Every zombie outbreak has an origins story. You may not know what it is, but whoever wrote that novel/script/game had one in mind when they first put pen to paper. There's a wealth of different scenarios out there, ranging from Resident Evil's T-Virus through to the returning space probe that sparked the Night of the Living Dead. When we asked Undead Labs' Richard Foge what started the outbreak in State of Decay and its sequel, the game's design director joked and then changed the subject. "We don't talk about that," he told us with a hearty laugh, "it's a well-kept secret." There are clues hidden around this zombie-infested world, but if it's answers you seek then you're going to have to piece things together and come to your own conclusions.
Indeed, self-determination is at the heart of State of Decay 2, and thanks to what looks like a deep and detailed world filled with overlapping gameplay systems, your experience is going to be unique within the sphere of this third-person undead adventure. Your game is going to be nothing like ours and vice versa. Multiple systems are layered on top of one other, existing together in an emergent sandbox that seems capable of facilitating a player-driven narrative that offers rewards to match your personal investment in the wider world and the characters you meet along the way.
There's an element of calculated risk at play here though, as these systems don't always talk the same language, which can lead to unreliable results. For instance, the placement of the zombies in the world has nothing to do with the people you meet nor the quests you complete for them. The setup leads to an unpredictability that we can definitely get on board with. Undead Labs wants players to have unique experiences, so when they compare their individual stories they'll be different, defined by actions and not authored story beats.
"You're not going to have those moments," Foge said of the absence of story-driven cutscenes. "You're going to have different moments where [you] developed an attachment to a survivor because something about them drew you into them. And then maybe the personal missions they wanted to go on also struck home, maybe they saved the life of another survivor. These individual moments accumulate during your relationship with these survivors, and then if you were to lose them the emotional impact that comes from that isn't because we have a well-crafted cutscene and perfect music timed to it, it's because you actually had agency, control. The fact that they died ultimately boils up to choices that you made."
Our save point dropped us into a pre-made community with about six or seven hours of time invested in it. From our base of operations, we were managing our people, searching for resources, and always preparing for the worst. You can swap between characters at will, and some of the survivors in our group had missions for us (and as we went about our business they filled our ears with context via constant chatter over the airways). There seemed like plenty to do, although it feels like we only really scratched the surface of what's going to be on offer when the game launches.
The map we initially played on was quite chunky, full of twisting roads and the remnants of rural America, and it was one of three areas that we were told will be in the full game. There's a lot going on and you'll need to forage for supplies to keep the wolf from the proverbial door. This involves heading out into the world and ransacking abandoned buildings and dealing with the NPCs you meet. There seemed to be a healthy number of missions on offer, although they weren't always intuitive to navigate, and we didn't see enough to judge the overall variety on offer.