A couple years ago I went from being completely jaded with the staggering amount of zombie-based media our culture was producing to obsessively trying to watch and play anything zombie related almost overnight. It was The Gonk. No, not a bro-y tight end for the New England Patriots (you’re thinking of the Gronk) but a piece of stock music made famous by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Newcastle coopted the song for an ad campaign and the memories it brought back were enough to make me embrace my zombie-loving, teenaged past.
That set me on the search for the essential zombie video game; one that nailed the feel of Romero’s classic zombie movies by making it less about zombie murder and more about using limited resources and your wits to survive. And, luckily, my years of laying off the zombie-stuff ensured I had a hefty backlog of dead-slaughtering games to get through. I started consuming a slew of them; all with Dead in the title- from Telltale’s The Walking Dead, to Dead Rising 2, to Dead Island– but though some of them were good, they didn’t really nail “zombie apocalypse” for me. I mean let’s face it, in most zombie outings, it’s really about the body count. I wanted the experience of Dawn’s swat-team duo, Peter and Roger; holing up somewhere and trying to use what they could find to survive while staving off the undead at every turn. I was pretty sick of beating heads in.
Then I came across Undead Lab’s State of Decay. It was far from the head chopping and body-count antics of Dead Rising and Dead Island. This was an open world with houses and gas stations to ransack for supplies and crawling with the undead. An open world zombie simulator. Yea, this is what I was looking for. Last week all three entries of State of Decay were rereleased on Xbone, making this a perfect time to examine why- even though there are lot of rough spots- State of Decay provides the quintessential zombie survival experience (if we’re not counting The Last of Us).
First, some background: State of Decay: Year One is a bundle of the original State and two extra offerings, all originally released on the 360. Along with the original game- I guess you could call it a story mode, though there isn’t much in the way of story- you get a free roaming arcade mode called Breakdown, and another story putting you in the shoes of a hapless Army platoon called Lifeline. You’ll take your team of survivors, build up a base and try to survive the apocalypse the best you can. Breakdown is possibly the best way to see what the game has to offer. The experience is slightly randomly generated in the way that the map stays the same but your starting point, survivor and the placement of some key resources will be randomized. Lifeline sort of turns everything up a notch. You’re the army so you have more resources, more ammo and better guns but there are also double the amount of enemies to take care of. If you’re in to unloading a machine gun into a crowd of biters, this mode will probably scratch that itch. The other modes require a little more forethought. It’s the forethought that makes this the type of zombie game Romero would be proud of.
Everyone Can and Will Die
Zombie movies are almost as egregious as George R.R. Martin when it comes to killing off people you care about, and in State EVERYONE is expendable. Much like the criminally underrated ZombiU, State puts you in control of a group of survivors. If one gets overwhelmed/torn apart on a mission, you take control of another survivor. Unlike ZombiU your stable of survivors isn’t endless, making the stakes a lot higher. If they all die- your base is done and game over. So don’t get attached to that badass you’ve equipped with the coolest revolver and the nicest lead pipe because they’re three seconds from being torn in half while trying to get you a few cans of soup.
And this doesn’t just work to the game’s advantage because it’s a staple of the genre- it’s actually a great mechanism. Even after I had rescued an army of survivors I didn’t take any of them for granted. Great guns are scarce so only a few will be outfitted to kick ass and will be leveled up sufficiently- making every outing a chance for you to lose a survivor (or rifle) you’re attached to. It’s also fairly easy to get overwhelmed, making you think about every decision. Do you help hunt down a dangerous feral zombie with a neighboring survivor and risk losing your best shooter? Do you search for ammo while a horde shambles outside? This is fucking zombie Armageddon, if you’re playing a zombie video game you should be forced to answer these types of questions.
Resource Management and Base Building
As a safe haven against the undead onslaught, Romero had the Monroeville Mall- in State you’ll find an old church, a fenced in house or a Mexican restaurant. But it’s not as easy as waiting out until rescue. Each day brings hunger, disease and zombie attacks, making a steady stream of food, medicine, ammo and building materials a necessity. Those resources have to be scrounged up wherever you can find them; whether it be from an abandoned house, fast-food store or a vet. You hoard all of these at the home base, hoping that you have enough to last through the night.
You can upgrade the base too, which is possibly my favorite part. Your team will get tired or hungry. Disease can break out if you don’t have designated bathrooms or eating areas, and defenses can be fortified. The system isn’t too deep but it doesn’t need to be- you’ll be frantically searching for supplies of the time.
You’ll also need to be building up your own arsenal in the “stash” in your base. You start with almost nothing so keeping your base well supplied with guns, pills and ammo is a must. That means in addition to filling your rucksack with building supplies or medicine, you’ll have to scrounge out some guns and melee weapons for the survivors back at base to use. There’s a huge assortment of guns and though they all work about the same my primal American desire to amass a huge cache of random-ass guns.
The Story Never Gets in the Way
State of Decay’s writing and voice acting is so amateur it will bring you back to your high school drama class- but wait- that’s a good thing! The zombie genre is tired as shit. I could go an entire lifetime without hearing another fucking news beat about how the dead flesh-eaters are “crazy cannibals” and not your loved ones and blah, blah, blah. I’ve literally seen the scenario over fifty times, so if you could just get to the smashing zombie face I’d appreciate it, thanks. And I don’t need to know why this is happening. God, I swear if I hear about another bio-weapons experiment or government test gone wrong I’ll blow my own brains out (before I turn). Last year’s Dying Light is a perfect example of the zombie narrative getting in the way of the zombie game.
Not State of Decay. You’ll hear about the zombie thing for like five seconds before you start your quest of just fucking surviving. And that’s it. Even in the lightly scripted Year One and Lifeline you’ll never be investigating or discussing the phenomenon. Just saving others and surviving. That’s what makes Dawn of the Dead’s cast of survivors so believable. They aren’t out there to solve the apocalypse- just live one more day.
State of Decay might be the closest to nail the zombie survival experience, but it still has its fair share of problems. For one, it hasn’t been optimized for the next generation. The graphics are old and I ran into a few times of framerate chugging and slowdown. It’s a shame because it seems to have limited the amount of zombies the game can throw at you at once. Which in some cases could be a lot more.
Also there’s the car thing. Cars are vital to your survival and they are plentiful. They’re also, unfortunately, the most powerful weapon in your survivors’ arsenal. They cut through a group of flesh-eaters like a knife through hot butter and hardly take any damage making potentially dangerous counters a cinch. When your objective is in a field of biters, the potential drama never really materializes when you run them down with one of the games hundreds of readily available trucks.
But even with those problems this is the game that really nails the zombie genre. If you’re a Romero fan and you’ve been searching for that game that sums up the zombie experience, I urge you to download the latest version of State and throw yourself into its zombie-filled valley.