State of Decay, a supposedly open-world zombie survival sandbox, doesn’t seem very sandboxy at first. Two buddies are coming back from a camping trip only to discover the zombie apocalypse happened while they were out of range of cell phone service. Don’t you hate it when that happens? So they throw in with a handful of survivors at the ranger’s station to play a sort of third-person sneaker with some headshotting, meleeing, resource management, and even driving. Some scripted stuff happens. So far, all this could have happened in Dead Island: Rip Tide.
But I hadn’t met Ondrej yet.
After the jump, things that absolutely couldn’t happen in Dead Island: Rip Tide
The ranger station is just a prologue. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the two buddies back from camping are like Johnny and Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. I can’t say for sure at this point. It’s still early. I also can’t say whether what happened to Ondrej was truly dynamic, or whether it was some simple smoke-and-mirrors in the wiggle room of any game that lets ancillary characters die. But Ondrej called into question the very idea of ancillary characters.
Ondrej didn’t really register with me at first. He was just one of the ten people holed up at the church. He wasn’t the cook, he wasn’t the doctor, and he wasn’t the bad-ass asshole sheriff who mans the watchtower, so why would I notice him? At that point in the game, Maya was set up as the other playable character, so I was naturally paying the most attention to her. When Marcus, the action hero of the two characters back from camping, gets tired, you can play as Maya for a while to let him rest. Or vice versa. State of Decay seemed to be setting itself up as a Maya/Marcus tag team adventure.
So it was a bit odd that Maya was one of the first character to cause a morale problem. I hadn’t yet found enough construction materials to expand the sleeping quarters, and I needed what little construction material we had to upgrade the infirmary. So I wasn’t surprised when a morale event popped up in which Maya complained about another character snoring. So unless I did a quick zombie-killing mission with Maya, the group would take a morale hit.
No problem. Marcus and Maya sauntered out to a nearby designated spot and handily dispatched a mess of zombies. Since they both had decent weapons and upgraded fighting skills from the few hours I’d played, everything went smoothly. Often, she’d grab the zombie and Marcus would kill it with a quick tap of the X button. Plenty of times she’d do one of the cool fatality animations without any help from me. We killed the allotted number of zombies for the mission and headed back while the obligatory “we all gotta stick together” dialogue played. Morale loss successfully averted!
The next day was spent scouting the site of a radio report about nearby construction materials. You can set a character to scan the radio for your choice of mission, and construction supplies are crucial early on. In addition to expanding the sleeping area, I wanted to upgrade the workshop to maintain our weapons. So as I headed off to check out a trailer park — playing as Maya now so Marcus could rest — another morale mission popped up. Someone named Ondrej Leslie was “melancholy”. I needed to talk to him to avoid a morale hit. So once I got back, I dropped off the bundle of construction supplies at the supply locker and went to find Ondrej. Which one was Ondrej?
Sure enough, the mission to cheer up Ondrej was to take him out to kill zombies. Is that what people did for fun around here? They cheered themselves up by killing zombies? I can’t say I blame them. So I headed out with Ondrej to the same place as before. But this time, it wasn’t so easy. Ondrej didn’t have the combat skills or the equipment of Marcus and Maya. He stood around a lot while the zombies attacked. He frequently got grabbed. The mission mostly consisted of Maya fighting zombies while Ondrej watched. If I’d known that was how it would shake out, I would have prepared a little better. I would have brought along something sturdier than a table leg. I would have packed more than eight rounds for the rifle. Oh well. Live and learn. So far, State of Decay hadn’t thrown anything at me that Marcus or Maya can’t handle.
Eventually, we headed back to the church, with Maya winded and hurt. The “we all gotta stick together” dialogue played. I’m pretty sure it was word-for-word the same as before. But the end result this time was different. This time, Ondrej’s friendship level maxxed out. He became a playable character.
