There’s no shortage of zombie video games. But until 2013’s State of Decay, most portrayed only one aspect of what it might be like to try to live through an undead invasion. The best of the genre, like Valve’s popular Left 4 Dead series and Capcom’s Dead Rising, focused on the gory thrills of mowing down tidal waves of moaning creatures en masse. Naughty Dog’s similarly excellent The Last of Us and Telltale Games’ show-eclipsing The Walking Dead centered on the human drama of a world forever changed by disease and destruction.
State of Decay, though, took a more holistic approach. In it, audiences fostered groups of survivors through a simulation of life after the outbreak, making bloody combat and personal tragedy just two elements of its wide-ranging simulation. Rather than feature complicated monster-killing or a compelling, authored storyline, players were tasked with guiding a group of survivors as they gathered and rationed supplies, maintained their shelter, and tried to keep body and soul together in a world overrun by an omnipresent, brain-munching threat.
Recently released follow-up State of Decay 2 isn’t a drastic departure from what came before. Like the first game, fighting off zombies is simple (smack them around with weapons or shoot them with limited bullets), and there’s no overarching story other than “help some thinly sketched characters survive for as long as possible.” The setting — a blandly pretty, Rocky Mountain-esque landscape dotted with rundown strip malls, dilapidated suburbs, and overturned gas stations — does little to make it stand apart. As in the past, though, its generalized, jack of all trades approach to the post-apocalypse is stronger than the sum of its simplistic parts.
Balancing the various needs of the survivors — keeping them supplied with food, medicine, and ammunition while ensuring their morale is high enough that they don’t tear each other apart — is a game of constant give and take. Spend time scavenging life-saving supplies and their home base can be upgraded to better protect them, but neglect cutting back the always-growing zombie infestations nearby to do so and the survivors will get antsy, starting fights with each other and causing accidents that lead to the loss of provisions.
True to what we imagine a zombie apocalypse would be like, even the most successful days bring only minor, incremental wins to the group. Not every problem can be solved all at once, and progress is measured only in slowly accumulating better weapons, reliable sources for supplies, and keeping the base in relatively stable order.
This dismal, balancing-act version of the zombie game was what made the original State of Decay stand out against genre mates more concerned with instilling a feeling of power in its players than a sense that they were truly struggling to make do in a hostile world. The sequel, while keeping most of the management systems from the first game, adds a few new elements to the mix. It looks much better, of course, and little tweaks to the formula (like a clearer explanation of its many base-building and character-management systems) help make it more approachable. But it’s the addition of online multiplayer that makes the biggest difference.
In State of Decay 2, players can join together to help each other by hopping into one another’s games, running around the world as a team. This, more than anything else, helps break up the monotony of an experience so fully centered on replicating the everyday grind of survival. Though currently prone to annoying glitches that make successful connections a bit of a crapshoot, bringing real people into the game adds a great deal to the often numbing work of exploring and scavenging familiar locations again and again — when it works.
Otherwise, the game doesn’t go far enough to truly advance the design framework laid out by its predecessor. Still missing are the kind of meaningful interpersonal relationships that make up a key part of any good zombie fiction. State of Decay 2’s characters have randomly assigned personality traits and skills, but none of this ever seems to matter much. (Most of the conflict comes from a character’s morale dropping due to nearby zombie infestations rather than, say, their gung-ho approach to problem-solving clashing with a more pragmatic fellow survivor.)
Similarly, the other groups of survivors who populate the world simply nag the player for her attention — assist them with missions, trade supplies, or help out in other ways when asked, or they’ll become aggressive — rather than behaving like believable, competing characters. Real diplomacy, within the player’s home base or when dealing with other groups of survivors, is never required. When so much time is spent balancing the risk-reward of material issues, the characters’ relative simplicity is hard to ignore.
If these elements were slightly more complex, the sequel might have felt like a fuller realization of the first game’s comprehensive scope. As it is, State of Decay 2, while improved in small ways and more enjoyable as a whole, is only another incremental step closer to the all-encompassing zombie invasion simulator the series has the potential to become.