Co-op makes this zombie-sandbox RPG stronger, but at a cost.
State of Decay 2’s open-world battle for survival against a zombie menace is the right kind of post-apocalyptic fun. It creates plenty of high-stakes moments, punctuated by the relative calm of foraging for supplies while always looking over your shoulder. It’s a potent mixture for a while, until the combination of repetitive missions and annoying bugs eventually dulls the joy of squashing heads, even when your co-op entourage rolls deep.
Just like in 2013’s original State of Decay, in State of Decay 2 you can freely switch between randomly generated survivors in your post-apocalyptic community – and you’ll regularly have to, because they can only be pushed so far before their stamina starts to give out. Or worse, you did something stupid and got someone permanently killed, taking their unique traits and whatever leveled-up skills they’ve acquired with them. You’re not able to customize their names or looks at all, which is a shame, because if XCOM has taught us anything it’s that it’s fun to tell your friends and co-workers how you got them killed. But that fear of loss (you can’t reload from an earlier save!) adds some significant weight to the struggle that plays out on one of three open-world rural maps, as you scavenge the region to build a shelter and work to cleanse the land of a disease known as the Blood Plague.
Unlike the original, though, State of Decay 2 can be played in its entirety (after the tutorial) in four-player co-op, which even works cross-platform between PC and Xbox One. The joining parties enter the host’s game and get to bring back all their looted spoils (aside from resources) plus bonus rewards to their own game. It’s a near-universal truth that games like this become more fun when played with friends, and that holds very true in State of Decay 2.
You can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting a zombie.
There’s not much more to the generic post-zombie-apocalypse story than the quest to wipe out the Blood Plague – at least not that I’ve encountered in a single playthrough on one of the three maps, the Plateau – but there’s some background radio chatter that suggests a bigger world of survivors and organizations out there that could someday make an appearance. Everything else is told on a smaller, more personal scale: individual characters will have their own quest lines assigned to them, such as one woman who wanted to track down what happened to a police officer friend of hers in a series of missions, and when you eventually appoint a leader to your group, their randomly determined class appears to influence how your story ends. (Mine was a Warlord, as opposed to Sheriff, Trader, and Builder, which as you can imagine ended with lots of shooting.) But generally it’s a sandbox-style RPG where you’re tackling dynamically appearing quests as people call for help, and you make your own story in the way you deal with them.
While zombies are so omnipresent in the open world that you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting one, they’re spread thin: next to something like Dead Rising 4 or what we’ve seen in those Days Gone trailers, the number of “zeds” you encounter in the open world at any one time is positively quaint. It’s rare to see more than a dozen at once, and the so-called “hordes” that appear on the map are limited to five or six. It’s enough to keep you on your toes, but individual zombies are more a nuisance than a threat.
Fortunately, the moment-to-moment combat against the rank-and-file undead is simple but satisfying. Melee never really evolves beyond button-mashing while keeping an eye on your stamina meter, but you can unlock some specializations that allow you to quickly throw an enemy to the ground and leave it vulnerable to a delightfully gruesome head-popping execution move. And, when you score a critical hit and knock its block off with a single swing of a bat or swipe of a machete (instead of bludgeoning them four or five times first) it’s a tiny moment of power.
When you score a critical hit and knock a zed’s block off with a single swing of a bat it’s a tiny moment of power.
Guns, which include all the expected pistols, shotguns, rifles, SMGs, and grenade launchers, feel good to fire thanks to nice loud sound effects and recoil that make them seem powerful. Ammo is scarce enough that shooting feels like a last resort, but when you skillfully execute headshots (the zombies’ spongy bodies soak up precious bullets) you’re rewarded with a chunky effect and a one-hit kill on anything shy of a hulking Juggernaut.