Ah, so this is how State of Decay works! You build relationships with the characters, use them for missions, and upgrade their skills!
Since Marcus and Maya were tired at that point, and since that night mission was a simple run down the street to see what was up with some soldiers holed up in a nearby house, I decided to take my new friend Ondrej for a spin. It’s just a recon mission at night. He could avoid the packs of zombies wandering the streets and slip between the houses. He didn’t have far to go. It would be easy. Maybe he’d search an abandoned house along the way for food or something. You know, earn his keep. Bring back a little loot.
But on the way to the objective, a mission popped up. Survivors in a nearby house were under siege. They needed help. And it was on the way to where Ondrej was going. I’d be a fool not to at least have him check it out.
There were two zombies at the window and the three survivors inside were whacking away at a third zombie. Ondrej, using a hefty plumbing wrench, helped them secure the house. At which point the option to play a siege mission popped up. Would Ondrej help the survivors barricade the windows to withstand an onslaught?
That was a crucial moment for Ondrej Leslie. He could have said no and gone the short distance to check out the soldiers in the house. We didn’t necessarily need to recruit more survivors yet, since we barely had food and sleeping quarters for our current group. Besides, one of the first rules of a zombie apocalypse is that you’ve got to leave some people to die. That’s just how it works. It wouldn’t be a zombie apocalypse if there weren’t people left to die.
But this was a siege, with three other people. It would involve barricading windows and dealing with the zombies as they came into a single entry. Basically, standing in a doorway and spamming the attack button. I’d done it before with Marcus. This could be an opportunity for Ondrej to earn his first few levels of combat skill, to do a little more damage, to run a little farther without getting winded, to lay a foundation with blunt weapons that would eventually unlock new moves. This would be his basic training. Here he could prove himself.
Plus, I had hit the “accept” option without really thinking through the implications.
So we barricaded the windows quickly. It was night, so Ondrej’s flashlight threw an eerie glare on the close walls. The zombies were banging on the boarded up windows, but a display on the screen showed that every window was holding. The back door was the only way in. On the minimap, I could see the little dots working their way around the side of the house. They were coming.
The first two waves were no problem. There were only about two or three zombies at a time. Ondrej’s wrench hit hard. His skills dinged up. One of the other survivors was constantly beside him, whaling away with a plank or something in her hands. She and Ondrej would be fast friends after this, once these three survivors were assimilated into the group at the church. This mission would earn their trust and eventually Marcus or Maya or maybe even Ondrej would escort them back to the church. “Remember that night when we defended the kitchen door?” Ondrej would ask her as they strolled down the street shouldering the weight of the backpacks that held all their worldly goods.
Another wave jammed into the kitchen. I don’t really remember how it happened, because previously, standing in the doorway spamming the attack button had worked pretty well. But suddenly far more than two or three zombies were pressing into the small area, and I couldn’t actually see Ondrej in the crowd. Furthermore, one of the zombies stood a full head above the others. He was enormous, like a boomer from Left 4 Dead. I had no idea there were zombies like that in State of Decay. How did he even get in the door? I tried to pull Ondrej back, out of the mass of undead, but I could only see a prompt on the screen telling me to press A to stand up. Press A to stand up? You can get knocked down? As I was pressing A, Ondrej’s health bar began to plummet. I tried frantically to use the painkillers I was carrying to recover his health. At some point during all this, I realized I quite liked the music that was playing.
Once Ondrej had died, I was put back in control of Marcus. He and some of the other survivors were standing in the church. Was it supposed to be a funeral? Someone said a few words about remembering the fallen or something — basically, the dialogue that means you’ve gotten someone killed — and then it was back to business as usual. Except for the fact that I lost morale because of Ondrej’s death. All the morale I’d saved by doing depression missions was gone, and then some.
It’s morning now. Maya is leaving to recover Ondrej’s body and find out what happened to the people in the house. There’s a sad little “dead body” icon on the map where he made his last stand.