Version tested: Xbox 360
Kesia Bertolucci died as she lived: punching above her weight. It ended on the floor of a disused chapel, her limbs torn off by a swarm of zombies while the bust of an angel watched her demise from the rafters with unblinking indifference. Contrary to what the folks back at base will suppose when they find the scattered hunks of her remains, her defeat wasn't down to the failure of the sand wedge. It broke in two during a moment of somewhat irresponsible showboating when she attempted to strike a zombie's head clean from its shoulders and through the chapel's stained glass window. As an amateur-boxer with unresolved anger issues, the preservation of Trumbull's local heritage came second for Bertolucci to the cathartic thrill of imaginative demolition. No, the seeds of her downfall were sown in the muscle car she borrowed to thrash out to the sticks on her mission to rescue her best friend's gay brother.
Jacob Ritter took a shine to local farm boy Eli Wilkerson some months earlier. Previously unable to muster the courage to express this illicit attraction (Trumbull is nestled in the crease of one of America's more conservative valley States), the end of the world presented the ideal opportunity to reveal his feelings. He hoped everyone else would be too preoccupied with boarding up windows and gathering medicine to notice his quiet slipping out of the closet. This particular night Ritter and Wilkerson had arranged to meet in a stable a mile or so outside of Fairfield town. The local cows had been skinned and chewed through some days earlier, so the pair assumed they'd be left well alone. But midway through the tryst, a crowd of zeds slouched up the road and began sniffing at the farm's buildings. Ritter radioed his sister for help in hysterics. That's when Bertolucci got involved.
The base had been overcrowded ever since Marcus Campbell, a local hobbyist fisherman, drove up to the gates and the rest of the group voted to let him and his friends in. Still waiting to gather enough building materials from nearby houses to build further sleeping areas, survivors were rotating beds, building a collective sleep debt that had tightened the general atmosphere on camp. Weary and overworked, alpha female Bertolucci wanted some space. She took the Dodge to vent some frustration, grinding her foot against the accelerator in lieu of being able to stamp on her fellow survivors' idiot skulls.
"Look past the ragged façade and you'll discover one of the finest open world games yet made, an experience that trades cinematic sheen for a different sort of impact."
When she arrived at the farmstead, Ritter and Wilkerson had grabbed 2x4 planks and were already in the thick of it. To save time she chose to plough the car through the crowd. Five zombies died (for the second time) on impact. A sixth managed to grab the driver side door. Bertolucci flicked the inside handle and let the door swing open as she simultaneously executed an emergency stop, flinging the hanger-on over the bonnet and into the side of a stoical combine harvester. Ritter and Wilkerson were saved, but the car was ruined. Had Bertolucci taken the 4x4 truck it might have been different, but there's no way the car would be able to limp back to the community's garage for a fix-up. Wilkerson, his face wrinkly with relief, thanked the pair before sprinting into the long grass back to his father's farm. Bertolucci told Ritter to stay put while she went looking for a replacement vehicle in the nearby chapel, sand wedge in hand.
Death in State of Decay is, perhaps surprisingly for a world besieged by undead zombies, permanent. But there's no shortage of new lives to fill the fallen's places. Grand Theft Auto 5 may boast three protagonists, but in State of Decay the number of shoes you're able to occupy is only limited by how many friends you can make. Find a new survivor, lead them back to whatever base you've chosen to hole up in and you're able to befriend them, gaining an extra life and perspective in the process.
Head out from the base to gather food, medicine or fuel for your cars and, when your current character limps back home, exhausted and bleeding, you can simply switch to a new persona and rest your previous character. Far from mere ciphers, these people have their own backstories, characteristics, inventories, weapons and specific combat moves. Every individual's attributes can be upgraded through repetitious use, and, as such, your most-played characters soon become your most treasured, lending additional tragedy and loss should they die.
This sense of freedom infuses every aspect of the game, from which building you choose to fortify into a base, to who you choose to let in to your blossoming commune and the facilities you choose to build there for the group's benefit. If Naughty Dog's The Last of Us offers a Cormac McCarthy-esque exploration of self-preservation, State of Decay celebrates the wonder of community in a crisis, as you create supply lines with your survivor comrades, carry out rescue missions together and work to buttress yourself against the mounting zombie threat. Run out of friends and you run out of lives, a very different sort of lesson to those usually told in zombie game fiction.
New missions unlock dynamically, arriving in response to your choices or to the deaths your group endures. Your map is soon pocked with green markers signifying new mission triggers, and there's a heightened sense of risk/reward as you decide whether to sprint to rescue a family from a nearby house, leading them back to your safehouse or whether to drive farther afield, to rescue a young homosexual couple, for example. Rescued survivors offer considerable benefits but also bring with them additional burden to your community, increasing the amount of food and medicine you'll need to scavenge from the land. As this is an open world with finite resources (each time you plunder a house its icon changes on your map, indicating here's nothing left there of any use to the community) there's a mounting sense that you're in a race to make it to the story's conclusion before the last can of soda or food packet is purloined.
Cash is a useless currency in this world, reputation and feats taking their place as the primary resource. Completing missions raises your stature in the community, converting to reputation points which can then be spent on resources (the abundance or scarcity of which affects the camp's morale) or on new facilities such as beds, an infirmary or towers from which gun-equipped characters can snipe any incoming zombies.
State of Decay is a scrappy, somewhat coarse game on its surface level. Its systems are poorly explained, its textures lacking in detail, its gunplay entirely functional. But its systems have a clockwork-like beauty, interlocking with rare grace to create a vivid, meaningful world in which player-driven stories arise with delightful frequency. Its dialogue is passable, its pre-scripted missions workmanlike and its interface fussy. But look past the ragged façade and you'll discover one of the finest open world games yet made, an experience that trades cinematic sheen for a different sort of impact, one that leaves you grieving over unscripted deaths and celebrating the little victories. State of Decay is unrefined but never anything less than interesting. And in video games, interesting has never been at such a premium.
8 / 10