State of Decay 2 review: Shambling toward nothing

I wanted to be a “State of Decay person” since the first game came to the Xbox 360 in 2013. My friend pretty much forced the issue. I remember a straight month where all they wanted to do was whack zombies from a third-person perspective, scrounge vital materials, and maneuver the valuables through menus to keep a playable squad of survivors happy.

True State of Decay fans found the hunt for food and ammo was just a vehicle for ambient stories of post-apocalyptic survival. Assuming you could stomach the game’s many vicious glitches, that is.

Very little has changed in the half-decade since that original game. In State of Decay 2, you smack undead “zeds” around to loot the supply-rich structures they guard. The gear shores up your semi-safe headquarters. And while I’m still not feeling the fantasy as much as I’d like, the bugs sure are back in full force.

State of Decay’s continued lack of polish is sort of infuriating, and not just for the obvious reasons. The game’s premise was always sound: like the best zombie fiction, it gives us a window into an egalitarian nightmare-fantasy, where debt and bureaucratic power are wiped away by a threat we can exercise six-gun justice against, largely guilt-free.

Few other games strive to be a sandbox where those stories crop up organically. With a bit more polish and a lot more direction, State of Decay could have been an undisputed classic—and not just among a devoted cult of followers. Theoretically, State of Decay 2 should be that polished follow-up. It has had five years to cook, leverages more powerful hardware, and already has its own predecessor as a sound proof of concept.

So it’s doubly irritating when the last zombie I need to kill to clear a building gets stuck inside a wall. Or when the third-person camera is suddenly stuck in place while my leveled-up base leader drives off-screen. Or when my former military computer expert protagonist runs headlong off a billboard platform for the third time, rather than grabbing the nearby ladder automatically as she’s supposed to.

I could keep going with this list of frustrating glitches. Each time I add to that list, I get angry twice over: once for the lost time and resources, which put my precarious little society even closer to the edge of disaster, and again when I remember similar problems from the previous game five years ago. I wanted it to be different this time.

Cobbling together a back story

State of Decay 2’s problems run deeper than glitches, though, although the worst of the problems take a few hours to rear their ugly heads. Before then, you can still see the framework of something special in the game’s bones, just as you could in the first game. If anything, I can see the outline of those procedurally generated survival stories more clearly now than I did in the last console generation.

The survivors’ pseudo-random traits are a great example. I started my first State of Decay 2 community with a pair of quarreling girlfriends who hooked back up right before it all went to hell. One was a “nomadic sleeper,” who didn’t take up a valuable bed at headquarters, since she’d just sleep on the couch—or in the garage, on top of a box of crates, etc.

It was a cute quirk. Less charming was when the sleeping bagger revealed herself to be part of the “Warlord” archetype, meaning her solutions to trouble between my community and other enclaves of the living usually involved headshots. After hours of play as this woman, Araceli, I couldn’t help but link her newly revealed dark side to the other characteristics I’d grown accustomed to. She wasn’t just restless, she was paranoid: afraid of sleeping patterns that made her predictable to outside threats. The only way to feel safe was to eliminate all threats. At least that’s how I pieced together these bits of randomly assigned personality.

Likewise, when an amateur sword enthusiast moseyed into my town, I couldn’t help but think of how the apocalypse had flipped her id and ego. She was the same person: a big nerd who liked big knives before the zeds appeared. But what was once a (probably) guilty pleasure had become her unique survival skill—codified in-game as a bonus to her use of bladed weapons.

Where are we going?

When the game is not falling apart at the seams, I tend to enjoy taking these oddballs into battle. Melee combat is pretty button-mashy but provides all the right metal-on-bone sounds you want from clobbering the undead. Gunplay is loud and draws attention but also feels pleasantly precise.

The problem isn’t the moment-to-moment looting and shooting. It’s the overarching goals. State of Decay 2’s endgame is murky from the start. There’s some tutorial text encouraging you to promote of a citizen to “leader” status and to blow up pulsing zombie tumors. But there isn’t a predetermined story, aside from a few side quests that ask you to kill and loot for NPC factions, either.

You can survive for survival’s sake, but that starts to wear thin once you realize how flat and uninteresting the base upgrades are. Every community has a headquarters you can support with outposts, which generate food, gas, bullets, and everything else you’ve seen people fight over in The Walking Dead. I was awed by the sheer number of locales to claim at first, but I quickly realized every outpost just results in one more of those resources per in-game day.

The moment that really sealed my opinion of State of Decay’s progression was when I finally reached the wind farm. I’d seen the white turbines in the distance for hours. When I finally got my affairs ordered enough to trek out to them across the river一loosely separating my in-game map into what felt “safe” and what didn’t一the journey felt like an end goal all by itself.

I thought that was the point of State of Decay 2. You subsist until you have enough juice to explore, find one-of-a-kind upgrades, and shape your society around them. Then you find wind power, which would mean free electricity. That would open up all kinds of avenues…

But no. Apparently wind farms are powered by gasoline. In fact, they require the exact same amount of gas per day, and produce all the same benefits, as any one of the half-dozen generic power stations I could have occupied at any point. It figures…

Windmills aside, there are too few special twists to State of Decay 2’s world and upgrades to justify what quickly becomes survival busywork. Nor did anything feel as worthwhile as the sight of those propellers cutting into the horizon led me to imagine.

Sure, no single reward should be too meaningful. The game’s sandbox of emergent stories is built on the danger of being cornered by zombies in the dark and the scarcity of resources that forces you into that situation. But, too often, slowly goosing the math in your favor feels like it’s building toward absolutely nothing at all. Combine that with the bugs and a few too many user interface oversights (particularly that you can’t directly trade items between playable characters), and it’s all too much to overlook for too little reward.

I saw State of Decay 2 as my chance to get in on the fun I missed five years ago, and I did have some fun with the wacky random characters and decently grabby action. The game just doesn’t know what to do with those tools once it has them. For that matter, neither did I, before long. And that uncertainty isn’t worth fighting State of Decay 2’s most frustrating foibles.

The good:

The bad:

The ugly:

Verdict: State of Decay 2 is a smart, messy idea without much of a game to go with it… again. Try it if you don’t mind bugs or repetition too much.

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