Over my undead body...
We bolted for the van as fast as we could as an angry mob of the undead began to close in. We were low on ammo, one of us infected, and we needed to get back to home base to administer the plague virus cure. We were low on fuel as well but had at least enough to get back home. The road ahead was filled with zombies, but the hood of our beat up passenger van still had plenty of durability left to polish off a few undead as they became paste on the front end of our vehicle. To save time, and fuel, we decided to cut through a farmer's field. It was then that we hit something in the grass, a virus ridden zombie called a bloater that exploded into a green mist of toxic infection. I lept from the vehicle to safety, but my companion wasn't so lucky; her jacket had got stuck in the door. She screamed in fear, victim to the toxic mist, and then she went silent.
As I got back to my feet after diving away from the car, I called out her name. Nothing. I called it out again. Still nothing, I slowly walked around the van and heard a crackling hiss. This sound came from my companion as she got to her feet. She was no longer human. She ran at me and I dodged to the left and swung out with my knife. I cut into her side. In all the excitement I hadn't noticed that two more zombies made their way into our fight. I backed up and threw out a Molotov, setting the trio of zombies on fire. Yet, out of the flames, she lept at me. I swung again, this time my knife found purchase into the base of her skull. The blade snapped off and she dropped to the ground. I had to kill my friend, there was no other choice. It was kill or be killed. I chose the former.
Microsoft has had an uphill battle in the past year of delivering on first party exclusives to their Xbox One console. Now, while these games are also set to appear on the PC, you have to realize that Microsoft also has a foothold in the PC gaming space as well. That being said, their previous effort, Sea of Thieves, launched with a very mixed reception, despite creating a small but loyal fan base. While it certainly doesn't reinvent the genre, State of Decay 2, their latest Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive, can be an enjoyable zombie-filled time, until its survival aspects start to drag it down.
What Undead Labs has created here is a zombie-based survival game, plain and simple. It requires that you build a sustainable community by ensuring that not only do you have the supplies to keep everyone alive but that you keep the community happy and content. If a member of your community is injured or infected by the plague virus, you will be required to seek out the items needed to cure them or see them become one of the undead themselves. This will, of course, have your communities morale take a nose dive, especially if you keep people sick for too long or should they suffer a grisly fate. Those that love to manage their communities may find some real depth here in keeping people happy and healthy, but for those that simply want to hack off zombie heads and explore around the countryside may find the community management to become more of a burden than anything resembling fun.
Where State of Decay 2 strongly differs from its predecessor is in its implementation of online co-op, a feature that was sorely left out last time. While co-op can certainly limit the grind by having another player join alongside you in your world, they don't save any progress other than the loot they gather. It's a shame that your co-op partner couldn't create a home base in your game to then continue off from when they went back to theirs. It is co-op like this that can limit the fun of the joined players as their progress feels cheapened and hollow in many ways.
State of Decay 2 features a very repetitive gameplay loop across different aspects of mission design. You have your core story missions that are usually character specific and these are either target missions for Plague Hearts or fetch quests. You will also find numerous survivors all across the map and these missions will also offer similar objectives or timed missions that see you protecting that person or group while they scavenge for supplies. Some of these encounters will result in the possibility of recruiting them to your base but you also have to take in mind your supplies consumption and whether bringing in yet another survivor is possible without straining your own resources. Apart from helping out your allies or new potential ones, you are ransacking houses and abandoned businesses for some much-needed resources.
The most potent of supplies are orange rucksacks and you can only hold one at a time. Thankfully, you can store these in vehicles and should they allow for four, five or six slots, then you can fill the vehicle to its max with nothing but them. I did find it frustrating that you can't order your AI companion to grab one and have to instead swap to that character to pick it up, however; should you be on a story mission, the game will warn you that swapping to another character will fail the mission, even if that person is three feet from you. Despite that fumble, the delivery system is convenient as you can park close to your base in one of the allocated stalls and transfer them all over from the back of the vehicle instead of having to take them in one by one. This allowed me to drive up, unload my spoils and then head right back out. As you explore for those rucksacks or other materials that you'll be in need of, you will have to be quiet while opening containers unless you want the nearby zombie population to know you are there. You can search at a slower but quieter pace, or speed up the search with the possibility of it making a fairly loud noise. It is a risk/reward system that simply is based around your patience of how slow the default search is and if you are cool with it.
As you acquire new survivors, complete quests, or even just paint the side of your car with some fresh zombie paint, you will earn "Influence". This is used to add additional safe zones around the map and should you save up enough, entirely new bases. Bases are where your survivors will remain while you are out gathering more supplies. Despite the comfort the base provides, they are anything but safe. I've had massive hordes flood my community and even a few people die during these raids. Bases are also where you will restock, heal, and rest your weary survivors. Communities will need various outlets such as gardens, beds, clinics, workshops, and kitchens to not only boost morale but just simply to survive. These require either outdoor or indoor slots of varying sizes. Each base you find around the map will contain a certain allotment of slots of the various sizes needed to create a functioning base, so taking in consideration the slot sizes and amounts of them will dictate how effective that base will be to your playstyle. In the two maps that I explored during my time with the game, I was disappointed that the house in both of my starter bases was the exact same structure. In fact, this game tends to copy and paste buildings at an alarming rate.
