Night of the Living Dead invented zombies. So what if the word zombie comes from Haitian mythology? So what if the concept was inspired by the “vampires” in Richard Matheson’s Last Man on Earth? So what if the theme is a variation on the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers? When George Romero gathered some buddies to make a no-budget amateur movie in Pittsburgh, thousands of miles from Hollywood, he invented a new mythology. But it wouldn’t be fully realized until Dawn of the Dead. Years later, with a budget for better production values, with a larger crew on a more conventional shoot, with better actors, better effects, better cinematography, a better set, better distribution, and better marketing, he realized a fuller expression of what he created in his first movie. They’re both classics. But Dawn of the Dead is a timeless work of genre filmmaking and mythology.
State of Decay 2 is to State of Decay what Dawn of the Dead is to Night of the Living Dead.
The genius of developer Undead Labs is how well they get not just the essentials of zombie mythology, but the moment-to-moment incidentals. The tension as you’re filling your gas tank while a horde shambles down the road toward you. The unexpected horrific face in your flashlight beam as you’re exploring a dark house that you thought was empty. The panic of holding one zombie back while two more lunge at you from either direction. The rot and shuffle. The disparate survivors working together, one a firefighter, the other a car salesman, another a low level politician. That last important bullet. That fortuitous rucksack of food to feed your survivors for another day. The hero killed, which wasn’t supposed to happen. Most of the time you’re prepared. That’s the gratifying part of State of Decay. Sometimes you’re not. That’s the dramatic part.
State of Decay was unique for its appreciation of zombie mythology above all else. Including, sometimes, game design. The clock running while you weren’t playing was a huge point of contention for some players, and it was often misunderstood, precisely because it was such a bad idea. And while the first game wasn’t a seminal work, it was a thorough one, shot through with insight and intent. It understood its subject matter. It took it seriously. It expressed it clearly.
By staying true to the essentials and incidentals, State of Decay 2 feels familiar. For the most part, it iterates on the first game, but it has a better appreciation for the demands of game design. There was so much that was so right in State of Decay, and State of Decay 2 knows it and carries it forward confidently. The moment-to-moment gameplay is the same survival drama, but now adorned with more detail, spelled out more explicitly with more information, broadened with more options, fleshed out with more character, presented with better production values. The survivors are more manageable. The resources are more meaningful. The zombies are more of an ecology. Now, years later, with a bigger budget and a better engine, Undead Labs has realized a fuller expression of their first game.
Is it ironic in a zombie game that the map (all three of them!) is more alive? More resources are found in more sensible places. Depleted buildings are greyed out so you know which places are finished. There’s a sense of working your way through the ruins. The world spawns other human settlements. “Settlement” might be too generous a word for three NPCs holed up in a house, doling out quests and trade goods, but it creates a new kind of interaction. You’ve found toothpaste and scotch. You don’t need that generator anymore since you’ve built solar panels. Thanks to your efficient farm and skilled agriculture expert, you’re so flush with food that you’ve run out of room to store it. Why not trade all that stuff to the soldiers camped out at the drive-in down by Mathilda? They might have the medicine you need. Load everything into the back of the pick-up and take a road trip up there. This is part of the new economy. Scavenging is one way to get what you need. Trading is another. Yours aren’t the only survivors in the area.
Nights are darker and more challenging. Combat requires more attention to which direction you’re facing. The overall difficulty escalates based on how many zombie nests you’ve cleared out. For people who want to take back the world, Ubi-style, State of Decay 2 adds nests that have to be burned with fire. As you destroy these, the zombies get more aggressive, like an immune system kicking into gear. Destroy the last one and you’re free to meet your endgame condition. State of Decay was never an aimless sandbox.
Base building in the sequel offers more choices and more challenges, with new rules for power, water, morale, and add-ons like appliances and tools. You have more information to make choices because you get an explicit accounting for what you’re consuming, and why, and how much (the first game swept this stuff under the hood). Characters are an integral part of base building with the new leader system. As with any survivor in a zombie apocalypse, each of your characters reveals his or her true self during the travails of a post-apocalypse. Each one has potential for a unique contribution, beyond the basics of whether she can tend crops, fix cars, craft bullets, or brew health potions. This is also part of the endgame system based on who you pick to be your leader. You’re also picking how you want to win your game.
