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State of Decay 2 lulled me into complacency then tore my heart out

From Stardew Valley to Resident Evil

State of Decay 2 - a player faces a juggernaut Undead Labs / Microsoft Studios
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

State of Decay 2 has been updated since its launch, and the game recently introduced a “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” game mode that shakes up the starting model a little. This update hasn’t revolutionized the game, and there are still issues with repetition and bugs, but it was enough to convince me to download the game and test it out. State of Decay 2 is wonderful at ramping up difficulty and letting the player opt-in to greater challenges, and I found myself appreciating the lesson in hubris the game taught me during my travels.

When I first started out, I played State of Decay 2 every day for like a week straight, both single-player and co-op. Oddly enough, the games that I originally found myself comparing State of Decay 2 to were Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. That may seem like a strange comparison, considering those games are about tending to my wonderful, safe little habitat while I befriend everyone around me. In those games, my biggest worry is whether I’ll be able to pay Tom Nook off so I can get a nice basement.

In State of Decay 2, I am more worried about the fact that a Juggernaut grabbed my hiker settler and tore him in half and then threw half of the body over the fence so everyone has to look at his entrails all day and it’s upsetting them.

What makes State of Decay 2 so appealing to me is that we didn’t start with the entrails. When I first start my run of this game, I choose a lovely young couple, and we’re quickly joined by a doctor, a soldier, and a suspicious survivalist. There are tons of systems that are mixed together in a game of State of Decay. I control one survivor at a time, and choose a base for us to settle down in. Upgrading and managing that base to make sure everyone is fed, supplied, and safe, is a little like the headquarters in an XCOM game.

State of Decay 2 - survivors stand in a field Undead Labs / Microsoft Studios

Then, there’s heading out into the larger world. There’s an entire open world map around my base, and every building can hold valuable supplies. There are other groups of survivors out there, too. Some of those people are hostile, and I have to evict them from my nice little neighborhood. Most of the time, they’re perfectly nice folks, and I end up helping them with their own needs.

Altogether, this forms a soothing gameplay loop, much like watering my beans in Stardew Valley, then heading to the town to plumb the mines and kill some skeletons and find an amethyst to hand to my love interest. Not only was the game a simple set of systems I could comprehend, but it filled in just enough of the details for me to get attached to these characters and start filling in my own canon for them.

My doctor ends up having a daredevil streak, and her personal quests involve stealing cars and causing chaos with them. Perfect! I lean into that, and when she starts arguing with the quiet arts major who later joined my base, I relish imagining that interpersonal dynamic. The soldier became quiet and withdrawn except when he was hanging out with Max, my chill bro, so I put them together in the field and imagine how Max drew my soldier out of his shell.

While I did this, the gameplay remained perfectly docile. I’d kill some zombies, clear out a new house, bring back some building supplies, and then start a fun new project. My settlers would have needs and I’d manage them accordingly. I made friends with a little settlement of mechanics down the way who promised me refurbished vehicles if only I helped them out with a few things. I kill a few plague hearts, making the neighborhood safer. I opt in to so many small increases at difficulty at once.

Then, the death spiral began.

State of Decay 2 - a bloater Undead Labs / Microsoft Studios

I decide to help the mechanics with a mission and we are almost immediately overrun. I lost a member of my base and two of the mechanics. The survivor moved in with me. Then, we didn’t have enough beds, so I have to forage more aggressively. In a frantic bid to buy more time, I take out another plague heart. Suddenly, there are Juggernauts everywhere on the map.

At any point, I could have slowed down and played more conservatively. I could have calculated my options, let my poor citizens rest, and focused on shoring up our base.

Instead, I continue to venture out into the world. An enclave near our base starts threatening to rob us. While I frantically leave their home in my van with an airbrushed wizard on the side, I hit a bloater with a car and in a panic, fling my citizen out of the car ... and into the path of a swarm of zombies. The death toll starts mounting up. Now, when I check my current citizens, there are five tombstones behind them.

Another group of citizens asks to move in. They’re pathetic, and sad, and I can’t say no. Once they move in, I realize that they are quite literally pathetic; one of them straight up has that as a character trait. The other one is way too enthusiastic about procuring drugs from around the map. I end up having to exile them, and they spit curses as me as they head out into the world to probably die.

That’s the state of my State of Decay 2 game. I have lost some of my most valuable citizens, who I spent hours happily daydreaming backstories for. There are giant angry zombies everywhere on the map and there are entrails hanging over my gate. While my current situation is tense, that’s quite appropriate for a zombie apocalypse, and it’s hitting harder than if I had simply been thrown into the fire from the get go. State of Decay 2 is an imperfect game, but it’s a fascinating one to explore.