The end is nigh, and so Microsoft invited us to take one last look at the coming apocalypse.
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.
Of course you can play solo, swapping between the survivors in your group, however, Undead Labs has clearly built this with co-op play in mind. The setup is ostensibly very simple: you invite a friend or three into your game, and they leave their world and join yours. The resources and experience will go back with them to their game, although their actions will only echo out in the world of the host player. Whether inviting friends or firing up a flare for a random player to respond to, the setup seems well planned, but unfortunately we didn't get to see the system working perfectly at the preview event; getting into someone's world wasn't always seamless, players crashed out of games, and we saw a few glitches. The co-op aspect is great in theory but based on what we saw there's work to be done if State of Decay 2 is going to be polished and fully functional at launch.
In fact, that roughness permeates the whole experience to a certain extent, although most of the issues we experienced where admittedly minor bugs that are hopefully going to get fixed ahead of launch (and, as is the way of things these days, in the weeks thereafter). Compared to its predecessor, however, it did feel like a more cohesive experience this time around, and forgetting about the leap in visual fidelity for a second (it looks pretty sharp in 4K), the controls themselves felt crisper and more intuitive here, with smoother animations to match.
Another improvement looks to be the world design, which seems bigger and more detailed this time around. This familiar-looking setting has been ravaged, certainly, but it hasn't been destroyed. Instead, we're looking at what it looks like two years after the outbreak when both nature and the new status quo have had a chance to tighten their grip on all aspects of the environment.
"Most apocalyptic games like to go really far [and] everything is scaffolding and razor wire," art director Doug Willams told us. "It felt like that probably wouldn't be exactly how that would happen. So we're trying to make something that felt a little more natural. So there are things like a house that's burned down, there's trash in the street, stuff like that. You would see that, but it's not like the entire town would be obliterated [...] There are moments when you're like 'oh, this is a nice, beautiful place.' And then you get tackled by a feral and your head gets ripped off."
When you're not managing your community and enhancing your base, you'll be exploring the landscape around you, searching for the essential supplies needed to survive (medicine was much in demand, and in one mission we even fell out with some NPCs from a different faction over a sack of drugs). If you're behind the wheel of a vehicle you'll be scything through shufflers as they amble down the road, although panic can quickly set in when a number of them start clambering on the roof and doors and on more than one occasion we found ourselves swerving wildly, trying to scrape attacking enemies off of the car and onto the environment while driving at high speed, sometimes through the oppressive darkness of night. If you run out of fuel, drive through certain toxic enemies, or stack your car into a wall and cause irreparable damage you'll have to continue on foot, which is altogether more dangerous.
While there's safety in numbers and you can more easily brute force your way through packs of the undead if you've got co-op allies, stealth is a solid tactic when you're out on foot and playing solo. It's easy to get overwhelmed and you'll need to pace yourself as you've got limited attacks (dictated by your stamina, which also depletes if you're over-tired and/or badly injured), and some of the more advanced zombie types are deadly if you find yourself isolated. Further cranking up the tension is perma-death; if you lose a character to the horde they're gone for good, so it's important to manage your health and stamina with care, and that's across multiple characters. The combat animations are decent for the most part, and some of the takedowns were suitably brutal and bloody. This isn't a cartoony world, and the blood plague zombies and their piercing eyes are particularly menacing.
The key to a game like this, one that demands a significant investment of time, is variety. In terms of mission structure, character development, and world design there seems to be a lot going on, but how different it's all going to be remains to be seen. However, for all the variation on offer, one thing we did start seeing during our relatively short time with the game was a lot of the same zombies milling around the streets - a 25 stone man wearing what looks like a nappy is kinda hard to forget. The cars seemed to lack variety at times too, with one or two distinctive designs sticking out when spotted. We're not totally convinced by the vehicle handling either, although we did warm to it the longer we played.
Upon reflection, it's fair to say that we were actually a little overwhelmed by the sheer openness of the game when we first picked up the controller, but that's not meant as a criticism. For all of the areas that need attention, many of them presumably tied to time constraints, the world itself seemed expansive, detailed, and full of possibility. It's still a little rough around the edges and we hope the game gets more polish in time for launch because, despite one or two concerns, we're still looking forward to sitting down with this emergent post-apocalyptic sandbox in a few weeks time and seeing what kind of adventures await us.