A slogan of the Marine Corps is “a few good men” (as in “we need…”). The slogan of State of Decay (Xbox Live Arcade’s open-world zombie survival game) is, apparently, “we need a few dysfunctional assholes”.
Let me start by saying that the core gameplay of State of Decay is fun — sneaking through zombie territory, trying to avoid notice, and having to defend yourself if you fail. (Using melee weapons (which make noise and attract more “zeds”), guns (even more noise), or the almost-useless hand-to-hand combat.) The territory management minigame (scavenge supplies for your fort, so you can upgrade your guard-tower, build a workshop, make biofuel) is fun, if schizoid. And the RPG elements — your characters can level up many things, including weapon skills, searching, and “cardio” (but not, oddly enough, stealth) — provide satisfying rewards for punching, shooting, and running away really, really fast.
Core gameplay, however, has to exist for a reason. Sure, you’re sneaking, but from where and to where? And what will you do when you get there? All of this is defined by the extended gameplay: goals, motives, strategies. And too much of the extended gameplay in State of Decay is “procedurally generated”.
“Procedurally generated” is programmer-speak for randomly generated content. And, in between the scanty story missions that form the plot, all you have are an endless series of quests, repeated over and over. Different houses, different assholes begging for help, but the same basic goals.
“I got lost. Find me!”
“I went looking for trouble, and found a bunch. Help me!”
“Oh my God! I’m totally shocked to find all these zombies in the middle of the zombie apocalypse! Somebody save me!”
Yes, enter the assholes. About a third of State of Decay consists of, basically, babysitting incompetent losers who’d be fine if they’d just STAY HOME! Don’t leave the fort! Just stay there, huddled behind the walls.
Eat the food I scavenge, shoot the bullets I find, use the meds I drag back to base, carried on my bruised and overworked back. Just don’t leave. Ever. Because it never goes well, and you always beg me for help, usually when I’ve just left town to drive across the map to meet with our psychotic neighbors, the Wilkerson criminal clan. (Picture the Prowse clan from Jericho, but without all that annoying competence.)
Then these assholes get sad, or angry, or scared, or some damn thing and need me to hold their hands. (And if I don’t, they start killing themselves, or deserting, or whatever.) The handholding always, always, always involves the two of us sneaking into a den of undead and chopping our way to happiness. Who knew that killing zombies with machetes was an all-purpose therapeutic technique, good for broken hearts, survivor’s guilt, and bitter feuds between two unwashed, smelly assholes sharing a bunkbed?
The “real time” aspects of the game also detract from it. Survivors eat food, and so you have a listed “cost” in units of food per day. Not game day (there’s a typical day-night cycle implemented), but a real, actual day. That’s right, you can play the game, turn it off, and launch it again a week later, and all your survivors… er… won’t. Have survived, I mean. Mass starvation. (Or so I surmise.) This all seems like it was inspired by Farmville, and isn’t a real selling point for the game.
Plus, and this is the funniest thing ever, the game is pervasively buggy. Sometimes crashy (and that on top of an auto-save that could reasonably be called “stingy”), but usually just glitchy.
Zombies, in this dark present, can migrate through walls, like helium atoms out-gassing through the skin of a balloon. And, if you do things just right, so can you.
I’ve seen zombies pass through walls, walk out of solid stone (usually right when I’m bent over, searching a backpack in the middle of nowhere, praying no zeds see me), and lie in wait halfway through a jersey barricade. In fact, I did the same thing, succeeding at walking through walls at least twice.
There are constant pop-in issues, which make driving real fast (as when a mob of zeds are hot on your no-weapon, no-healing, badly-damaged ass) very hazardous. And aiming issues. And glitchy quest lines. And AI pathfinding that is worse than incompetent. Frankly, the game is a very stable “Playable Beta” release, not quite ready for prime-time.
That said, the game is playable, and very, very fun. So long as you can endure a few dysfunctional assholes.
[Also, for players of Torg, State of Decay has the maneuver skill. Press two buttons, and your character can roll past enemy combatants. It’s pretty cool, actually.]