Nobody would argue that the world is lacking in zombie games – especially open-world ones that lack conventional storylines. Miraculously, though, State of Decay 2 manages to achieve a new spin on the well-worn genre. Perhaps the best way to describe SoD2 would be as a zombie outbreak-simulator: it concerns itself, above all, with rigour and plausibility, so on the zombie-game spectrum, it sits at the opposite end to the likes of Dead Rising.
Above all, State of Decay 2 aims to provide a believable evocation of what life would be like if you found yourself in the middle of a mass zombie infestation, and that proves to bring about a surprisingly original form of gameplay. It'll certainly get you thinking, and the way in which its gameplay is unafraid to sometimes adopt an almost sedate pace turns out to be surprisingly compelling.
Build your way to success
State of Decay 2 kicks off by encouraging you to choose between several sets of two principal characters, providing a concise back-story detailing their relationship – an indication of how much store the game sets on how survivors would interact with each other in such an extreme situation.
We chose a brother and sister. Proceeding through an abandoned army camp (State of Decay 2 is set 15 months after the initial outbreak), we discovered that the brother had been infected with the zombie plague – only so-called plague zombies, easily distinguishable by their red eyes and blood-covered skin, are infectious in the game, so you must take extra care when hacking them to bits.
Passing through the army camp functioned as a tutorial for the controls: State of Decay 2 has an excellent melee engine and decent stealth-takedown and shooting systems, but perhaps its key mechanic involves searching containers for supplies, a process which takes ages, although you can speed it up at the risk of making a zombie-attracting racket.
After dispatching some zombies, we encountered some more survivors in the camp, including, crucially, a doctor deep in research into perfecting a cure for the zombie plague. With our party of survivors swollen to four, we jumped into a car and headed off to find somewhere safer to establish a base.
At which point, State of Decay's true simulator structure reveals itself. In the game, your base is crucial: you must turn it from a run-down house into a structure containing things like an infirmary – where those infected with zombie plague can be cured – nurture and upgrade the garden to provide food and crafting materials for meds, find a cook to keep your band of survivors fed, make sure they have adequate sleeping arrangements and so on.
Leading the fight
Story-wise, State of Decay 2 adopts a sandbox-style approach, with different missions that pertain to specific members of your group (such as, initially, collecting tissue samples from dead plague zombies so you can craft a cure for your brother) and countless side-missions that continually crop up. You have a radio system which brings appeals for help from other bands of survivors, who might be friendly and helpful when you rescue them from zombie infestations – and might bring skills to your group which it currently lacks – or more self-interested, for example seeking to trade.
Climbing to elevated places and scanning with your binoculars lets you survey the surrounding area for potential sources of crucial resources. You can establish outposts, safe areas that let you store and retrieve useful stuff to take on forays and, more importantly, provide an automatic daily source of crucial commodities, like food, medicine or ammo.
You have to apply careful selection to your outposts, as you can only establish a finite amount, and they cost a lot of what is effectively the in-game currency: your standing among survivors. The idea that real money has lost its meaning in a zombie-infested world, so the game can ignore it, is a nice touch that rings true.
Initially, you embark on constant forays to find the necessary supplies to keep everyone going, particularly seeking rucksacks full of particular commodities that will last for a long period. You can only carry one of those at a time, and they must be taken back to the main base, so repairing and finding fuel to run a car which lets you ferry stuff around much quicker is a good plan.
Recruiting new members with different skills lets you add facilities to your base, and as you, for example, rack up zombie executions or pull off successful stealth moves, your characters' skills improve with repetition, allowing you to upgrade them and shape their progression.
Enemies and weapons
Once you've established a bridgehead, interpersonal relationships come into play. You can swap between your characters – a frequent necessity since when they become exhausted, their stamina drops drastically, and you must send them off to bed – and if you don't maintain their morale, they will leave the group. Sometimes, they prove such a pain that you have to send them packing: always a wrench, since you soon develop a startling affection for them.
As you grow in strength and start to develop your aura of leadership, State of Decay 2 ramps up accordingly, throwing more and deadlier zombies at you, along with increasingly tricky infestations and rescue missions.
The zombies themselves are nicely judged: screamers must be dealt with quickly, or else they become magnets for other zombies in the vicinity, and you discover plague hearts – best destroyed with fire or explosives – around which whole communities of plague zombies coalesce. Bloaters, meanwhile, must be taken out from afar, otherwise they cause havoc.
The melee engine is particularly satisfying – big machetes, for example, let you perform some spectacular dismemberment. There's some great weaponry to be found, but ammo is always at a premium, and gunshots attract zombies like catnip (although you learn how to craft silencers, which cause guns to wear out quicker, quite early on).
If you ignore appeals from other bands of survivors, you run the risk of them becoming hostile if you encounter them in the future, and once you've more or less cleared a particular area, it's time to move onto another one, slowly creating a sense that you're leading the fightback by survivors against the zombie hordes and re-establishing a sense of normality.
Believable, but not without its bugs
During the course of your zombie-survival efforts, some surprisingly emotional stories emerge in what feels like an organic manner, even though State of Decay 2 doesn't have any sort of conventional linear narrative. And more than any other zombie game we've ever encountered, it feels thoroughly plausible. Gameplay-wise, it may seem anomalously gentle compared to its peers, but it sucks you deep into its world in an addictive fashion.
It's not without caveats though: its set of interlocking sandbox-style systems do throw up the odd glitch, although we didn't find anything so egregious as to ruin the general experience.
Overall, State of Decay 2's unnamed slice of the US is the most seductive zombie-filled game-world we've ever encountered: not because it looks or feels particularly different to any of the zombie games we've played in the past, but because of the way in which you must approach it.
If you're time-poor, approach it with caution, as it will suck you in for hours at a stretch. It's rather addictive.