Broken and Beautiful: State of Decay

By Nick Olsen

Sate of Decay cover art

State of Decay cover art for Xbox360

In the fourth episode of the Theory of Gaming Podcast, there was an extensive discussion about the worst games we’d ever played and the consensus was that extensive flaws resulted in the games being “broken.” We still managed to find value in playing these games as they shed light on lessons that developers could learn – but having suffered through them at least once already, none of us were inclined to play those games again. The takeaway it seemed was that broken games were worth experiencing only to understand what NOT to do when making a game; there was nothing in store but frustration for the gamer.

But that all changed for me recently when I fell in love with a severely broken game: State of Decay.

Released in mid-2013 by Undead Labs and Microsoft Studios, State of Decay is a zombie apocalypse survival game focusing less on the traditional kill-as-many-zombies-as-possible approach and abandoning survival horror elements entirely; this game scarcely resembles Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil. Instead, Undead Labs took an open-world approach and put the emphasis on group survival through scavenging supplies, managing resources, building a secure home for a group of survivors and managing the group’s morale. Each of these simplistic elements combine to create a unique take on the zombie survival genre which helps it overcome its myriad of flaws.

So Broken

But all is not well Trumbull Valley (where the game takes place), and it’s not just the zombies that have run amok, or that society has broken; the game has some serious flaws of its own. Among the most glaring flaws are:

Stupid A.I.

The game takes place in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, meaning safety is paramount to survival. But for whatever reason, the non-player characters (NPC) always leave doors open. I know it sounds like a little thing, but because these NPCs have the ability to open doors and move freely within the world means that doors to the safehouse, shops, houses, etc., are routinely left wide open for zombies to wander through effortlessly.

The game implores the player to rely on stealth, sneaking in and out of locations and searching supply stashes quietly so as not to alert nearby zombies to their presence; a closed door provides a barrier from the zombies’ line of sight, helping keep the player hidden. But then all of a sudden, an NPC decides to open a door without closing it and nearby zombies can easily locate the survivors – and as we all know by now, the actions of one zombie always attract the attention of more. Suddenly, the player and the NPC are in a fight for their lives which could have easily been avoided.

Doors also provide obstacles for zombies to navigate which can buy the player precious time and alert them to the presence of would-be attackers. Zombies can’t open doors, they must break them down, which is both noisy (alerting the player to their presence) and time consuming (giving the player a chance to strategize, prep for a fight or escape). But once again, for whatever reason, the NPCs prefer doors remain open, eliminating the benefits they provide.

Maybe leaving doors open is a forgivable mistake out in the open world if we dubiously accept that open doors make for faster escapes. But what’s completely unforgivable is leaving exterior doors open at the group’s home base/safe house. This is the locale where each member of the group of survivors eats, sleeps, receives medical treatment and so on. Leaving exterior doors open for zombies to effortlessly wander through is counterintuitive to the sustained safety and survival of the group.

Fighting zombies inside what should be a safe zone needlessly wastes supplies like ammo and healing items, gets characters injured and tires them out (tired players move slower and need to rest), and puts unnecessary wear and tear on melee weapons (which degrade with regular use until they break). All of this could easily be reduced or avoided if the NPCs would simply close doors.

State of Decay run

When the name of the game is survival, sometimes the smart play is to run.

The other major pain point with the A.I. is that it fails to recognize that sometimes the smart play in a zombie apocalypse is to run; especially in a game so predicated on stealth and survival rather than gunning down the hordes. It seems that the NPCs are programmed to stand their ground and fight when the prudent move should be to run and hide, or at least seek a better strategic location to engage in a battle (preferably one stocked with resources). There’s nothing more frustrating as a player when running from a zombie horde only to turn around and discover that the NPC you were traveling with stayed to fight and is losing badly. Because survivors are so critical to the core aspect of the game (to get a new and improved home, you have to grow the number of survivors as part of your group) and are so few and far between, the player often has to turn around and defend the NPC at great risk to their own survival. The most likely outcome is two injured survivors who need time to heal, and are thus unavailable for missions.

Clipping

When out exploring Trumbull Valley, a common sight is a zombie seemingly stuck in the middle of a solid wall. An amusing little quirk at first, I would laugh and wonder how the zombie managed to get caught in seemingly sold space before I would walk up and kill it with a melee weapon uncontested. It became a lot less amusing when I realized that clipping was a major issue and put the player at a big disadvantage during certain missions.

