State of Decay does brilliantly what videogames do best

, | Game reviews


I love the sound of this muscle car’s engine, especially as I slow down to cruise by a farmhouse I spotted from the main road. Should I go in? Are there survivors in there? Is it safe to look for salvage? My stamina is low, so I could use some food. And we’re in dire need of food back at the base. Three of us are weak from hunger. However, my machete broke when I foolishly tried to clear out an infestation at the gas station back there, and I only have four rounds for the shotgun. Do I head home and hope someone else found some food? Or do I make the one last stop?

After the jump, if the zombies don’t get you, the decisions will

This risk/reward calculus is the core experience in State of Decay. I can’t think of another putatively action game that manages it this well. Dead Rising and Dead Island tried. In those games, I gathered a lot of trash to make a lot of crazy weapons to fold, spindle, and mutilate a lot of zombies in a lot of crazy ways. But I never worried about eating, about reserves of ammo, about building materials to expand the base to make more room for more survivors. I never played The Walking Dead’s dialogue-free scavenging scene at the beginning of season three, or the scene in Dawn of the Dead when they consider that the mall is the perfect place to hole up, or the scene in 28 Days Later when Christopher Eccleston takes away the omelet because the eggs have spoiled. I have never played Don’t Starve in a zombie apocalypse action game.

Instead, I have played — over and over and over again and often to my delight — the scene in Dead Alive with the lawnmower. State of Decay certainly has its share of those moments, and many of them end poorly. There’s no guarantee you will survive, and that’s a fundamental tenet of zombie mythology that few zombie games understand. State of Decay appreciates better than any game about zombies that isn’t called Rebuild or Undead Nightmares for Red Dead Redemption that the zombie apocalypse is equal parts zombie and apocalypse. It is a far-reaching phenomenon that touches many places, many characters, many issues, many dilemmas. It is hunger and sadness and loss and awesomely grotesque head-splatterings. It is shambling hordes and empty streets and sieges and lonely abandoned houses where absolutely nothing happens.

The muscle car idles lugubriously while I try to angle the camera to see if there’s any movement inside. It’s night, so it’s hard to tell. Bright videogame night, of course, but it’s still hard to tell. I think I’ll go in. But I’ll honk the horn first, in case there are any zombies in there. That’ll flush ’em out.

State of Decay has its share of issues (including an unfunny comedy of errors involving much-needed patches and an ill-conceived decision to run the simulation even when you aren’t playing the game). The graphics engine struggles mightily to keep up with the design ambition. But State of Decay isn’t trying to compete with Hollywood. Its foundation isn’t the usual production values that sell the most copies and buy the highest review scores. This is a game for gamers instead of reviewers. This is a work of entertainment with a sense of purpose and priority and minimal resources for glitz. In other words, it’s sometimes rough-hewn, with a bad framerate, inconsistent animation, and physics glitches. So what? Seriously, so what? Faulkner’s run-on sentences can be hard to read. The shark in Jaws looks fakey. The characters break out in song in Don Giovanni, which no one does in real life. Casablanca isn’t in color. Realities of the medium don’t detract from raw genius. The framerate is utterly meaningless in the larger context of why State of Decay is a meaningful game.

The balance of combat, stealth, scavenging, and environmental interactivity is perfect. Fighting zombies depends heavily on how experienced your character is, as well as what you’re using, and how many zombies you’re fighting. Like Dead Island, it understands the meaty visceral quality of beating a zombie to re-death. But sometimes it’s better to avoid zombies entirely, and it’s possible to put that into a game without resorting to canned stealth sequences. Good stealth needs a wide berth, and there is no wider berth than an open world. When you search a cabinet or crate or suitcase, you have to carefully choose what you’re going to carry and what you’re going to leave behind. You can go through windows. Actually go through them. Not just look through them. Go through them. Just like real life. State of Decay is something better than attractive and flashy. It’s functional in more ways than most videogames. And yet, that square of sunlight creeps along the wall as the sun sets.

The front windows shatter and four or five zombies leap out and scramble at my car. I can see more behind them. I mash the accelerator and hurtle off into the night. There’s gotta be a safer way to get food for everyone. Maybe I should head back and get some rest. I can take Ed on a food run while this character, a former mortuary owner turned bad-ass zombie killer, rests up. State of Decay is about playing different characters, each a storyline as much as a resource. Ed really needs the experience. He sucks at running, fighting, shooting, and scavenging. He’ll have to learn that stuff at some point and maybe even die trying. There’s no such thing as a 100% safe trip in a zombie apocalypse. A horde is stumbling down the street in front of a house at the exact the moment you rattle a dresser drawer a bit too loudly. Or you’re fleeing from three zombies and you don’t see the two in front of you, which them turn into three more on the right, and suddenly you’re too tired to swing the baseball bat or dodge the bite, and now the three you were running from have caught up to you. If there’s one thing State of Decay teaches you, it’s that no one man or woman is going to save everyone. You might have your Daryl Dixon or your Selena or your Alice, but there’s no guarantee she’ll be the main character until the end. State of Decay is willing to confound you and then leave you to keep playing. It is willing to inflict a sense of loss every bit as powerful as the scripted losses you’ll suffer in The Last of Us. That’s just how any good apocalypse goes.

Many videogames try to compete with the types of experiences offered by movies. And who can blame them? Movies are the most powerful faux experiences we know. And some game developers do an admirable job rising to the occasion. No game rivals the relationship between Brendan Gleeson’s character and his daughter in 28 Days Later, but The Last of Us comes closer than I thought a game could manage.

But that type of storytelling, in which powerfully relatable characters emote believably before our sympathetic eyes, isn’t well suited to videogames. The best type of storytelling in a videogame is the type of storytelling that makes videogames unique: me in a sandbox of possibility, making stories out of my own choices. State of Decay is the open-world action version of Sarah Northway’s brilliant Rebuild, with that game’s same combination of story beats and sandboxing. It combines the best of scripting and the best of freedom, and along the way it believes first and foremost in gameplay. It knows it’s no mere movie. Its priority is on letting decisions happen and allowing consequences to play out. There are very few games that manage this as richly and with as much texture as State of Decay. Never mind the zombies. This is a great game no matter what the niche.

5 stars
Xbox 360