Several sites including GameCritics.com were invited to a preview event for the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) title State of Decay. The gathering took place at Undead Labs, located in Seattle Washington. I attended, and was able to spend about four hours with a near-final build of the game. In addition, several of the developers were nearby throughout the day to answer questions.
In a nutshell, it's a zombie title that avoids being a standard shooter by focusing on what it might be like to try and survive through a zombie apocalypse—maintaining a group, conserving supplies, fortifying a long-term base, and so on. Very few titles have attempted such an approach, and this is a project I've been excited about ever since first laying eyes on it. Zombies may be passé when it comes to being gun fodder, but I'm of the opinion that there is still plenty of fresh material to be explored. The Walking Dead proved that be true, and State of Decay appears to be another zombie title with a different spin on the genre.
The game begins with two men returning from a camping trip and being set upon by zombies. They are unaware of what's happened in their absence, so after fighting off some nearby undead, they make their way to a ranger station where other survivors are holed up.
Once there, they are instructed to climb a nearby water tower and survey the area. This is a smart mechanic similar to the one that makes portions of the map visible in Assassin's Creed, although I think it's more sensible and convincing here. The character can see what's immediately visible from the tower (interesting locations are marked with "?"'s) and after spending a little time looking at each, they will be able to identify what's there and mark it on the map. However, the ability to see and identify these areas is dependent on a character's "Wits" stat. Someone who's not too bright will see and identify less than someone who's on the sharper side.
From there, the character must escort some survivors to a nearby church. It seems simple enough, but the developers were clear to say that they wanted the world to be open and explorable as soon as possible, and they weren't kidding. Just a few moments after the game begins, the player is free to ignore the instructions and hike anywhere on the map that they can reach.
My initial impressions after the first fifteen or twenty minutes was that State of Decay is huge. Bigger than huge, really… It seemed absolutely massive. It's been stated that this game is the largest ever released on XBLA, and the developers confirmed this.
As a quick example of how big and open it is, the reviewer sitting next to me completed the church mission within five or ten minutes, whereas I discovered an abandoned campsite and started scavenging for usable goods. From there, I started checking out other interesting locations, and before I knew it, at least half an hour had passed before I had accomplished my actual goal.
Once I finally reached the church, there were a collection of survivors within the fortified building. They had some basic amenities like a kitchen, places to sleep, and a central place for all characters to store supplies, tools and goods. Within its walls it was immediately obvious that there was a lot going on and a lot to do. Many systems are either clearly on display, or suggested. Unfortunately, the game stumbled here.
To be brutally honest, I was surprised at the lack of tutorials or substantial introduction to the various workings of the formula. State of Decay will likely be different than players might expect and I think it's safe to say that not much will be immediately intuitive. In light of so much complexity, it was hard to understand how many obvious cues and teaching moments were omitted.
For example, some citizens requested that I build new facilities such as extra sleeping bunks, an infirmary, and so on. It's not at all obvious how to do this, or what's required. Once I figured out that raw materials were required, I didn't know what they looked like, where to get them, or what to do when I found them.
Other aspects were also in need of greater illumination. Fatigue and strength play a crucial role in the game—when one character gets worn out from too much running or too much fighting, they need to rest or else they become easy pickings for the undead. I ran out of healthy, active characters soon after reaching the church, and I couldn't figure out how to get new ones, how to rest the ones I already had, or to activate people that were in my area but not selectable.
There were a number of crucial gameplay mechanics which went surprisingly unexplained, and I had many, many questions about what was going on and how things work. I don't mean to sound negative, but the number of obvious oversights that I noticed will likely play a crucial role in its success—there's no question in my mind about the depth or complexity in the State of Decay experience, but getting players into the game and teaching them how to actually play is step one in the process. The developers took notes from myself and the other reviewers who had similar concerns, and I hope there's enough time left to make a few tweaks before launch.
Once I had all of my questions answered and started to get a better understanding of the systems State of Decay contains, I was surprised to see how much of a sim experience it is, and just how detailed things get.
In one scenario given by one of the developers, he explained that the general health of the community must be maintained with proper sleep, medicine and nutrition. If those things aren't taken care of, people will start fighting or leaving, and less manpower means a smaller chance of survival.
Interestingly, to supplement this system, there are series of perks and bonuses that can be awarded when the right type of person is in the right type of facility. If you find a chef and put them to work in the kitchen, the food is so tasty that it can grant a bonus to the community. If there's no chef available, people will still get fed, but there's no bonus. If you put someone who is completely clueless about food in the kitchen, they may not recognize that some food has spoiled and serve it.
If community members eat spoiled food, there's a chance that they may get sick or some members may die. If the player has a doctor in the community, they can arrange for medicine-retrieval missions and will know how to heal those who need it. If there's no doctor in the community, then it's likely that some will perish or be rendered inactive for some time. This was just one example, and there were others given of the different ways having the right characters in the right circumstances with the right supplies can have a great impact on the player experience and the overall survival of the group.
In terms of the characters themselves, the game takes an approach where each member of the community is important, although there is no one central protagonist to the game. The player takes a "god game" role and can jump into the body of any survivor at any time, as long as they are in "friendly" status.
