STATE OF DECAY [Review]: Free Will is a Bitch.
State of Decay is about as close to a Civil War Era dominatrix as we’re likely to ever see in our time. It’s mean, not all that pretty, enjoys watching you suffer, a little bit racist, but a whole lot of fun and only costs $20.
Since the game was released on June 5, there’s been two vocal camps on this title: people who just want to cry about the graphics, and those who are able to look past the cosmetic shortcomings to enjoy one of the most engaging zombie titles to come out in a while. (Guess which side I’m on….) So, before getting any farther into this review, let’s address some of the rumors you may or may not have heard about this $20 Xbox Live download.
Rumor #1: “The game is ugly.” Somewhat true. It’s not ugly, but it’s not going to blow you away with the visuals. At times, it looks like a PS2 or original Xbox title. Items pop onto the screen from time to time, which can be a pain while driving, but the zombies — or Zeds as they are called — do not pop in front of you. At times, they are the only things you can see in the distance, which is surely a glitch that can work in your favor.
Rumor #2: “The game is buggy.” Truthfully, I’ve played AAA titles with more launch bugs (hi Assassin’s Creed III!). I’ve experienced very little of the framerate bugs others have reported. The only wild thing this Monsignor ran into.. has been some collision detection and clipping issues. I once walked into a house and saw a pair of Zeds wading in the floor up to their chest. They eventually rejoined the world of physics and got their heads thoroughly beat in with a skillet. No harm, no foul.
Rumor #3: “The game is too buggy and ugly to play.” Now, that’s what the hell the rest of the review is for!
GRAND THEFT DAWN OF THE DEAD
State of Decay throws you right into the fray as the game starts with two of the main characters, Marcus and Ed, fighting off a lakeside zed attack. There’s no cutscene exposition. What little backstory your have is contained in the game journal, which is easy to forget about once the missions start piling up. But do you seriously remember the backstories from Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising 2 anyway?
Didn’t think so.
As the game goes along, you’ll make new friends, lose some new ones and wind up having to stomp a surprising number of zombies. Seriously, there’s a shitload of Zeds for a town that only has about 20 or so houses.
The gameplay is going to be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any Grand Theft Auto. The combat, driving and mission system is almost note-for-note GTA, which, hey, is not entirely a bad thing. Ironically, the driving is as horrendous as Theft‘s, and even misses out on the use of radio stations (basically, the only element that saved GTA‘s primary weakness). Thankfully, the addictive “just one more mission” appeal of S.O.D. will have 4 am creeping up on you more than once.
YOU’VE GOT RED ON YOU
As mentioned, the graphics are limited, but luckily the gore isn’t. If you use your vehicle as a weapon, you’re going to get a new paint job. Spoiler alert: it’s red. And using the car to kill is huge, especially when a horde is coming straight at you. Your vehicle is not invincible though, and running into enough zeds will eventually destroy it. To save damage you can perform a door attack. When properly timed, opening the driver’s side door will send the mofo flying. In real life, doing such a thing would most likely snap your arm, yet all the while insanely fun and never dull, no matter how many times — and I’m about 10-15 hours in.
Undead Labs had no problem nodding off to other works from the wonderful world of zombies. The first stat listed for characters is cardio (Zombieland), there’s a pair of troublemaking redneck brothers (“The Walking Dead”) and companions will also point out that “You’ve got red on you” (Shaun of the Dead) after a bloody zed debacle. There’s plenty more references throughout State of Decay and stumbling upon those easter eggs breaks the tension nicely.
DOUBLE TAP? NOT AROUND HERE
Your survivors have an assortment of guns and melee weapons at their disposal, and knowing when to use them is key. While a gun can easily put most zeds down with one well-placed shot, they are indeed loud and noise can be your biggest enemy in Decay. You won’t have time to double tap because the sound will be a beacon to any surrounding zeds, and, trust, they will come on a runnin’.
Your survivors are best served using melee weapons if they can. Melee weapons can be just about anything. You’ll see cast iron skillets. Golf clubs, pipe wrenches, matchetes and more. In tribute to Edgar Wright’s Shaun (or maybe The Big Lebowski) you can even find a cricket bat. Each of these can take down zeds with relative ease, but keep an eye on that weapon condition! Some items wear down quick and will need to be brought back to base for repair (once you have built a workbench).
HOME SWEET HOME
Your survivors all work from a home base. You have default starting locations and can move as your troupe grows. The base is where you sleep, repair items, train and get medical treatment. You’ll have to find supplies and upgrade your base, sort of the in-between humdrum that plagued Walking Dead‘s Season 2.
Home base is also where you can switch between active characters. This is where State of Decay could turn some people off. Even though there is an RPG element in the form of a very basic skill tree and leveling system, there is no character creation and a surprisingly low amount of character control. More often than not, you’ll return to base with an exhausted character and find that your other playable characters are on a mission of their own or flat out missing. If you’re a control freak, this is going to drive you bananas; it does, however, add a new layer of tension to the game. Your characters have free will, and free will is a bitch. In my current game, half of my playable characters are missing, including my most leveled-up, reducing me to the scrub department.
And, to search for these assholes, I’ve had to abandon a few side missions — something I’m not terribly proud to admit.
Another part of the game that sticks it to over-bearing gamers is the save system. It’s entirely autosave, meaning you can’t save the game yourself at any point. Add the specter of permadeath to the save system and the message is crystal clear: The game is in control here. There are no second chances and your mistakes have consquences.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
As we’ve already hit on, there are a lot of rough edges to pick on with this game. For the most part though, these things don’t hurt the game experience and add little details that more than make up for anything apparently “last gen.” The sickening wet crunch of smashing a zombie’s skull, the cheap scare of a zed bursting through a window when you thought you’d cleared the area, the numbing moment when you see one of your survivors get ripped in half “for the very first time” (cue Madonna for the achievement!), are all great moments.
Even more fun.. comes from exploring your surviors’ traits on the character screen. Former police or military personnel are good with the gats; the local undertaker has a counseling perk (though sadly not the WWE’s phenom); and characters who enjoyed camping and hiking will receive boosts to their cardio. Perhaps, my favorite character trait belongs to Ed — one of your initial survivors. Eddie was a big fan of “American Idol” (cough) and he has a special skill called Reality TV Knowledge that is maxed out from the beginning of the game.
Of course this little ditty probably means shit; I’m just holding out hope that there will be a special class of zed later in the game that can only be defeated with pub trivia.