The developers at Undead Labs are self-professed zombie aficionados. In their down time at the studio they discuss the most important question any zombie fan can ask another zombie fan, “What would you do if there actually was a zombie apocalypse?” State of Decay, their open world zombie game, allows its players to answer that question.
Zombie fans should also be aware of The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, which reads like a civil defense manual for zombie preparation. Brooks’s Guide is generally considered by the ranks of zombie fandom to be a manual that might actually function as advertised and keep you alive when the zombies inevitably walk the earth. So it occurred to me that if Undead Labs really were the experts they claimed to be, their game ought to jive with a majority of what the Guide had to say.
State of Decay takes place in Trumbull Valley, a rural community dotted with farms, orchards and towns straight out of The Andy Griffith Show. Cities will be death traps when the dead rise so when Marcus, the initial survivor you control, and his friend Ed return from a fishing trip and stumble into the end of the world, at least they’re precisely where the Guide would tell them to be.
The minimap in the lower left-hand corner and the third person perspective are reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto. The immediate requirement for stealth is not. You will rarely be able to attack a single zombie without attracting every other zombie in the immediate vicinity. When you forage for supplies you can sift through the contents of bags and refrigerators and toolboxes and the like carefully and quietly, or speed up the search at the risk of making a lot of noise and attracting a crowd of the undead. The need for stealth will be obvious for anyone who’s read the Guide, but might be a hard lesson for everyone else. And death means something in this game—there are no manual saves in State of Decay, and when a survivor dies, they’re gone. You switch to controlling another survivor and that’s that.
Because Marcus and Ed didn’t know to prepare a zombie bug-out bag and identify a safe location in advance like the Guide suggests, when the Ranger Station they initially hide in is overrun by zombies, your first order of business is to find them a place to hole up. A community of survivors barricaded in a church offers shelter, and the second order of business is to prove your worth by helping to gather the fuel, food, ammunition, building materials and medicine everyone needs to survive. Scavenging runs done entirely on foot are nerve wracking, especially at night when you have to listen closely for the moans of zombies to avoid being ambushed in the darkness.
When the houses and stores around the church run dry of supplies you’ll need a vehicle to extend your searches. There are a limited number of cars and trucks remaining in Trumbull Valley, and you can only repair a few vehicles at a time back at base. It’s smart to be careful with whatever vehicle you’re driving to avoid damaging it, though it’s very tempting to wreck pickup trucks by driving them at high speeds into crowds of zombies. You also need to always be aware of the noise vehicles make. It’s a shame that State of Decay doesn’t sometimes give you the choice to follow the Guide’s advice and use a bicycle.
People are the most important resource you need to manage. Survivors need beds to sleep in, workshops to produce and repair weapons, and medical facilities to heal the sick. As your community grows larger you may want to relocate to new bases that provide more room to expand and build more facilities that keep everyone happy and healthy. People will leave the community if their morale is too low, so helping angry survivors blow off steam, or doing a favor when someone asks, or clearing out the zombie infestations that frighten everyone are also worth the time and risk.
Members of your community will leave your safe house to run missions, and you can help them return safely by building outposts—which include traps to wipe out wandering hordes of zombies—around your base. Keeping your community large serves everyone’s best interests. Survivors might be excellent cooks, mechanics or possess other valuable skill sets that enhance the effectiveness of your facilities. And when you earn the trust of a member of your community you add them to the list of survivors you’re allowed to control.
Some survivors are in better shape and can run faster and for longer sprints before they tire out than others. Some survivors are better shots, or stronger and thus deadlier with the melee weapons you may prefer over loud firearms, in tune with the Guide’s advice. And even if a survivor isn’t particularly skilled at anything, the more people you have to control, the less you tax any one of them, and the less likely they are to die while they’re out in the field.
State of Decay sometimes breaks down as a simulation. You might see a zombie’s head phase through the wall between the two of you. Survivors who are following you will stand in doorways and prevent you from getting through. Once I crashed a truck into a tree, the rear wheels jumped off the ground with the force of the impact, and the truck remained stuck in the air at a 45-degree angle to the ground for the rest of the game.
The radio operator at your base will constantly bombard you with repetitive tasks that need doing if you want to keep your survivors alive and/or hopeful, and only the survivor you are controlling can handle those tasks, which feels increasingly ridiculous when you have 12 or more healthy survivors armed with pistols, shotguns, rifles and more ammunition than you’ll ever need back at base.
While the Guide suggests that abandoning a secure location well stocked with resources is idiotic, it’s fun to try out new bases. If you are diligent about tackling story missions as soon as they’re available, however, by the time your community is large enough to warrant moving to a new location, there may be no point because you might be very close to the end of the game. The most tempting location to move to doesn’t even become available until the game is almost over.
It became clear to me that State of Decay was worth dealing with these issues when Marcus, who remained my favorite survivor throughout the game, went missing while I was controlling someone else. I was angry. Marcus had more experience surviving than anyone. How had he screwed up so badly as to get himself into trouble?
I felt panic. Was there some way I could find and rescue Marcus that I’d overlooked? Was he lying injured somewhere, bleeding out, waiting for me to save him, and I was going to fail? I was overjoyed with relief when I investigated a missing survivor report and found Marcus hiding in a backyard shed.
He was scared out of his wits, yelling in fear. My relief turned to disgust when his shouts brought a wave of zombies and he cowered in the corner while the survivor I was controlling almost died. When the onslaught ended and we were relatively safe, I escorted Marcus home, on foot, crouched and keeping us hidden in the bushes, terrified that we wouldn’t make it and Marcus would die right after I’d finally found him.
The ultimate lesson of The Zombie Survival Guide, and the theme of any zombie fiction worth taking the time to read or watch, is that when there are so few people left in the world each life assumes an importance well beyond its usual preciousness. Saving your friends is more important than the dictums of the Guide, and even more important than your own safety, because you can’t go it alone when the dead rise. State of Decay made me terrified of losing even a single individual because I understood this lesson, and thus it’s as perfect a simulation of a zombie apocalypse as it needs to be.
State of Decay was developed by Undead Labs and published by Microsoft Studios. It is available for the Xbox 360 through the Xbox Live Arcade.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. His work has appeared on Kotaku, Ars Technica, Gamasutra and The Escapist. He would love to exchange plans for the inevitable zombie apocalypse with you on twitter @DennisScimeca.