Zombies seem to be everywhere these days. From traditional horror fare like Left 4 Dead, to the whimsical kid-friendly Plants vs. Zombies, to the solemn choose-your-own-point-and-click-adventure of Telltale's Walking Dead, it's safe to say that the undead are among us.
In a market increasingly over-saturated by these shambling hordes it's easy to think there's nothing new that can be done with them, but Undead Labs - founded by lead programmer on World of Warcraft Jeff Strain - is working on a fresh way to approach this old chestnut with its single-player XBLA and PC offering State of Decay.
We caught up with Undead Labs in its Seattle-based studio to take a gander at its upcoming zombie game. On the surface, State of Decay is an open-world action/adventure in the vein of Dead Rising. It's got a large map, NPCs to save, resources to scavenge, and even cars to drive.
This only accounts for half of the game, though. The other half is comprised of managing a community of survivors across four square kilometers of "Anytown USA."
Here's how it works; You begin the game as a preset character, but as you rescue other folks they can be recruited into your enclave. From there you can select any character in your group to play as. Each will have different stats and operate on a stamina meter. Play as one character for too long and they'll get exhausted or injured and you'll have to swap them for another.
"That's where a lot of the emergent strategy of the game comes in," says writer Travis Stout, who previously worked on Fallout: New Vegas. "Now the guy that's really good at fighting zombies is tired, so maybe for the next chunk of gameplay I should focus on building my base because I'm now playing as the guy who has the construction skill bonus."
This base-building mechanic adds a large strategy component to State of Decay. Throughout the town are various outposts and you have to manage which characters are assigned to which buildings. For example, a dentist would best be placed at an infirmary while a mechanic would grant extra help at a garage. It won't always be this obvious and on a larger scale there's a choice between whether to heavily fortify one base filled with many survivors, or spread them out into several, weaker structures.
"Population management is a big part of the game," says Stout, who explains the dilemmas inherit in rebuilding a society in a corpse-eat-corpse world.
"Some of them [bases] are in the middle of urban areas, which means it's great for finding supplies because there's a grocery store across the street and a hardware store down the block, but it also means that you're in the middle of zombie central. Some of the bases are out in the country and they're these big, sprawling farmhouses, which means you have a lot more room to expand, but it also means you're farther from the vital supplies that you need."
When asked if you could make any structure a base Stout explains, "You can make any structure an outpost, which is a temporary way-station that creates a safe area around the building and gives you a place where you can stop in and restock. In terms of an actual specific home base where all of your people hang out and you can build upgrades, there are specific locations." While he can't say an exact number, he says there "are a fair number of them."
Stout says that State of Decay is about not just surviving a zombie apocalypse, but rebuilding a society during one. "What are we going to do long-term?" Stout asks. "Finding this food cache or finding these medical supplies might get us through the next day, two days, week - but what about the next month? The next six months? The next year? How long is this going to go on?"
This long-term goal is crucial to the game as it makes you carefully consider both the immediate effect of your choices and the repercussions it could have on the group down the road. For example, if you take a case of ammo you can use it immediately for combat purposes, or you can donate it to the community as a resource so it can raise morale, be used in construction projects, or resupplied to others at your base.
"It's a balance of 'do I build the thing that's immediately useful to the moment to moment gameplay, or do I build the thing that's going to make long-term survival easier?'" Stout explains.
Each character can be given tasks to accomplish on their own. Command an NPC to raid a house for supplies an they'll do just that while you either provide backup or run errands elsewhere. How pathfinding will work with this many characters running around such an enormous environment is anyone's guess, but it's an intriguing idea at any rate.
Adding extra gravitas to the already ambitious concept is that every character has permadeath, so if they die once, that's it for them. As such, you likely won't be able to see how everyone's story plays out on a single playthrough. "You might miss the ultimate culmination of some guy's story if he dies 20 minutes in, but hey, that's what replays are for," says Stout.
The cast will consist of about 50 characters, though less than half of them have unique stories. The rest will be randomised NPCs, though Undead Labs claims that even these characters will have personalities, albeit less developed ones. "Everybody has a personality and everybody has some unique dialogue lines," notes Stout.
This grand sense of scale may seem hugely ambitious even by retail standards, making it initially puzzling why this is an XBLA game. The reason for this is because Undead Labs initially conceived State of Decay as an MMO, but decided to try it out on a smaller scale to test its systems and mechanics in a single-player game before implementing them on a massively multiplayer basis.
What I saw of State of Decay certainly looked impressive with its CryEngine 3 graphics surpassing what's expected on Microsoft's digital service, though there's no telling how the game will handle its many spinning plates in its final format. Regardless of how it ends up, it's great to see that you can still teach this old, decomposing corpse some new tricks.