lookout

In the Breakdown DLC for State of Decay, you’re no longer playing towards State of Decay’s final mission. What was previously a once-and-done zombie apocalypse with an abrupt and decisive end is now an open-ended world without end. In theory. In practice, the difficulty ramps up until you fail. That’s a pretty decisive end, but not at all sudden. It’s also a fundamental part of zombie mythology. The zombies always win. The demise of all your survivors is a matter of when, not if. The main difference is that this time, you know what you’re doing. This time, your heroes are a band of experienced competent ruthless efficient survivalists. This is no amateur hour zombie apocalypse.

After the jump, there’s no more room in hell, but we can accommodate you on a harder map.

Breakdown, which boots up as its own game, strips out the story beats and the finale from State of Decay. The idea is that you play as long as you can, racking up a high score until you’re ready to move on, or until the finite supplies have run out. Then you choose five people to ride in the RV (you did remember to prep the RV, didn’t you?) and you reboot the map at a harder difficulty level, with a higher score multiplier. Repeat until you fail. I’ve been told it gets impossible by level eight. After forty hours, I’m currently sitting pretty at the transition before level five, hunkering down behind the military fortifications in the Trumball County Fairgrounds, running perilously short of construction materials. How much longer do I hold out for a higher score? Can I bring in more survivors? This isn’t one of those lunch hour survival games.

Although the basic map is always the same, each reboot combines the comfort of familiarity with the excitement of possibility. You mostly know Trumpbell Valley by now. You know the police stations and gun stores. You know the gas stations and construction sites. You know where Blaine’s Food is. But you don’t know where the new survivors will be. You don’t know how scarce resources will be, or how far flung. You don’t know who will go missing, or whose morale will break, or who will get ambushed by ferals, or whether disease is going to be an issue this time.

But the more you play, the more competent your survivors get. Unlike the core game, this isn’t about starting with an amateur group and fumbling your way through survival. Once you’ve laid a foundation, you start each iteration of the map better prepared, more experienced. You’re proactive. You’ve been here before. You know what to do. It’s like the difference between an episode of The Walking Dead about Lori and an episode of The Walking Dead about Daryl. Your first and probably only playthrough of State of Decay was a Lori situation. Breakdown is a Daryl situation.

Now those initial stages of occupying, clearing, expanding, and foraging feel very different. You know how things work, you know what outposts you want and where to put them, you understand the tough choice between a kitchen or an upgraded medical station. The early hours play like a whole other game when you’ve got a bad-ass gun, ammo to spare, a hearty pool of stamina, and that sweet sweet focus fire ability that comes only with experience. Time slows as you patiently pop off carefully aimed single shots, one at a time, each a perfect red rose of exploding zombie pates, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, five in a row, easy as you please, discreetly silenced. Remember when you thought headshot killstreaks would be a challenge? Boy were you naive in the early days of the zombie apocalypse. Your melee character is literally cutting them off at the knees and then taking her time burying the axe in their skulls, her stamina replenishing as she dispatches them, an unstoppable killing machine, like an endgame tank in a starting zone of greys, now with a wingman by her side for the low low price of a hundred influence. The zombies don’t stand a chance.

Enjoy it while it lasts. This competence will only get your survivors so far. It starts to turn. It gets harder to find the food you need. The materials for upgrades are farther afield. The RV takes more and more work to prep before you can move on. There are fewer cars. Who ever thought you’d be hurting for wheels in Trumbull Valley? The zombies start to push back. The infestations come more readily, spilling wandering hordes into the streets. There’s a juggernaut wandering around just outside your walls. You see a pair of ferals harrying those survivors you had hoped to recruit. A pair! Marshall is a mess. Can you afford to go back in there for medical supplies? This isn’t the State of Decay you first played. The end draws near.

