Over the last few years, the genre of survival horror has taken a marked turn towards action horror. Later installments of series like Dead Space and Resident Evil play like Michael Bay blockbusters, and it’s rare to have an actual sense of dread for the monsters that you’re mowing down.
That’s what makes State of Decay, the ambitious new XBLA offering from Undead Labs and Microsoft Game Studios, so refreshing. Play like Rambo, and you are going to get torn apart, and for the first time in a long time, you’ll actually fear the consequence of death.
When you die in most games, you get a game-over message, and the worst consequence is jumping back to a checkpoint and losing some progress. Die in State of Decay, and that character is gone forever, leaving you to carry on as one of your other survivors.
State of Decay is many things, but forgiving is not one of them.
At its core, State of Decay is about surviving. You are dropped into a massive open world where every building can be explored and searched. There are bases that you can construct, other survivors that can join your community and must be taken care of (you can switch control between characters if they are loyal to you), and food and materials to scavenge. On top of all of this, each survivor comes with their own unique traits and abilities, and can be leveled up in areas like melee combat and how much weight they can carry.
If it sounds like a lot to wrap your head around, it is, and orienting yourself to the gameplay can be daunting and a bit frustrating. There is no hand-holding, and while text descriptions pop up as you navigate the pages of your menu, it can take several hours before you’re clear on everything that the game has to offer.
The world that you live in also evolves in real time, so resources are depleted at your base even when the game is off. Adding to the difficulty, the resources and cars in the game are also finite, so if you wreck a car plowing through a crowd of zombies, that car is gone for good. Fortunately you can upgrade your base to repair damaged vehicles and weapons, but it makes you feel like there are real consequences for playing wastefully and recklessly.
In fact, consequences are what sets State of Decay apart from most other zombie-focused action games. Whereas I would normally charge headfirst into battle, the concept of perma-death had me slinking down back allies past zombie hordes praying that I didn’t alert them to my presence. It was maddening to lose a character that I had spent hours leveling up, but that just made the rest of my playthrough all the more tense and satisfying.
State of Decay isn’t perfect by any means. Graphics are constantly popping in and I encountered a myriad of glitches like zombies shifting through walls and cars disappearing as I was driving in them. The sheer magnitude of the game means that it’s rough around the edges, but none of the glitches will keep you from enjoying yourself and getting lost in its vast world.
This game isn’t for everyone. Some players will be turned off by the learning curve, real-time resource depletion and perma-death. But if you’re looking for an unforgiving challenge that you can really sink your teeth into, State of Decay is the game you’ve been waiting for.
State of Decay Xbox Live Arcade Review/ Microsoft Game Studios, Undead Labs, 2013/ UndeadLabs.com
(This game was reviewed with a download code provided by the publisher)
(Cameron Gidari is a freelance writer and the author of Seattle Before8. Follow him on Twitter at @CGidari)