Humans versus zombies – it’s a pop culture trope that first appeared in cinemas during the 1930’s and was popularized during the late 1960’s alongside George Romero’s works within the genre. Years later, in the wake of Resident Evil’s success, zombies took video game platforms by storm. In the late 90’s and 2000’s, dozens of game franchises sprung up – all of which focused on the undead army and its hunger for human flesh. While many of these games were well-received and offered hours of entertainment, I’d argue that they were so focused on gamifying the zombie experience – giving players something to shoot at or run from – that they totally forgot about one of the most interesting aspects of the zombie genre: humanity.
State of Decay 2, mired by its many bugs and sometimes repetitive gameplay loop, still manages to successfully highlight the behaviors, needs, and characteristics of humans that attempting to survive Hell on Earth. Like any fun zombie romp, there’s plenty of opportunities to shoot, chop, or drive your way through hordes of the undead; however State of Decay 2 separates itself from the noise thanks to its dense community management and RPG progression systems, which are enhanced by the game’s diverse procedurally-generated characters.
The world of State of Decay 2 feels genuine, as every survivor has a unique backstory which directly informs their behaviors and traits, which then serve as the DNA of the character’s stats and abilities. Each character has their own skill tree, which is first inspired by the character’s personality, but can ultimately be shaped by their experiences within the game. This makes for an incredibly addicting grind, because for every character that’s leveled up, there’s more opportunity to unlock passive benefits, upgrades to buildings, or tools back at camp. Ella, a survivor in my camp who was a science teacher before the outbreak, has access to the chemistry skill which grants my community access to new upgrades such as the Munitions Shop, or a crafting buff that prevents explosives from detonating during their creation. There’s no two characters alike in State of Decay 2, which makes for an incredibly realistic and compelling apocalypse to inhabit and explore.
Sam, an outcast that I recruited early on in my campaign, turned out to be an incredibly troublesome community member. Empowered by his Warlord leadership trait, he sent one of my community members to confront an enclave of survivors across the map. Not wanting to risk losing the character, I followed along and then found myself in the midst of a turf war, wherein a massive shootout lead to the death of one of my favorite community members. Thanks to State of Decay 2’s permadeath system and the way it interacts with the game’s community management systems, not only did I lose access to the vital perks and abilities the character added to my community’s network of resources, but the sting of death crept over my camp like a plague. Grief and angst crippled my community members, giving way to fights, loss of resources, and a massive lack of productivity.
Being a simulation and RPG first, State of Decay 2 demonstrates the challenge of maintaining routine and order during times of crisis, as players are often presented with difficult decisions brought on by the needs of an increasingly volatile community. Should a player spend the medical resources needed to cure a survivor of the zombie infection, or would the community be better off by putting a bullet in the back of the character’s head? Is it worth activating the base’s generator in order to power on the radio tower if it draws hordes of zombies to the community’s gates? Do I have enough resource generation to welcome a new community member, or will my generosity force us into starvation and exhaustion? This constant barrage of choice and consequence forces the player to prioritize certain survivors and their objectives over others, and in turn lends a generous helping of authenticity to the game’s theme and setting.
In addition to the suspense, gore, and horror they deliver to their audiences, the best zombie movies often showcase the human spirit and how it either endures or withers away in the midst of the apocalypse. While it’s certainly flawed, State of Decay 2 captures and reinforces this theme through its role-playing game inspirations, dense management systems, and world of randomized and dynamic characters – and in the end, comes together as a highly interesting entry within the zombie video game genre.