood is racing, suddenly surrounded or in over your head, more shambling dead than you can possibly handle looking for you.
Even your death comes and goes - in my game, I watched Ed, the cliched fat white comic relief character from zombie films, die horribly, only a few hundred feet from safety. He had just managed to secure supplies, save two people, risk his life by distracting a horde so runners could get materials for my workshop, and as I ran him back to base, happy this foppish character suddenly had survival skills, I gaped in horror as he was torn apart by a pack of zombies that had been waiting around a nearby idling car. The screen faded to black, and suddenly I was Marcus, safe in the church, surrounded by other characters. Someone started speaking a eulogy, a small testament to the man, but even before it was over, characters walked about to their places in the compound. Then the speech stopped, and Ed was gone. The map glared with where hordes were wandering, where survivors were trapped in their houses, and the only reminder I had left was a small icon to show where he had dropped his rucksack of ammunition. The dangerous, uncaring world of State of Decay kept shambling forward.
If you have any inkling of interest in the apocalypse, be it watching Doomsday Preppers on TV or having all of Romero's zombie movies on your shelf, get this game. After playing through many action games that had zombies in them, I often felt as if there was something missing - this title has what was missing in those games. For twenty dollars, its a steal, and I've already gotten more enjoyment out of this game than I have of many of my recently purchased AAA titles. Granted, that 'enjoyment' in this game usually means I'll spend hours afterward day-dreaming about how ill-equipped my own neighborhood would be if the hordes came, but hey, I'm weird like that; and if the glut of zombie movies and games that are out there are any proof, I'm pretty sure many more are weird like that too.
See it in action below, then see you in game!