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State of Decay 2 preview: A formula resurrected — and relatively unchanged

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At E3 2017, we got a behind-the-scenes look at State of Decay 2, ahead of its spring 2018 release.

The original State of Decay launched as a digital-only title for the Xbox 360, published under the Xbox Live Arcade banner. Since then, the game launched on both Steam and Xbox One as a definitive edition, bringing together all the game’s DLC into a single package. State of Decay broke sales records for the Xbox Live Arcade. and won itself millions of loyal fans in the process.

But what the heck is it?

State of Decay is effectively a zombie apocalypse simulator, complete with base construction, community management, and resource hunting. Whether its ammo, food, or building materials, every excursion into the abandoned suburbs and cities could end in tragedy — namely permadeath.

In State of Decay, there are no heroes. You play as the entire community of survivors, able to switch on the fly. Should your controlled character die on a mission, get dragged from a vehicle or simply be cornered in a building by the zombie horde, that’s it, they’re dead, and you lose all of their levels, skills, and progression.

Now, Undead Labs is reviving its zombie apocalypse IP for a sequel on Xbox One, Xbox One X, and Windows 10, complete with cross-play and cross-purchasing. State of Decay 2 is expected to launch in early 2018, and we got a sneak peek behind closed doors at E3 2017.

Building a survivalist community

The first thing that really struck me about State of Decay 2’s demo was how familiar everything was, as a long-time fan of the series. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I have to wonder whether Undead Labs is keeping its cards close to its chest, or whether the company is playing it a little too safe.

We were shown how Undead Labs has improved individual survivors. As part of the simulation, each character is procedurally generated from thousands of statistical and physical traits, up from 200 or so in the first game. No two survivors should ever be identical.

One character in the demo was a groundskeeper before the apocalypse, granting her gardening skills and physical strength. She’s also “guilt motivated,” and has a strong immune system. Another character was an action movie choreographer before the apocalypse, granting him exceptional fighting skills for State of Decay’s melee-heavy combat system. He also comes with the “work schedule” skill, which grants bonuses in the game’s base management system. But he also snores, which grants negative effects for all survivor’s sleep schedules. As you play each survivor, there will be opportunities to specialize their abilities and earn new skills.

You have to take the good with the bad in State of Decay 2, and it grants the game’s community systems an edge of dynamic realism. It’ll be interesting to see just what sorts of traits emerge down the line. Could we end up with survivors with dangerous, maybe even psychotic tendencies? Time will tell.

Resource hunting

Just like in the first game, State of Decay 2 offers players a large open world scattered with all sorts of abandoned buildings and facilities. Some of these buildings are designated habitable and can be occupied by communities. As your community grows and you deplete the resources in the surrounding area, you may find that you’ll have to move on to greener pastures. State of Decay 2 features three maps, each roughly the same size as the first game in its entirety, giving players a huge area to play with. You’ll be restricted primarily by resources, space, manpower, and roaming zombie hordes.

There’s a new UI menu for State of Decay 2’s base building system. It allows you to see your resource stockpiles, available building plots, building upgrades, noise levels, and deficits. The population of your base grants you labor points to spend building or sending your community members on missions, but they also have needs. For our demo, Undead Labs’ base was running at a huge food deficit, which meant the community would eventually starve.

The food situation, combined with sleep deprivation from one of the community member’s snoring trait had an overall negative impact on community morale, which lowers their effectiveness across the board. To paraphrase Undead Labs, the team described it thusly: “Having a community of assholes could be a real problem.”

You might be wondering why “noise” levels are an issue in State of Decay 2, and it’s a feature that carries over from the first game. The more noise you generate, the more zombies discover you and eventually congregate at your base. Once you hit a certain threshold, you could trigger a siege, which sees waves of zombies attack your base Horde-style.

Undead Labs emphasizes the multitude of methods available to the player for solving the food crisis. You can take a car, plow through the zombie hordes or raid a supermarket for canned food, for example. But for the demonstration, Undead Labs wanted to utilize one of the survivor’s gardening skills to create a vegetable patch within the base.