The resources are more efficiently folded into the gameplay, with new reasons to need things like fuel and medicine. For instance, cars need fuel, which gives even more character to one of State of Decay’s unique selling points. Cars, trucks, vans, jeeps. Sedans, roadsters, muscle cars. A taxi, an ambulance. Cars in Dying Light were a post-release addition limited to a certain area. Cars in Dead Rising are really just alternate weapons. But cars in State of Decay tap into the integral part of any apocalypse power fantasy. You, your ride, and the open road. Plus whatever food, ammo, and fuel you can store in the trunk to bring back to base. Freedom and logistics in one gameplay system! State of Decay knows how much you love cars, and it obviously loves them as much as you do. But whereas the first game loved them so much it scattered them around, willy nilly, the sequel loves them enough to make them important. And if you think your upgraded cars are sweet, wait until you find some unique beast left broken down at a gas station. You’ll get as attached to certain cars as you get attached to certain guns or even certain characters.
A new plague system attempts something usually overlooked in zombie games: infection. A fundamental fact about zombies is that they turn us into them. They subvert our identities and subsume us. Their bite is fatal, which is a pretty difficult thing to put in a game about fighting zombies. State of Decay 2 pays it a little lip service with special blood zombies that defend the nests. You can recognize them by their bright red eyes and wet red skin. Any character who takes damage from a blood zombie starts filling a plague meter. It’s not a big deal until it’s full, but it’s a resource like anything else. Who do you have who can afford to take plague damage? Because he’s going to take a beating when he tries to destroy that nest. Once the plague meter fills, the character needs an antidote within a certain amount of time. These are easy enough to come by, but they introduce a new use for medical supplies. Hit points come back, as you’d expect. Stamina refills with rest. But blood plague requires treatment and that treatment uses up resources.
New rules for scrap, electronics, and chemicals are also important. Especially scrap. In the first game, your locker was overflowing with spare weapons, because there was no reason to not have a dozen baseball bats, ten crowbars, and fifteen extra pistols. But now it’s all fodder for materials you can use elsewhere. For instance, silencers that aren’t limited to a certain number of uses. Or other weapon mods. Your grenades need scrap. All of which are useful as trade goods. And weapon maintenance, of course. Fifteen extra pistols aren’t going to be much use until you repair them using the scrap you’ll get if you bust them down into their component parts. Of course, you get less scrap from a broken pistol. Like so much of State of Decay 2, it’s a gameplay system introduced in the first game, but refined, tuned, and given even more weight and character in this sequel.
There are some conspicuous rough edges, most of which I’m hoping are launch issues. The Crytek engine was swapped out from the original game for the Unreal engine. Although it’s smoother and better looking, it’s still got the “not quite there” clunk of a 100-horsepower idea in a 75-horsepower engine. There’s never going to be a time you’re looking over the landscape with the breathless admiration you feel for an Ubisoft or Bethesda landscape. The zombies are never going to accumulate hordes as overwhelming as Dead Rising. The combat is never going to have the immediacy and heft of Dying Light’s first person perspective. State of Decay 2, like Dawn of the Dead, has the clarity of vision of an auteur production, but also the raw production value of an independent production.
Then there’s the multiplayer support, which seems like a feature included by demand rather than design. The multiple players in State of Decay are the survivors in your community, not the people playing their survivors in their communities with their own copies of the game. Yet you can teleport a character into someone else’s apocalypse to farm resources, waste ammo, and help them do their missions. Or you can drive their cars around, attract a lot of zombie attention, and basically mess up the bubble around them where you’re allowed to play. It’s not much of an open world when you’re tethered to someone else. For your trouble, you’re awarded a small gift basket when you teleport back into your own reality. This feature has the forced feel of a business decision. State of Decay is not a game like Far Cry 5, where the emergent chaos is better with my realworld buddy in the passenger seat. Far Cry 5 is about creating chaos; State of Decay is about holding it at bay. And I’ve got a base full of characters to do it, none of whom are struggling with janky networking code.
The interface can also use some work in a few places. All that information about characters, but I can’t find out where in the base a character is standing if I need to talk to him? Why can’t I get the bullets out of a gun when I need them for someone else’s gun? Undead Labs knows how much I need the bullets because they’re the ones who made the game that created that need. So why can’t I get the bullets? I run into minor stuff like that. But like so many other things in State of Decay 2, it’s far and away better than the last game. I’m glad that my main complaint is related to three rounds of 9mm ammo.
Besides, polish is overrated. Consider Dawn of the Dead. Both of them. Zack “Justice League” Snyder’s update is polished, contemporary, and appropriately dumb. But Romero’s original is raw, uneven, and still powerful. They each have their place, but only one of them is timeless. If you want the fullest and most thorough expression of zombie mythology in a movie, you watch Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. If you want the fullest and most thorough expression of zombie mythology in a game, you play Undead Labs’ State of Decay 2.