They’re not quite as fragile as something out of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but weapons do break after use, first turning yellow as a warning and then red for unusable (requiring repair in a workshop), which occasionally left me desperately improvising my way out of bad situations. You’re never entirely defenseless, thanks to an invincible backup knife, but it’s obviously less than ideal for taking on multiple enemies. That unpredictability adds some flavor to the repetitious business of clearing out zombie infestation after zombie infestation.
Driving around is a lot of fun, too, but not because cars handle well. To put it mildly, they do not – but to be fair they’re mostly beat-up vans, trucks, and sedans, with only a few muscle cars and armored vehicles mixed in. But thanks to arcadey physics they’ll always right themselves if you flip them, so you’re free to try some stupid stuff as you’re plowing through zombies and opening your door to whack them as you pass by without damaging the car’s body. It’s unfortunate that your co-op partners can’t lean out the windows and shoot at zombies while you’re at the wheel – their participation is limited to opening their own doors, if they have them.
You don’t want to have the tank run dry just as you spot a horde.
At the same time, you have to be careful: a limited gas supply (and absolutely terrible gas mileage) adds some tension to every excursion – you don’t want to have the tank run dry just as you spot a horde hanging around with a Juggernaut, for instance. Having to keep your cars in good repair adds another layer of tension, and it’s a challenge to have to work your way out of a predicament by scrounging around for a gas can or repair kit. Also, trying to hoof it home when you’re injured and low on stamina is a big pain, especially at night.
As you use your characters, they’ll develop their skills: running a lot will build up their endurance, fighting will unlock stat boosts and upgrades to melee and shooting, and a variety of other skills like gardening, chemistry, and computers will give you access to an upgrade tree of mutually exclusive character development choices that can lead to new crafting or support ability options. These can really add up to make a character into a killing machine when they’re maxed out, so it’s worth making sure you play as a variety of characters to level them all up. Of course, this also raises the stakes of holding onto characters, as all their stats go down with them if they die.
One of the first things you do in State of Decay 2 is establish a home base – first in an abandoned home but later in a larger, more interesting location like a strip mall or theme park.
The board game-style management was never all that fun.
The board game-style management, in which you choose which buildings to place in a set number of slots, was never all that fun for me because it doesn’t leave a lot of room to experiment. Even the largest bases I was able to find had only a few slots to build on, and most of those were taken up by essentials like beds for your people. (You could go without those, sure, but then you’ll spend all your time dealing with morale levels in the toilet or insufficient manpower.) After placing those and maybe a farm to reduce the amount of food you have to constantly forage for, you’re left with space to build only one or two crafting buildings at a time. Tearing down an arsenal to build an auto shop or an infirmary to build a workshop takes way too long to be worth messing with, since construction can take upwards of 30 real-time minutes.
And even though your base is constantly under threat of zombie attack (based on how much noise your various activities are making), there’s no option to customize your defenses beyond taking up precious slots to build guard posts. Not that you need to – my base was attacked countless times and I never suffered any ill effects, whether I was there to help fend them off or not. As long as you keep your people stocked with ammo and have a handful of them there, there’s no threat as far as I could tell, which made that whole system feel meaningless.
Scavenging for resources to keep your community running is refreshing, though, because you can just look at a building and have a pretty good idea what you’ll find there. Food is found in restaurants and stores, fuel is in gas stations, construction supplies at construction sites, etc. It seems simple, but so few games get this right (and what series is guiltier than Fallout of putting food in toilets and ammo in a baby stroller?). And the option to speed up looting at the risk of attracting – or rather spawning – nearby zombies is a constant temptation, since the default looting speed is painfully slow.
At the same time, a lot of the inventory management is clunky. There are lots of examples of this, from having to switch to controlling your AI-controlled follower to manage their slots (but being unable to do that during story missions because switching away from that particular story’s character aborts the mission) to having to unload resource bags from a car’s trunk one at a time, requiring up to eight trips from your parking spot to the drop-off point in your base. Why can’t I just unload the whole thing if I park in one of the base’s designated spots? It’s a maddening waste of time.
They sound nasty, but in practice, Plague zombies are negligibly more threatening.