One side effect of the ramping difficulty is that a lot of tools you might never have used in State of Decay come into play. Sure, you used the firecrackers or the alarm clock for a diversion during the scripted mission that teaches you how to use diversions. But after that? When I finished my State of Decay playthrough, I was flush with firecrackers, alarm clocks, kitchen timers, and children’s dolls. But in Breakdown, those sorts of distraction tools help as the game gets harder, as the hordes run amok. Sickness and injury are major issues. That gun sure is nice, but you can’t afford to use anything that can’t be fitted with a suppressor. You’re going through those mines, Molotov cocktails, and firebombs like they were candy. Forget the aspirin. This is a world where it’s morphine or nothing.

Breakdown also brings to the forefront the territory system. The placement of your outposts arguably matters more than whatever supplies they might earn you (although the supplies system is still borked; see below). Parceling out the ammo for snipers to extend the coverage around your base is important, especially in a densely populated area like Marshall. All those close buildings make for a lot of overlapping infestations. Alas, Marshall.

Cars even become a precious commodity. Previously, I could use my driver side door as a plow to take out hordes by doing jousting runs back and forth, passing to the right of the horde and shaving away its members until the car door got knocked off. At which point, I’d just get another car. Now getting a new car isn’t always going to be easy. Maybe upgrading that workshop to repair them is a good idea. Rats, I used the materials for my medical lab.

Another thing that’s more keenly felt is Undead Labs’ misguided insistence on locking the game progression to real-world time. Considering all the careful survival mechanics you have to manage, brought to the forefront by the harder difficulty levels, the real-world clock is even more intrusive. Manufacturing items, repairs, food growth in gardens, treatment of disease and injury, and supply consumption are all divorced from ingame time. If I play a map through in one sitting, I never even have to build beds for my survivors because they’ll never need to sleep, regardless of the number of ingame nights that pass. I’ll never need food, because they’ll never eat.

This out-of-sorts insistence on real-world time should have been culled from Breakdown, because it subverts the game’s identity. This is ultimately a score chase, with each new iteration of the map harder, but also higher scoring. But the real-world clock inordinately rewards people who play through in a single sitting by excusing them from some of the most punishing mechanics. Namely, sleep and supply consumption. These concepts should be even more important in a purely survival oriented version of the game, but instead they’re strictly a factor of how much time I spend playing at once. If I want to really chase a high score, I can easily earn more points if I just catass through a ten-hour session. The guy who instead plays in two-hour sessions over the course of five days never stands a chance. And the guy who plays one-hour sessions over a couple of weeks is completely screwed.

How could Undead Labs not have anticipated that? Do they simply not care? For all of this game’s smart, perceptive, zombie apocalypse savvy design, I don’t understand why the developers are still blind to the impact of this awful concept. If Breakdown isn’t going to use it’s ingame clock to measure the passing of each day, it should at least give me full control, as if this were a turn-based game. Let me tick the “turns” when I want. Build in some sort of incentive for me to pass a real-world day. It was a problem in State of Decay. It’s an even bigger problem in Breakdown for how it compromises the fundamental concept of scoring.

It’s also disappointing how frequently weird bugs crop up. The game has been out long enough, and it’s been through enough patching, that I’d expect it to work more reliably. I’ve had to abandon quests because of glitches like getting stuck in walls or having weird things happen to escortees. I still see odd issues with the resources. It’s not clear what costs daily resources, or even whether they’re working correctly. I’m repeatedly told that I don’t have enough storage space for materials when I have as few as zero materials in a stockpile with a capacity of 190 materials. If the obvious math can be that consistently wrong, how much confidence should I have in the nonobvious math?

Finally, what’s going on here that the mouse is so squirrelly? It can be downright exhausting using the mouse, constantly on edge because you’re never sure when you’re going to have to wrestle with its unpredictable mood swings. If the zombies don’t get you, the lurching mouse will. The controller works just fine, but I prefer the mouse on this PC version of State of Decay. And I’d prefer a mouse that isn’t so weirdly jumpy.

That said, there’s no game like State of Decay for dropping you into a zombie apocalypse, and now there’s no survival game quite like Breakdown’s score-based challenge with its inevitable failure bearing down on you. It’s all futile, but what a grim drama you’ll unfold on the way to your demise.