Grizzly Gaming

Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Survive the zombie apocalypse in "State of Decay"

As “State of Decay” opens, friends Marcus and Ed return from a wilderness vacation to discover that the world has changed drastically. After fending off attacks from violent crazies, the two friends find a ranger station and discover that the attacks were not an isolated incident – that a strange disease has turned most of the population into mindless monsters that feed on human flesh. Not knowing what else to do, Marcus and Ed quickly begin doing the only thing they can do – survive.

“State of Decay,” an Xbox 360 Arcade title and the first offering from Undead Labs, is a relatively ambitious game. Where most zombie games treat the apocalypse as an excuse for gun-blazing action, “SOD” treats the experience in a much more realistic manner. Rather than making zombie slaying the main focus of the game, “SOD” tasks players with growing your group of survivors and doing your best to survive the end of the world. Don’t worry, zombie killing is a big part of survival in Trumbull Valley.

There isn’t much exposition in “SOD,” you’re given control of Marcus as soon as the game opens and your time at the lake/ranger station area is a tutorial of sorts where you learn the basics of surviving the zombie apocalypse. After talking with a few survivors who have holed up in the ranger station, you’re tasked with exploring the area for any supplies that might be of use. Medical supplies are in short supply but anything from hand-held weapons to alarm clocks and firecrackers have their uses in “SOD.”

While out exploring, you’re introduced to the game’s control scheme and combat system. The A button jumps, a B button press initiates a quick dodge move while holding B engages your ability to sneak, while X handles melee attacks and Y interacts with the environment and other survivors. Firearms can be used with the triggers while items are utilized by selecting them with the D-Pad and used with the Right Bumper.

Though melee combat only has one dedicated button, there are a number of different moves and actions that can be called upon while fending off zombies. The X button will perform a simple attack with your current melee weapon but holding the Left Bumper and hitting X will perform a powerful, overhead smash. The Y button also has a few uses in combat. A single press of Y will perform a kick, which has a chance of doubling a zombie over while holding LB and hitting Y will perform a push to give your character space from encroaching zombies. And since destroying a zombie’s brain is the only way to put one of the monsters down for good, “SOD” lets you perform a few different execution moves. By hitting LB and Y when a zombie is lying prone on the ground, or if it is doubled over on its knees, you will perform a slick killing move. Zombies are tougher than they look, so you’ll need to experiment with different combinations of moves and types of weapons to find what works best.

Firing weapons in the open is a great way to attract a huge horde of zombies.
However, getting into a fight with every zombie in sight is never the best option. Often there are many more zombies in the area than you will initially see and engaging in brawls out in the open will often result in you being swarmed. Often, sneaking is a much more sensible option than fighting. In “SOD,” you also need to take into consideration how much noise you’re making. Zombies are mostly attracted by noise and given that driving cars and busting through locked doors with generate more noise than sneaking, it is up to you whether you’re constantly fighting off hordes of zombies or slipping in and out of buildings silently.

Sneaking is especially useful if you’re low on stamina. In “SOD,” stamina governs your fighting abilities as well as your ability to sprint. Characters don’t have a great deal of stamina which is why retreating and sneaking are often preferable to fighting. Stamina limits also tie into another unique aspect of “SOD,” your ability to utilize numerous, different playable characters. After using one character for too long, they will become winded and their overall pool of stamina will lower as well as making simple actions like fighting and sprinting cost more stamina to perform.

Though you start the game with Marcus and Ed, you eventually discover more survivors along your journeys, some of whom can be added to your pool of playable characters. Each character has certain stats like cardio and fighting but will also have a few intangible traits. Marcus is a born leader and a natural athlete, meaning that survivor morale will be higher when Marcus is at your home base and he also levels up stats like fighting and cardio quicker. Ed, on the other hand, starts with almost no useful stats, apart from “loving Idol” and having extensive knowledge of “reality TV show trivia.” This info can be viewed, along recent events and information about your group/home base, in your journal, accessed through the D-Pad. Character stats level up with experience, though it’s done internally – there are no skill points or trees to customize.

