A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to spend some time with Xbox One State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition. It's a zombie game, but before you start groaning about yet another z-game, hear me out. This isn't like most of them. While State of Decay does feature combat, and reanimated corpses do provide an ever-present threat, it's not an action game where you're killing thousands upon thousands of the undead with outlandish weapons and ungodly skills. This is a more realistic take on the genre where the objective is to survive and even thrive by building a community in the game's post-apocalyptic environment.
In other words, it's a sandbox survival simulation, not a survival horror game.
"We wanted to make a game based on the "what if" scenario," explains developer Undead Labs' executive producer Jeff Strain. "Like when you see a movie like 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead and ask yourself what would you do? That's something we used to do. We'd go to a zombie movie and grab a beer afterwards and talk about what we'd do under those circumstances. Perhaps go to Costco and board up the doors. Or go to the Space Needle – nobody could get you there. Maybe take a ferry and go out into the middle of Puget Sound. We're trying to give you the tools to answer that question in the context of this world."
If this premise sounds familiar, then yes, you might have seen State of Decay before: it was released in June, 2013 on Xbox 360. This new edition is actually a full 1080p HD remaster that also includes the Lifeline and Breakdown DLC.
Jeff continues, "The objective is to survive over the long term. Not just through a series of missions and levels. It's often preferable to avoid zombies rather than engage and kill them. That's because the game features permanent death. If a character you're controlling dies, he or she is gone forever."
That might seem harsh, but it's not quite as absolute as it sounds, as Jeff reveals. "While you're traveling around the game, you find and recruit/rescue people. If you earn their trust, you can make them playable characters – so if you die with one character, you can play as another."
To do this, you need to build outposts and equip them with different functionality like radio towers, a triage center or beds. Providing sustenance for your people is also a must, and to that end you can build gardens so you can farm food – which is essential for the long-term survival of your band of survivors. Assigning people to undertake tasks is also part of helping your outpost thrive: the more beds, supplies and food you have, the bigger the outpost can become, and the larger its population can be.
The original game is a 25-30 hour story that starts with your return from a week-long fishing trip in a very remote part of the mountains. Your return to civilization – or rather, the remnants of it – sees you thrown immediately into survival mode where you need to escape the valley that is your home town and try to find other survivors. The problem is that you don't have enough on your back to survive, and you need to scavenge for food and water to find anything you can to last the 4-6 game weeks it takes to make your way out of the valley.
As you travel around the game's expansive environment, there are hundreds of characters to meet. Some are NPCs that you meet as part of the story whose trust you can earn to make them playable characters, whereas others are people you can just bump into fortuitously and can either befriend or go your separate ways.
Jeff explains, "You start out playing Marcus and people get accustomed to playing him. But this is not a "this is who you are" situation. You're eventually going to get sloppy and die. Maybe you'll get fatigued and not go home to rest, and run into an infestation and not be able to run away. Or you might run out of ammo. That's what makes the game realistic. Zombies by themselves are not much of a threat – one or two are easy to deal with. But inevitably you'll make a mistake and your character will die. That’s always a shock for players once they realize that once he's dead he's dead. But you can play another character from your community."
I ask about the zombies and how they work.
"There are lots of different kind of zombies," says Jeff. "Some are stronger than others. Some scream at you when they see you, pulling other zombies in. Basically, we're mapping in real life that humans are different – so are zombies. It helps create different and interesting tactical situations."
"For example, none of the zombies are triggered. They're chasing you because you're probably making a sound. If you're in a car, all the zombies in the area can hear you and will chase you. You're making noise and all the zombies can hear that. You usually die because you make a lot of noise and pull in a lot of zombies and get trapped."
So being stealthy and quiet is a fundamentally important part of the game?
Jeff nods, "The game is fundamentally quiet. There's a lot of natural beauty to the world. Bird calls, windmills, swaying trees in the wind. The times where you're going around and shooting things are rare. You don't get experience points for shooting zombies. Most of the time you want to avoid them – sneak around the fence and make sure they don't see you."
"This isn't horror in the sense of us trying to scare you with horrific zombies," notes Jeff. "The zombies are threatening, but the fear of the game comes from the knowing the decisions you make matter. There are consequences from your actions. If you make a mistake, it can really set you back."
What this means is that the game is essentially open. There's a single goal to survive, but how you do that is very much open to you, and that's really what gives the game its appeal. To make matters even more challenging is that the game environment has entropy: resources get used up. If you crash all the cars in the game, that's it: you'll have to walk everywhere, because there are no longer any cars available to you.
That's certainly a refreshing change from the more arcade-oriented zombie games of late. I'm looking forward to spending more time with the game when it's released on April 28th of this year.