Each character has ratings in Stamina (running/attacking), Wits (searching for items, surveying territory), Combat (brawling and melee weapons) and Guns (shooting). These skills all level up individually with use. For example, running more often will increase a character's stamina. Using melee weapons will increase their fighting, and so on. Since these skill levels are unique to each character, the player will soon develop preferences for which person to do which job, and judgment must always be used—in State of Decay, the death of any character is absolutely permanent, so it's wiser to keep someone with a high science or medical ability back at base, rather than sending them out to do a scouting run or to collect supplies.
Individual relationships between the characters do factor into events, and the player may need to take action to make problematic community members a part of the team, or to kick them out if they're causing too much trouble. Some characters may become lost or infected, and it's up to the player to gauge whether the effort of resolving the situation is worth losing an opportunity elsewhere. Very often, missions are on an invisible timer, so minutes spent keeping a lid on things at home or carrying supplies from abandoned houses back to base means that someone is going without help somewhere else, or a zombie horde is roaming around unchecked.
When asked about the campaign, it was confirmed that there is an actual beginning, middle, and end to State of Decay, so people concerned about not getting a complete single player experience can rest easy. The game is described to have a fairly structured beginning before branching out into a lot of open-world, sandbox-style play in the middle, and then once a certain number of objectives have been achieved, the game will start rolling towards a conclusion to events. From what I gathered, the ultimate goal of the plot is to survive long enough to help everyone escape the valley where the game takes place. However, that didn't seem to be immediately obvious, so players should be prepared to spend quite a bit of time on keeping the community going and taking advantage of the resources and commodities that can be found in the area.
That's not to say that real-time combat doesn't happen in State of Decay, though. Players will spend quite a bit of time finding melee weapons and guns to use, and vehicles are also a great way to get rid of unwanted crowds. The zombies in the game are surprisingly alert, so any gunfire or careless searching in homes will quickly draw large numbers. Taking out one or two zombies is a simple thing, but any more than that becomes a real threat that's not easily dispatched. Certain strategies must be used to survive, such as simply avoiding some areas or coming back later when there are less zombies around, or by creating distractions to lure the undead away from areas that are critical.
After activating a debug mode, we saw the full selection of weapons, items and abilities in the game, and it was quite diverse. Dozens of firearms, all sorts of swords, bats and tools, mines, grenade launchers, even airstrikes and sniper teams. I wouldn't say that the game is anything at all like a Grand Theft Auto in the sense that players can run around at random and cause all sorts of havoc (the stakes are too high and the resources are too limited) but there is definitely some potential for amusing mayhem to happen.
Before arriving at the event, I took a few questions via Twitter from my followers, and here are those responses:
I'm not sure if the starting equipment is randomly generated (and it also depends on how much searching you do at the start of the game) but I had a rifle and a pistol just a few minutes after the game began.
Can you alternate between characters, or do you need to die before you can switch?
Players can switch between any "friendly" character at any time.
What are the plans for DLC or future support of this title?
According to the developers, any future support depends entirely on Microsoft and what they decide. They had no information at all on any future plans after release. However, the game is built with a certain structure which is very conducive towards adding new items or other content in the future. The possibility is certainly there.
How do other survivors factor into your campaign? Will they fight you, or raid your supplies?
The answers I was getting were a little vague, but the overall sense I got was that while other survivors and groups are in the area, they will not be a major source of conflict.
How much changes between play sessions? If a person can't play the game for a week or two, will your camp be completely overrun in your absence?
If there are any buildings that were started or if any characters are currently collecting resources, those actions will be completed while the player is away and the machine is off. Players do not have to worry about coming back to a camp full of zombies, since negative consequences will not occur when the player is not present. The developers wanted to be clear that this game isn't supposed to be the sort of "virtual pet" that will die if you don't check in once a day, although certain events will continue during downtime.
Will maps be randomly generated every time you start a new game?
The landscape and buildings are not randomly generated. Those features will remain consistent in every new game. Characters, quests, available items, number and location of zombies and so forth will be assigned based on certain formulas, and will vary from game to game. While every game will still have the same story beats and beginning/middle/end, there's quite a bit that can change or happen differently.
How long is the game?
Obviously quite a bit will depend on how much of the peripheral activities of player engages in, and how thorough they are in their play style. It was estimated that if someone was trying to crit-path their way through the game by moving as quickly as possible, doing the absolute bare minimum required to pass, and skipping all of the non-essential content, they would clock in somewhere around fifteen hours. Based on what I saw and how much time I spent myself, I could easily imagine this game running for forty hours or longer, depending on a number of things.
When will the game be released?
Sometime in June. It is not known whether or not the game will be part of the expected "Summer of Arcade" promotion.
That's it for my preview coverage on State of Decay. While there are definitely a few rough patches that are in need of polish, the core experience was refreshingly different, and much deeper than I expected. I'm even more excited for this title now than I was before, and I can easily imagine the game eating up days at a time while I board up windows and fend off the undead.
Infinite thanks to PR superstar Sanya Weathers for organizing the event, and to all the members of Undead Labs for being so open, welcoming, and eager to have us there and give us such an up-close look at what they've been working on for the last couple of years.
Also, thanks to the Twitter folks who sent in questions, including @G_Brett_96, @PMewse, @ColeCervo, @19mitch84, @srodd15, @SaulDarias, @Ron_Perlman_DDS, @JoelPepper1, @josh999josh, and @rossi_bill. Apologies if I overlooked anyone!