A few weeks ago, I attended a University of California lecture on the societal anxieties that produce monsters in popular culture. The professor made the point that zombies represent our fear — most especially when we are young — of suburbia.
The walking dead are representations of mindless consumerism, the unending, pointless itch of want. It’s no coincidence that zombies are often to be found in malls, lurking around gourmet cookie stores or high-end lawn mower departments.
So there’s a sharp irony inherent to the State of Decay series, in which I seek to survive a horrible zombie apocalypse, while at the same time, renovating my house and making it as comfy and pleasing as possible.
State of Decay 2 expands on this theme of advanced nesting, somehow meshing The Walking Dead with Fixer Upper. I while away the hours, dismembering shuffling corpses, while making sure my patio is up to snuff.
At first, it’s all functional: a few beds, maybe a kitchenette. But before long, I’m installing a gym and a rec room.
When the first State of Decay came out in 2013, this was a welcome idea, a novel twist on the humdrummery of mass cadaver carvery. Reviewers of the time correctly pointed out that slaying zombies is only half the fun of an undead apocalypse. The rest of the fantasy is all about organizing the living into pods of resistance, with all the human challenges that entails.
I mark my progress in State of Decay games, not by defeating enemies — there are always more zombies to be killed — but by establishing a new utopia in my converted garden-mansion.
State of Decay 2 sticks resolutely to the formula. The differences are mainly about scale. Whereas the first game was a linear narrative of fetch quests and fights, this sequel is an open-world game of, well, more fetch quests and fights.
Based on playing a few hours at a recent press event, I’d say that the game’s open-worldness is generic stuff. I climb a tower and survey my surroundings, creating a map of possibilities. Abandoned stores and half-finished building sites offer resource caches that I plunder in order to feed myself and upgrade my base.
Of course, these are also the hidey holes for zombie infestations, which must be eliminated through combat. I begin with a baseball bat and a pistol, but I’m soon packing more gruesome weapons. Bombs and decoys are added to offer more tactical edges. I can also stealth-kill any zombies foolish enough to stray from the pack.
Individually, zombies are easy enough to kill. But their advantage is congregation. They move quickly toward any focal point of noise. Fights tend to be noisy affairs, so once I begin a fight, it’s likely to escalate into a mob. If I hang around too long, if I fail to eliminate the rallying leaders, I’m doomed.
My missions are aided by an AI helper, one of the people who shares my home. We are all strangers in a strange land, thrown together by circumstance. But here’s where the game becomes more interesting than your average open world.
The game creates a bunch of random-ish characters, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and personalities. I play as whomever (let’s call her Mary), but when Mary gets tired, I play as her housemate, George, and so on. The bigger the community, the more people I get to become. I am me, and I am also them.
As the game goes on, Mary and George upgrade their skills, and accrue a greater variety of weapons. So do Samantha, Billy, Hector and Louise, or whoever I’ve added to my gang. If one of me dies, I’m gone forever, and so all that progress is lost. Everyone has a vested interest in keeping me ... them ... alive.
The more people I have, the bigger house I need. And so I upgrade my digs, and then move onto something bigger and fancier. I’m on a never-ending quest for resources that grow my community, who must all be kept happy with more resources such as food, medical supplies and building materials.
These characters aren’t merely walking embodiments of combat skills. They have personalities and wants. As the player, I decide who gets to lead the gang, and if someone is a complete dick, I get to expel them from the group. It’s like a mini soap opera.
Frankly, I’m a lot more interested in this dynamic than in the killing part of the game, which I worry might become chore-like. Still, the business of resource collection/zombie murder is enlivened by mini-narratives attached to various characters.
In one scenario, I go off in search of a long lost aunt. Success boosts my credibility in the eyes of the group, and I become more valuable. This also elevates my reputation when I come into contact with other human pods, with whom I can trade or ally. (Other human groups, in late game, are not so friendly.)
The story is nudged along by an uber-arc about a medicine that can cure zombie bites. To collect this stuff, I need to defeat the most intense hordes of zombies and collect some essence of zombieness.
This also throws up nice moral problems. If I am unable, or unwilling, to take on the horde, maybe I’ll have to kill my pal George who is suffering from a bite and is about to turn zombie. Maybe my pal isn’t just a great person after all. Maybe I’d prefer to go in search of my aunt, rather than worrying about George.
So State of Decay 2 packs in a lot of stuff. An incomplete list includes shooting, melee, stealth, bomb strategy, exploration, trading, building, resource gathering, RPG upgrades, conversation options, character development and relationship choices.
There’s also driving. You can jump into a vehicle and run down zombies. Sometimes, you’ve no other choice. Cars are also useful when playing co-op, which generally involves moving from place to place, attacking zombies and collecting stuff. I played a little co-op and found that I enjoyed laying into zombies, as a communal experience, though it can get a little cozy if you’re all milling about in the same undead coven.
State of Decay 2 from developer Undead Labs is out on May 22 for Windows PC and Xbox One. We’ll have more on this game as the release date nears.