For example, a certain mission type known as “Besieged” calls for the player to assist a group of survivors in defending a specific location from a slew of undead enemies. First, the player helps barricade broken windows to close off potential entry points, then has to withstand waves of zombies which attack the locale. Once the zombies have been cleared, the mission is complete. Unfortunately, clipping plays a significant role in these missions, as in many instances, zombies simply walked through walls to enter the house, rather than breaking down the barricades. In a mission where the player and NPCs must defend all four sides of the location, it’s already a chaotic experience; add in zombies that can walk through solid matter to quickly enter the location and the experience shifts from chaotic to frustrating at a moment’s notice.

Clipping isn’t limited to these two examples, however; it’s prevalent throughout the entire game world. Zombies seem to be randomly granted the power to walk through walls, fences and other various obstacles which should, in theory at least, offer some protection to the player. It is impossible to predict when this clipping may occur, so the player must account for it in any situation, which can be tough when there’s so many other factors to account for that were built intentionally into the game, such as health, stamina, rest, injury, and which player characters excel at which skills. It is no easy task.

The Case of the Frozen NPC

Within the game there are NPC morale missions known as “Combat Training,” in which an NPC is dealing with low morale, and needs an outlet for their frustration. The NPC then joins the player in clearing zombies from a designated area. In one instance, I met with the NPC to start the mission, but as soon as he was supposed to accompany me, he froze in place with his leg lifted – he looked as if he was playing a game of red light, green light and was hit with a red light in mid stride. I tried fruitlessly to re-engage his movement by trying to talk with him, hitting him with weapons, shooting at his feet and more. He remained frozen and I was unfortunately locked into the mission and couldn’t back out.

I resorted to pushing him, at first by walking behind him, and once I managed to move him outside the gates of the safe house, I positioned him squarely in front of my truck and drove to the mission site. I then cleared the designated zone of zombies solo, before pushing him back to the safe house entrance with the truck, and then into safe house by hand. Once he was back home, the NPC sprung to life and the mission registered as complete. Luckily, I’ve got a sense of humor about these things, because a bug of this magnitude could have vaulted a player from content to frustrated in no time flat.

So Beautiful

Yet, despite all that’s broken in the game, State of Decay remains a beautiful experience and one that I truly enjoyed playing. So how did Undead Labs overcome bugs and glitches that might have killed another game? By blending a variety of genres and influences into something truly original.

Unique Experience

Again, State of Decay is not a typical zombie game. Whereas games like Left 4 Dead focus on killing mass amounts of zombies to complete levels, State of Decay shifts the emphasis to stealth. Of course, zombie killing is still present in the game, but it’s not the sole focus, just an aspect of survival. Whereas games like Resident Evil use combat with zombies and resource management as a means to inflate tension, State of Decay emphasizes resource management to ensure the continued survival of a group of people. Scavenging for supplies and ensuring the camp has enough ammo, medicine, food and beds to accommodate everyone becomes central to the game. Whereas roleplaying games (RPGs) encourage the leveling of every character in part to defeat particularly difficult bosses, State of Decay encourages leveling all party members in case one or more get killed by zombie hordes while completing missions out in the world.

Much like Destiny combined elements from a variety of genres to create something new. From Josh’s essay titled “Fulfilling a Destiny”:

“The short answer is that Destiny is a FPS-MMOG [first-person shooter-massively multiplayer online game] with light RPG elements. The FPS elements speak for themselves … The MMOG elements arise from how focused the game is on sharing the world with other players in real-time … Finally, there are RPG elements to Destiny, even if they are on the lighter side. There is just enough to convey a sense of progression, but they are not woven deep enough into the fabric of the game as to be defined by them. … All of these factors add up to a unique experience – I have not played a game quite like Destiny before, and ultimately that is a positive, because Destiny has some unique ideas and executes most of them perfectly.”

State of Decay does something similar, blending elements from a variety of influences including zombie shooters, third-person open-world games, resource management from strategy games, and character leveling and development from RPGs. To top it off, State of Decay borrows the continuous living-world aspects from MMOGs, as even when not actively playing the game, events unfold throughout the world, morale wanes, resources get consumed and construction projects progress.

The Master Plan

When all of those elements combine, one theme rises to the top: State of Decay is a zombie apocalypse survival game all about planning.