As seen in the previous game, some buildings require key items to build. In this case, seeds for planting. Here’s where we got a chance to see State of Decay 2’s biggest feature addition: multiplayer co-op.

State of deco-op

As hinted at by the game’s initial reveal trailer, State of Decay 2 features drop-in, drop-out co-op, where players can jump into other players’ worlds to help out, hunt zeds together, and grab sweet rewards in the process. You can invite players into your game via your friends list, but additionally, you can use an in-game flare gun to summon completely random players from Xbox Live.

Players can volunteer their time to help out in other players’ worlds and get loot and additional rewards for doing so. Undead Labs wouldn’t go into specifics about what those rewards and incentives would be for now, but expect them to be revealed later on.

Multiplayer co-op was quite easily the most requested feature for State of Decay’s sequel, and Undead Labs delivered with gusto.

Every excursion from your base is a risk, particularly when you factor in permadeath. As such, bringing a friend can significantly boost your chances of survival and success. It’s during these trips into the chaos that State of Decay 2 evolves from a resource simulator into a competent, third-person action game, complete with vehicular gameplay, stamina-based melee combat, and shooting mechanics.

Like the previous games, everything you do generates noise, which alerts zombies. It can really build up if you’re not careful, because more fighting generates more noise and almost has a cascading effect. Sneaking and stealth are often solid policies.

Many State of Decay staples return in the sequel. You’ll find all sorts of melee weapons, utility items like firecrackers for distracting zombies, and firearms hidden at police stations and other locations. Key items are found where you might expect them (seeds in a gardening center, for example), but hunting them down is always going to be a big risk.

Working together as a team is more effective. Undead Labs added piles of new moves to control zombies co-operatively, including grapples and shoves. Zombies can also be dismembered now, reducing their effectiveness in combat. A legless or armless zombie is certainly less dangerous than one with all four limbs.

Co-op was quite easily the most requested feature for State of Decay’s sequel, and Undead Labs delivered with gusto.

After obtaining the seeds, Undead Lab’s testers radioed home to begin construction of the new vegetable garden, but the noise triggered a zombie siege of their home base.

As seen in the previous game, all sorts of undead freaks will attack in waves during sieges, introduced in State of Decay’s Lifeline DLC. The screamer zombie type is back, with its ability to alert other zombies to the scene, as well as the hulking juggernaut.

After the battle, many survivors were injured and required rest and first aid. State of Decay 2, like the previous game, often comes with waiting periods for resting and building, bolstered by dynamic day and night cycles. The survivors had lived to fight another day, for now, but every day in State of Decay 2’s simulation is filled with peril, which can lead to characters’ permanent deaths.

So … what exactly is new here?

Besides the co-op and heaps of polish, State of Decay 2 seems like an almost perfect carbon copy of the first game and its DLC. There are dozens of new facilities to build, tons of new features to research, and thousands of new traits and skills, but at its core, State of Decay 2 doesn’t seem to do anything new.

Bases are still static buildings, with specific construction plots. You still have stamina and hit points to manage, the same super zombies seem to be returning, and the same excursion, search, scavenge, and return home gameplay systems seem to be unchanged. Naturally, there will be more ways to play, but the core experience should seem extremely familiar to fans of the previous game. That could be both good and bad.

If you loved State of Decay, you’re probably going to love State of Decay 2 even more. If the lack of polish, the quirky engine, and lack of multiplayer put you off from State of Decay, you’ll probably appreciate State of Decay 2 a bit more. If you disliked State of Decay due to its core gameplay, however, you might not like the sequel, because it doesn’t seem like a great deal has changed. That said, Undead Labs has more information to reveal, specifically with regards to multiplayer, so perhaps there’s still more to learn.

As a big fan of the franchise, I’m excited to get my hands on State of Decay 2, given that it basically fixes all the problems found in the first game. Hopefully, there are still new features Undead Labs has yet to announce, because there are not a lot of surprises thus far.

State of Decay 2 launches exclusives for Xbox One and Windows PCs as an Xbox Play Anywhere title in the spring of 2018.

Your thoughts

Were you a fan of the original State of Decay? Are you anxiously awaiting the next installment? Let us know in the comments.

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