Zombies are tenacious in "State of Decay," even hanging onto fleeing vehicles.
One of the more interesting aspects of “SOD” is tied into the idea of long-term survival in the zombie apocalypse. Though your group of survivors is small to start, you’ll need a home base to operate out of, to store resources as well as a place to eat and sleep. The first base is established for you – a church with adequate walls for protection as well as some open area to expand your facilities. New areas, like medical tents or workshops, can be constructed with the proper materials, which can be obtained by scavenging your surrounding areas. The Trumbull Valley isn’t a bustling metropolis but there are plenty of inhabited areas to find useful materials. The itesm you find on the road can either be used by a single player, and added to your backpack/inventory, or they could be a stockpile of items that needs to be loaded into a rucksack and returned to your home base. These items can be hauled by your current character but you also have the option of radioing home for a scavenger to come out and collect items that you can’t or don’t want to carry.

The most interesting aspect of scavenging and surviving in “SOD” is that your resources are not infinite. Yes, you can create gardens and medical bays in your home base to offset some of your group’s needs, but much of your stock will come from scavenging. Eventually, you will need to explore further and further from your home base to find new resources and before long, you’re faced with the decision of staying put or moving your group to a new home base location.

What’s great about “SOD” is that these types of game-changing decisions are completely up to the player. Often you’re keyed into available missions, like rescuing trapped group-mates or helping new survivors gather supplies, and occasionally you’re given missions that are essentially story missions, though no mission is ever given more credence than another and there isn’t much of a penalty for missing out on missions, except for lower group morale and the occasional survivor death. You’re never at a loss for missions to play in “SOD” but you’re given plenty of leeway as to when to tackle them.

After playing “SOD” enough, you’ll realize that this “never stop” attitude extends from its mission structure to the mechanics of the game world itself. It seems, in the interest of creating an immersive experience, the world continues to turn in “SOD” even if you aren’t playing it. Survivors will make decision and stockpiles will be adjusted accordingly on a daily basis – whether you’ve played or not. Sometimes, survivors who go out on their own will need rescuing and if you don’t respond quickly enough, they can die. It encourages you to keep playing, or to at least keep tabs on your group, though some might find it a bit annoying that decisions will be made without their input.

“SOD” plays a bit slower than an action-adventure game or other open-world, sandbox games but there is a reason for this. “SOD” is meant to be played at a more deliberate pace, allowing you to be methodical about your survival. The relatively quiet atmosphere of the game draws you in and lulls you, making the frequent, sudden zombie attacks even more startling. 

Home bases can be outfitted with gardens and other facilities to prolong your group's survival.
 Though the graphics are fairly sharp for an Arcade title, they look a bit dated, but this can be attributed to the sheer size of the map and the amount of option afforded to players. Often times, especially in the early moments of your current play session, the frame rate can drop and the action can get a little choppy. This is also apparent during times with many characters on screen. “SOD” also suffers from occasional graphical pop-ups. Mostly noticeable when driving quickly down a road, signs, cars and even zombies will sometimes just appear in front of you. These technical hiccups are a little too frequent but never go beyond an annoyance, as the overall mood and spirit of “SOD” will draw you in so deeply, you’ll rarely notice these glitches.

But the most amazing part of “SOD?” It’s only $20. Undead Labs could have easily charged more than that – even put it out at full, retail price – and they would’ve still sold a healthy number of games. But considering the positive reviews, strong word of mouth on the game and its overall high level of quality, it’s no surprise that as of June 9, just a few days after its release, “SOD” had already sold well over a quarter of a millions copies. The only game to sell that well at its release was Minecraft which could be attributed to its popularity as a PC title before its Xbox 360 Arcade release. “SOD” is the first game from Undead Labs, meaning that positive reviews but, more likely, word of mouth helped put “SOD” into the upper echelon of Arcade titles.

Undead Labs teased a possible sequel to “SOD,” if it sold well enough. A sequel that could possibly be not just an open-world, open-ended zombie survival game, but one that also features elements of cooperative play as well as being set in a massively multiplayer, persistent online world. And considering how well “SOD” is selling and the strength of its reviews from professionals as well as the average gamer, a sequel seems like a no-brainer. Was that a zombie pun?


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An avid gamer and long-time pro wrestling fan, stay tuned to Grizzly Gaming and the Delco Elbow Drop for game reviews and pro wrestling news.

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