The player has to effectively manage the available resources, and search the world for those they’re short on. The player to can do this by either scavenging from buildings in the surrounding area or more strategically by using the radio operator to communicate with other groups of survivors to shed light on a supply of particular resources.

State of Decay infestation

Infestations contain both normal and freak zombies alike, making them especially dangerous.

The player also has to effectively manage the zombies in the surrounding area by locating and eliminating zombie infestations to make the area safer for the survivors. But as the name suggests, infestations aren’t simply locales with two or three zombies, they’re buildings that have been infiltrated by a large number of zombies, and usually include at least one (often times more) special zombies such as S.W.A.T. zombies (former police officers turned zombies in riot gear), feral zombies (a fast and vicious hunter), Juggernaut zombies (powerful tanks), Bloater zombies (which release toxic gas), Army zombies (similar to S.W.A.T. but in army gear instead), or Screamer zombies (armless zombies which emit loud screams which both harm survivors and draw the attention of nearby zombies). Clearing infestations is usually best done with support as going solo can leave the player vulnerable to being overwhelmed.

But players can take steps to defend the area around their safe house or on main roads by creating outposts out of buildings which have been cleared of zombies and contain resources. One of the functions of outposts is to set traps which can eliminate zombies and hordes that walk into them. By strategically placing these outposts and traps around the safe house, the player can effectively reduce the zombie population near the survivor stronghold, making it a much safer area.

Outposts can also be used to generate resources for the safe house supply. By creating outposts in buildings which have a large resource supply, the outpost will send these resources home, so long as they last – once they run out, the outpost then serves its typical function of placing traps and serving as a secure location for players and NPCs to seek shelter from zombies when out in the world.

Another selection a player has to make, depending upon the number of survivors they convince to join their group, is moving to a bigger safe house when they outgrow the first one provided. The player has options to select from when they eventually move, and each offers strategic advantages and weaknesses. For example, when I moved from Spencer’s Mill to the town of Marshall, I chose to move into the Snyder Trucking Warehouse instead of the Savini Residence because it offered higher fences for better defense, but it also offered more slots for building resources like medical tents, workshops, etc.

The tradeoff was that I had to have 12 survivors in my group instead of eight, meaning I had to live longer in the Church of the Ascension (my first real home) even though I was rapidly outgrowing it which was hurting group morale. Sure, I could have moved to the Savini Residence briefly and moved again to the Snyder Trucking warehouse, but with each move you leave behind the resources you built there, and have to spend the construction materials, influence and time to rebuild them at the new site.

Of course, once the player moves into a new home, they have to decide what they’re going to build in the available slots – they could build a barracks to house more survivors, a garden to rely less on scavenging food, a medical tent to ensure survivors get the necessary care, a watchtower to shoot approaching zombies, a library to advance research (better weapons, medicine, etc.). The catch is that each building requires both resources and available slots, both of which are limited. The player can’t build everything, meaning they must think strategically about what they need, what the surrounding area can easily provide and which offer the biggest benefit.

State of Decay gun

Some characters are better with rifles than others; choose wisely for certain missions.

Two of the most routine, yet important decisions the player has to make throughout the game are which missions to pursue or ignore and which characters to use to complete them. Non-story missions appear during the gameplay but expire after a set amount of time. Most of the time, more missions appear than the player will be able to get to before their expiration date, therefore the player must examine the reward for completing each mission to determine which will be most beneficial to the groups survival. Similarly, each character has a unique skill set – some are better with rifles while others are better with melee weapons; some have higher stamina or better wits. Swapping between characters to level each of them is the smart play as it helps to ensure leveled characters are still available should one (or more) get killed by zombies; but choosing the best character for any mission can determine the strategy used. Choosing a character with high stamina but poor shooting skills for clearing infestations can be a deadly decision.

Essentially, every decision matters in State of Decay.

Love, Flaws and All

There’s no two ways about it, State of Decay is a deeply flawed game, yet its beauty shines through regardless, and that’s a testament to what Undead Labs got right. There’s so much charm packed into a game that strives for something bigger than the stalwarts of the zombie genre, and that allows it to overcome its myriad of bugs which in most instances would break a game badly enough to sink it. It seems apparent that Undead Labs’ ambitions exceeded their abilities which is commendable, especially for a small developer. State of Decay offers a glimpse of a bright future for both Undead Labs and the growth of the zombie genre. Even ahead of games like Destiny, State of Decay combined influences from a variety of genres to create a new and unique experience; one that’s easy to love, flaws and all.