Aside from the ability to play the entire thing in co-op, the biggest new idea in State of Decay 2 is the Plague zombies: red-eyed versions of the same yellow-eyed zeds who are slightly more aggressive and gradually infect you with a lethal disease with every hit. They sound nasty, but in practice, Plague zombies are negligibly more threatening than their yellow-eyed brethren. You unlock the cure as part of the tutorial, and the ingredients to make it are so plentiful (dropped by Plague zombies) that I didn’t fear the disease at all and rarely actually contracted it to begin with.
The one place where Plague zombies made me reassess my tactics was when tackling Plague Hearts, the destruction of which is the main objective of the campaign. These big pulsing globs of goo spawn in buildings all around the map, easily detectable by watching for a red fog around them or spending resources to have them pointed out to you, and you have to go in and hit them until they melt into pulsing puddles of goo while you fend off endless hordes of Plague zombies. But once you figure out how to deal with them – by which I mean taking the frequently given hint to spam explosives at them – they become routine, and because the defenders all die instantly when you destroy the Heart you don’t even need an escape plan. So these encounters, too, become repetitive quickly.
Four types of special zombies add some much-needed variety to the meat-grinder churn. The first time a speedy Feral zombie chased my car like a dog who knew exactly what he was going to do when he caught it was harrowing. The first encounter with a Juggernaut ended in victory, but not before he picked up my follower and tore her in half. Gas-filled Bloaters are easy targets, but they’ll sometimes lie down on roads and in fields waiting for you to drive over them, which is a dirty trick at night especially. And the Screamers do an amazing Keith Richards impersonation that draws in reinforcements, making them an obvious priority target in any group they’re found in. If anything, these guys are too rare: I only encountered more than one type at a time on a few occasions, but those were some of the best fights I had in State of Decay 2.
To be very clear: State of Decay 2 bugs out early and bugs out often.
And then there’s the deadliest game: rival humans. Most of them will start out friendly and open to trade, though they soon become needy and ask for donations of resources. If you play nice you can bribe them into peace and cooperation, and they’ll give you stat bonuses in return – but if you decide feeding your own people is more important you’ll have a fight on your hands. Dealing with enemies that are far faster than most zombies (way too fast for humans, honestly) and able to attack from a distance is a tougher challenge than I was used to, and one of the first groups of hostiles I encountered killed off both my follower and my favorite character by dodging and weaving so quickly I couldn’t line up a headshot. Later I learned to use distraction gadgets and smoke grenades to catch them off guard – or just brought along heavier firepower when I knew I was going up against live enemies.
I’ve mentioned a few bugs so far, but to be very clear, State of Decay 2 bugs out early and bugs out often. The most persistent and annoying bug is when, playing in both single-player and multiplayer as the host, my AI follower would vanish; their icon would still be visible on the minimap, but they were not present (not just invisible) in the world to watch my back. Worse, since they were still technically following me I couldn’t recruit another follower until I exited out and reloaded my game. There are plenty more: an NPC asked me to blow up a Plague Heart for him that I’d already blown up, rendering the quest broken. Another quest asked me to find evidence of what happened to a group of survivors when one of the group was standing right in front of me. Some occasional weird zombie behavior had a group of four Screamers doing a conga line (convenient for running them down).
In co-op, the bugs magnified and got worse the longer we played. Rubberbanding and hitching were common, even playing on the same local network. Frame rate issues were frequent even with both players on Xbox One X. Passengers couldn’t open the door of a car to smack zombies as we passed. For one person, trying to throw a grenade basically just pulled the pin and dropped it at his own feet. Sometimes we’d try to walk through what appeared to be an open door, only to hit an invisible wall and have to push the button to open a door that wasn’t there. Basically, State of Decay 2 never goes very long without doing something to remind you that it’s a buggy game. Between all of that and some pretty nasty rubber-banding, lag, and quirks, be prepared to leave, restart, and rejoin a game often.