State of Decay's Lifeline DLC is just the start of Undead Labs' 'long-term ambitions'

State of Decay: Lifeline, the second expansion and the first story-based add-on for Undead Labs' hit Xbox Live Arcade title, turns the tables on State of Decay by putting the player on the military side of humanity's efforts to repel the zombie threat. But as we saw during a demo of Lifeline at PAX East 2014, that doesn't mean that the DLC will shy away from what made the original game so special: exploring the psychological effects of dealing with the undead.

Lifeline casts the player as a member of Greyhound One, a small platoon that's attempting to maintain order in the overrun city of Danforth. Unlike in State of Decay, you start out with plenty of rations and support from the larger military. But all of it dwindles over time in the face of the zombie outbreak: Your supplies gradually deteriorate, and resupplies from your group's commanders become more rare. That forces you and your comrades to head out of your base into town, in an attempt to rescue civilians and gather resources to fortify your defenses.

Missions in Lifeline will focus on picking up people trapped in Danforth and bringing them back home so the military can extract them to safety via helicopter when the next resource drop comes around. As in State of Decay, your outpost becomes more challenging to manage as its population grows. We watched Undead Labs founder Jeff Strain play a rescue mission in Lifeline, and before he began, he scrolled through the game's interface for building out your base. Keeping the place sanitary is a key factor in maintaining morale, so Strain constructed a latrine.

Afterward, he went into Danforth on a mission to rescue a man named Dr. Madison Grant. Lifeline includes some new vehicles and graphical improvements over the original game, and they were apparent in our demo. According to Strain, Lifeline brings a brand-new region with an area of 4 square kilometers into State of Decay. He drove along a highway littered with zombies and abandoned vehicles to get to Dr. Grant, and then the two of them escaped the area together.

This isn't an escort mission with a helpless person. The AI for Grant wasn't dumb: He followed Strain's character as Strain switched cars, and Dr. Grant even managed to fight off some zombies while in the bed of a pickup truck Strain was driving. Once they made it back to the outpost, Strain explained that other rescue missions will direct you to soldiers marooned in Danforth; after all — as in State of Decay — it's possible for the player character to die, and once that happens, you'll switch to controlling a different soldier. If all the soldiers bite the dust, it's game over. That can also occur if you lose too many civilians to zombie attacks on your base.

the State of Decay brand is here to stay

Lifeline is a single-player expansion; Strain said last year that it wasn't feasible to add a multiplayer component to State of Decay. But as a result of the multi-year, multi-game agreement between Undead Labs and publisher Microsoft Studios that the companies announced in January, the State of Decay brand is here to stay — and multiplayer action is the bedrock of its future.

"We have long-term ambitions for the franchise," said Strain in an interview following the demo, referring to the deal with Microsoft. "Wherever we take this, in terms of sequels, multiplayer will be built in from the beginning."

Strain has been very positive about his company's relationship with Microsoft, and he told Polygon that Undead Labs went with Microsoft for the original State of Decay and followed up with the long-term agreement for a number of reasons.

"My experience with our team and Microsoft has been that it is built from very passionate, very smart people whose hearts are in the right place," said Strain. He pointed out that State of Decay was a risky proposition to invest in, partly because Undead Labs "did violate game dev 101" with several of its design choices, like the inclusion of permadeath in a role-playing game.

Strain also noted that, in addition to the advantage of having the Microsoft Studios team shepherding the project along, the Xbox platform — both on Xbox 360 and now on Xbox One — offered Undead Labs some important technological benefits.

"working directly with Microsoft is going to be a huge win going forward"

"When you look at some of the things we want to do going forward, if you want to be on the console platform, it takes some different thinking about the console business model, about the live infrastructure and network infrastructure that traditionally you associate with the console experience," he said. "We're going to have to have somebody who's a partner working with us on the technology to make all that happen. And so working directly with Microsoft is going to be a huge win going forward for that."

It makes sense when you consider Undead Labs' multiplayer ambitions for the State of Decay series; in fact, when Strain announced the formation of the studio in 2009, the title of the press release said the company was created to develop a "console-based zombie MMO." Asked about the Xbox Live Compute Cloud — the Xbox One's highly touted cloud-based computing technology — Strain told us, "The Azure infrastructure is huge. The existing Live infrastructure is really quite mature and robust. And those are all things that we'd love to take advantage of."

Strain also praised Microsoft's recent announcement that Microsoft Studios chief Phil Spencer was being promoted to Head of Xbox. "Phil's a fan of the game, he's a fan of the studio — he wears his State of Decay T-shirt up on the stage at E3 — and he's super excited about where we're going. So we were very happy with it," said Strain.

Lifeline is the latest piece of that bright future for State of Decay. The expansion is set for release this June; Strain couldn't confirm a price, but said it will likely be "pretty close" to the first add-on, Breakdown, which costs $6.99.

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