Undead Labs is billing their upcoming XBLA release “State of Decay” as a simulation, a perilous trek through the ever-familiar zombie apocalypse with multiple interconnected systems requiring the player to do more than just shoot their way to safety. Survivors will have to gather supplies, form alliances, manage their stamina and health, make sure disease doesn’t wipe out their camp, and take on side missions to level up multiple playable characters. Even after five hours with “State of Decay,” I’m not sure I fully scratched the simulation’s surface, but I’ll do my best to give you my impressions.
I start the game as Marcus, a camper, emerging from the woods alongside my buddy Ed to find that the zombie apocalypse happened during the two weeks I was off the grid. Armed with a stick and some food, we run and dodge the walking dead, swinging away at the ones that get too close until their heads are mush. Sometimes, Ed grabs one, allowing me to finish it off. Other times, they’re stunned, allowing me to crush their heads under my boot. The zombies, with a narrow line of sight and just okay hearing are nonetheless attracted to our movements and begin massing into a larger horde. It’s time to go.
Ed and I quickly make our way to a ranger’s station where we found other survivors. The group’s leader asks us to take a look around, so lacking anything better on our calendar, we do, heading outside to scale a water tower, using LT to view the surrounding area via binoculars.
It’s my first taste of exploration in “State of Decay,” which promises an open world with numerous buildings and structures which can be explored and exploited for supplies. While still atop the water tower, I allowed the cursor to hover over spots with a question mark, allowing me to identify nearby points of interest: a camp, cabins, a shed that might contain supplies. So I climb down and start walking. Every one of those buildings could be entered, the reps from Undead Labs promised—later, I would encounter stores, restaurants, and houses, all open and available to explore (or use as an outpost).
We try to keep low as we visit each of the cabins: pressing and holding B will take Marcus down into a crouch–moving into a bush will make him undetectable from the not-very-smart living dead. Still, there are so many of them around, it’s tough to go fully undetected, so we do have to fight our way into (and out of) several nearby cabins as we stock up, grabbing food and drinks to restore Marcus’ stamina (which he’ll exhaust by running or fighting) and medicine to restore his health (although larger injuries will require rest to fully heal). Marcus and the other playable characters are limited in the number of items and amount of weight they can carry, meaning I had to decide if I wanted to keep the ammo for the gun I didn’t have yet or the extra cup of coffee even though I was at full stamina.
Undead Labs added a twist to searching for supplies by having the very act of conducting a search make noise that could potentially attract zombie attention: hold down Y and Marcus would slowly root around in a cabinet while making the minimum of noise. But if I was in a hurry, I could hold down LB and Y to speed things up, possibly alerting the nearby dead to my presence. Again, it’s interconnected systems like this that make it imperative that I pay attention to my surroundings while listening out for Ed’s nervous jabbering (more than once, he’d warn me that zombies were on the way while I was otherwise distracted).
It’s at about this point that we heard a gunshot–would we go investigate or would we head back to the Ranger’s station?
We follow the gunshots to a ravine where Maya, a soldier out camping whose friends, was under attack by zombies. After we fend off two waves of the undead, she joins my party as a second playable character. I was then able to switch between her and Marcus in order to allow him to rest and regain his max vitality and stamina. In fact, each of the playable characters that you’ll encounter will have their own max level of stamina, health, and max weight they can carry.
Suddenly, an alert pops up: the leader of the group at the ranger’s station is dead. What happened? When we make our way back, it’s clear that someone in their group was infected and you know how that story always plays out. So, if we hadn’t rescued Maya and gone straight back to camp, could we have saved the group? Later experiences with timed events like this lead me to believe that’s the case. Still, we had more pressing issues: a large horde was bearing down on the station.
It’s at this point, I tried to engage in a little base defense: walking over to a window and pressing Y, Maya began boarding them up, providing some temporary defense from the zombies while Marcus and Ed fought off the ones coming in through the door. I used Maya’s rifle to pick off the ones who got too close (given the way the game’s environments are built, melee attacks against zombies at windows are a hit and mostly miss affair), but ultimately, we were able to put them all down after creating a bottleneck through the door.
My sharpshooting earned Maya a level progression with her shooting skills. Leadership, combat, foraging–“State of Decay” has several systems that it’s monitoring at any given time which upgrade as you use them, specific to each playable character you find and control. More characters will become playable as the game goes on and you complete story arcs for NPCs. These playable characters can suffer perma-death as I was to learn later.
I’m going to skip ahead a bit now to my first death–I was dumb. I went on a mission to trade supplies with another survivor armed only with my rifle and no backup weapon. And since Maya had been awake for more than a day, her max stamina level was lower, meaning that sprinting away from zombies would drain what precious little energy she had. My companion and I–a surly animal control agent–had gone too far from our outpost and attracted the attention of an ever-growing horde. I try to fight them off using Maya’s bare hands and kicks, but after a while, she’s too tired to do anything more, and I have to slink away to restore the bar a little. That gives the zombies time to kill my companion. After a few minutes, they’ve got Maya as well.
After a brief fade, I was back at camp, in a new character as radio operator/quest provider Lily was tearfully welcoming him, apologizing for the low morale.
During the preview, I didn’t get to dig into outpost development very much, but I can tell you what Undead Labs has in mind for this mechanic which will be key to survival of your ever-expanding group: besides creating strong barricades, new survivors that can be rescued in the surrounding area may have skills (i.e. cook, medic) that can be applied to facilities that can be constructed at one of several home bases. A kitchen with a seasoned cook can create stamina-sustaining food while also keeping an eye on random cases of tainted ingredients; beds will allow more of your group to sleep, restoring both their stamina and health; an infirmary with a doctor can keep infection and illness in check (although an Undead Labs rep warned that there might be cases where a player would have to separate someone from the group and end their suffering). And that’s not even digging into the relationship management component, completing missions with NPCs or keeping them safe so that you’ve increased your influence and their willingness to help you construct facilities or run errands for the player character.
There might be a level of depth and complexity here that I’ve only had described to me at this point, but I’m definitely intrigued. There’s a level of depth hinted at here that just requires more time. It’s tough to sell “State of Decay” in a few words: the social elements seem very important (although I tended to focus on the combat to the detriment of my playthrough) and there’s definitely a deep layer of strategy to the game which will force you to play it smart and slow. In any event, I look forward to getting in more time with “State of Decay” when it’s released this summer.
“State of Decay” will be available on Xbox LIVE in June. You can check out a gallery of images below:
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