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The premise had so much potential.
Our group was called “Church of the Damned”—an apocalyptic twist on the homespun kind of saying you’d put in tacky lettering on the living room wall, like “home sweet home” or “home is where the Zeds aren’t.” Perhaps it was a little aggressive for the skittish neighbors begging us for medicine, but it was ours, or at least the one the game gave us. Our all-female enclave was ready for the apocalypse, flannel shirts and extra-large backpacks equipped as we scouted residential streets, picked through gas station freezers, and wiped out zombie after zombie.
Through it all, we resolved to overcome any stroke of bad luck, be it dwindling food, plague infections, or a pack of the undead who wandered through our front door. After all, this is a world where we call these creatures zombies, not “walkers,” not “biters,” and most certainly not “creeps.” We knew how to fight, we knew how to scavenge, and we knew how to be smart.
That’s why I wasn’t terribly worried as community co-founder Mandy and I set out to aid a survivor who found himself trapped in a gas station, even in the dead of night. After rescuing him from a swarm of angry undead, it was clear our new buddy would need an escort back home, and we were only too happy to give it. Off we went through the fields like three happy campers. Just a minute later, I checked my map for a quick refresher on which direction to continue, only to realize that we were a couple hundred yards from a hostile human compound. No matter. Press on and trade today’s fight for tomorrow’s war, I thought, until my character muttered something about wishing we didn’t have to resort to killing.
An odd comment to make, I thought, until I scanned my surroundings and realized that dear old Mandy had seen fit to storm the gates of our enemy’s compound without me, succumbing to a classic case of cleaver to the face.
Classic Mandy, and sadly, classic State of Decay 2.
At the center of State of Decay 2 is a brilliant premise and a mostly capable execution. You begin each game with an assortment of survivors, each with their own skill sets and personality traits that impact the game in little, oftentimes unique ways, like a propensity for fist-fighting, medical expertise, or playing frisbee golf. You know, useful stuff. After establishing a base, it’s up to the player (alternating between each community member) to make sure their homestead has enough food, meds, beds, and workforce to go around. Most of these goals are accomplished by setting out into the wild unknown to collect resources, destroy zombie infestations and the ever-present Plague Hearts spreading the undead virus, and aid other stranded humans.
If there’s one thing that State of Decay 2 absolutely nails, it’s that sense of foreboding every adventure in a zombified world must carry. We travel light, we travel fast, and should the worst happen, we still find some way, any way to limp home, even if we lose every other survivor in the process. State of Decay 2 also successfully marries this side of the zombie coin with its usual partner, the humans that inevitably manage to muck things up. It’s often fascinating just how deeply these variables run. After failing to convince a hostile human enclave to return the medicine they’d stolen from another group, the ensuing bloodbath resulted in our strongest warrior, a military woman driven by guilt, to lament our newfound barbarism, while at the same time another member pleaded to give ourselves the advantage by going in guns blazing. Like most other zombie media, these are the interactions you’re destined to lose or at least suffer a bit from. No compounds and no plans are safe from the foibles of human interaction, and at least on a surface level, a player’s fellow survivors will continue to surprise well into a community’s lifespan.
Online co-op can be perfectly fun, too, if you don’t mind only being able to pick through certain containers. It’s worth it to hop into a buddy’s community if only to squirrel away some nicer resources and weapons while you’re free from responsibilities to your own team.
But State of Decay 2 has countless other surprises waiting in its wings, but very few of them are the pleasant or cinematic kind. State of Decay 2 is simply so full of bugs that it would make even Bethesda on a bad day blush, and it routinely puts a damper on its players’ investment, whether it be through architectural glitches, poor A.I. (like in the case of Mandy), or just a failure to load the appropriate materials to finish an objective. In a case very similar to the Mandy failure, I set out to assist an old bandmate of Kilmer, my trusty medic, in order to find some music that might cheer up our community. When we arrived at her location, we had only to dispose of two zombies before the coast looked clear, except the game refused to acknowledge it. We spent the next 10 minutes clearing out buildings across the street, but lo and behold, the game had simply failed to load in the 12 or so zombies the mission intended to feature, and a game reboot was necessary. This (or something like it) happened roughly eight to 10 times over the span of my playthrough.
That all goes without mentioning the floating zombies spawning in mid-air, precious vehicles getting permanently stuck on rocks, and allies disappearing into the ether only to get eaten alive without so much as a cry for help. On one occasion, a recently completed mission failed to save, wiping out an entire hour of gameplay.
For a world that seems to so enthusiastically encourage players to always stay on their toes, it’s supremely frustrating to see a game so often bungle it for you. It felt far more like the game was cheating me out of my investment in certain characters than the idea that it was my poor decisions or genuine bad luck securing our demise. Survival games are always a tough sell, considering that mere nuts-and-bolts survival is often a tedious, demanding task, but State of Decay 2 felt like it could achieve that magic blend of resource management with emergent storytelling, making my zombie apocalypse my own. Instead, we’re left with a button in the menu that offers to unstick you from between a rock and a hard place, but only in exchange for precious leadership points. I don’t ask that you hold my hand, State of Decay 2, just that you don’t mock me for needing assistance in a world you built.
State of Decay 2 is available now for PC and Xbox One if players purchased the “Ultimate Edition.” Standard release is May 22.
Disclosure: This review was written based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Joseph Knoop is a gaming writer for Daily Dot, a native Chicagoan, and a slave to all things Overwatch. He co-founded the college geek culture outlet ByteBSU, then interned at Game Informer, and now writes for a bunch websites his parents have never heard of.