State of Decay 2, much like its predecessor, is a survival game, so you will need to watch your various meters and supplies in order to keep your community alive. You have things like food, water, medicine, and morale to look after, but also that of materials and storage space as well. If your storage is full, you will hear about how one of your survivors kicked over a few gasoline cans and lost some fuel or that the lack of food caused low morale which then led to a fight between those in the camp. Keeping on top of these meters, especially that of the group's morale is crucial to the success of the game, and your survival. If morale drops to its lowest levels, you can see many from your community abandon you entirely.
While State of Decay 2 features quite a bit of dialogue between you and your fellow survivors, the main narrative of the game is creating your own scenario's you find yourself in or the back stories you create for your characters. Yes, there are story missions that create some sort of goal for your community, as well as radio broadcasts that attempt to paint a certain picture, but you won't find an actual narrative here. You do have some assistance in those back stories, however; as you'll pick from a duo of survivors during the tutorial that know each other in some form or another. I picked a set of women whose relationship had seen some highs and lows, and while they did eventually reconcile, it was only a matter of days before one of them had to take that bloody axe and severe the other's head from their zombie body.
While I never did get too attached to many of my survivors, I was always sad to see one die, and many did during the countless hours I spent traveling all over the map as I scavenged for food, medical supplies, or more fuel for my battered old car. One new addition, and something that claimed many of my characters lives was through the Plague Hearts and their respective Zombies. These red pulsating sacks of zombie goodness are found all over your map, and one of your first goals is to cleanse the location of each and every one of them. These nests, when threatened, will summon forth hordes of Plague Zombies, and if you take too much damage from these new enemy types, you will succumb to the virus and join the zombie cause. As you kill Plague Zombies, those with bright red eyes, they will drop samples of their DNA. These samples are used to create a cure, but you will have to create this antidote at your base before a timer runs out. Take too much damage while infected and the timer shrinks, drastically.
Whereas the original State of Decay only featured one map to explore, Undead Labs has offered up three distinct locations and you'll choose which one to explore after a brief training tutorial. It is also here where you will meet a few survivors to start your community with. To make it a bit easier to traverse these large open worlds, you will have access to several vehicles which can be refueled as well as repaired, should you have the resources to do so. I did find the vehicles to be very fragile and the fuel to almost evaporate from the tank even during minimal use. My biggest gripe comes from the inability to reset the vehicle should you get it stuck on a fence or guardrail and while there are ways to glitch it out in co-op, it doesn't work consistently to be a viable option. To make matters worse, it will actually remain there during your entire time with the game, as a reminder of your failure.
State of Decay 2 is built around permadeath, and it is entirely possible for your initial few characters to be long dead by the time you've done everything there is to do. You will swap to each member of your community, equipping them with backpacks, rifles, melee weapons and various healing items to keep them alive. As you spend more time with certain characters your actions will boost their skills. Dealing out multiple headshots will boost your shooting skill while running will attribute towards your cardio. Once you master a skill you'll have the option to convert your survivor into a specialist. This advancement has you choose between two new skills that can often come with much needed special attacks or the ability to heal faster or use less stamina. Losing a character you've built up can certainly sting, but the game offers so many new faces to add to your community that you are rarely ever without another survivor to rely on.
As was the case with the original State of Decay, combat and the basic controls feel a bit clunky, and whether that is the signature gameplay that Undead Labs is going for, it just doesn't make for a solid experience. Shooting is decent, melee attacks are alright, but attempting to engage in combat encounters inside a small building like a house or a shop can often be met with a camera that doesn't know where it wants to be placed. This is made even worse during the floods of Plague Zombies when you are attempting to take out a Plague Heart in a small confined location. I eventually got a handle on the combat and figured out better ways to take out the nests, but I lost many survivors before I figured a lot of it out.
There are a few other problems with the game that tend to continue the clunky feel that could have used a bit more work. By having your interact button affect both containers and people, it is very easy to select your companion next to you instead of the container you are attempting to search. Should your companion sit in the passenger seat on the driver's side, they will knock your main character back each time you get out of the car with their door. The various menu screens can be very unresponsive and I've had moments where I will load up the building menu for creating stations in my base and it will just start selecting things on its own, wasting my resources. Building those stations while your character is present in the open slot will see them bounced around as the station starts to build. There are many of these little moments where a severe lack of polish is noticeable.
The visuals of State of Decay 2 is where the title rarely ever impresses as it's hard not to see something here that resembles games of the last generation. While the title does offer far more detail, color, and variety than its predecessor, it is still not a great looking game. Locations are fairly generic and lack any real personality. Undead Labs does a good job at making the three maps look different, but the buildings and structures can't help but feel lazy in their placement and copy and paste nature.
Taking in the combat and exploration of what State of Decay 2 offers, especially with a group of friends, is where the game excels and can be extremely satisfying. Having people put into positions of shooting incoming hordes of zombies from the roof while you attempt to carve up a Plague Heart with your axe is a nail-biting scenario. Where the game suffers, however; is in its poorly implemented survival system that can demand far too much from you in ratio to the freedom of leaving the base and heading out to explore. I understand that this is what is expected of the survival genre, but it often felt far more like babysitting than life-or-death survival.
Should you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass and are unsure about the title, you can download it as part of your membership and take it for a spin at no extra cost. All future Microsoft Studio games will be part of Xbox Game Pass, so there is never any harm in downloading it and checking it out for yourself.