Sunday, June 9, 2013

State of Decay...

...Running, Screaming, and Bleeding Through the Motions

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the Nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

I was originally going to save this post for a more polished Nerdview later on, but I figure now is as good a time as any to put my thoughts out there, since I've now spent at least a dozen or so hours playing it within the past week.

Expectations 'Odor': State of Decay is an open-world sandbox game in which the player controls a small community of survivors in a world overrun by zombies. The player directs the survivors in scavenging for supplies and building a base from which they hold the zombie infestation at bay. Gameplay involves stealth, vehicles, and straight up combat with the player collecting scores of found weapons from baseball bats to shotguns to fight the shuffling menace.

I love zombie games. I bought Call of Duty World at War specifically because I heard about an unlockable Nazi zombies mode. Dead Rising was one of the biggest factors in my original decision to get an Xbox 360 in the first place. Left 4 Dead will never be too outdated for me to forsake its twitchy thrill-kill gameplay and epic standoff sequences. And I've also pledged for a Kickstarter project for a game called Dead State, which will be a gritty "true zombie" (slow and no special forms) survival game in which the player takes up turn-based tactical control over his band of survivors as they raid nearby homes and offices in their small Texas town. Hrm...wait a second...

Yeah, it sounds like State of Decay is kind of a ripoff of Dead State at first. That, and the fact that this game had crept under my radar until a mere three days before it was to be released, had actually muted my enthusiasm for this game, fearing it'd be a cash-in on a heavily populated game genre. And that's not the mention the name, which is so similar to Dead State that it might as well be a senile Yoda trying to recite his game library.

Appreciation 'Beef': Boy, was I thrilled with the differences. While superficially similar to the tactical promise of Dead State, State of Decay is a much more stream-lined and light approach to its themes. At its core, State of Decay feels like a focused Rockstar gameplay experience--the animations, controls, and rendering style all draw from that studio's distinct style. I didn't see Rockstar's name anywhere in the credits for this game, but I call straight-up shenanigans on that--especially after playing Undead Redemption, the zombie DLC for Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption. The games are just too tactilely familiar.

The game has that classic Rockstar/Grand Theft Auto action-style gameplay with lite RPG elements thrown in. You level up your skills in Cardio (the first of many Zombieland references in this game), Powerhouse, Fighting, and more through the regular use of the skills, increasing passive benefits regularly and occasionally getting a new ability or move as well. They also track a few keywords about each character's personality traits, as the clash or harmony of characters back at base mean you might come back from a long day of head-smashing to find your teammates at each other's throats. Sigh... Ed, you silly Idol-watching sluggard, I knew I should have dropped you off in that zombie-infested trailer park.

The base-building element of the game gives small, regular benefits that you'll definitely feel, but since the different facilities you'll build are going to be static set-pieces dropped in empty areas of your homebase, they don't necessarily feel as interesting as they are useful. Not to mention that getting the resources to build the base add-ons are a lot more work than you might be prepared for. Expect to spend 20 to 30 minutes gathering resources to build an addition only to have it take another 15 to 30 minutes to build. And that's assuming there isn't a delay due to a shortage of a specific resource.

The open world map is quite spacious. I'd compare it to about the size of one of the states in Red Dead Redemption. The following picture shows about one-fourth of the world map in the game, and it is dense enough with interesting terrain features, lootable buildings and little zombie surprises throughout. It's a well-realized and interesting world, as testified to by how much time I spent in the first town alone before even bothering to explore the second third of the map. I still haven't gotten to the third major region of the map.

This is about one quarter of the total real estate in State of Decay

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Oh, it's been a while since I've played Red Dead Redemption or LA Noire, which are the games I'd compare most directly to this one in terms of primary gameplay dynamics. The zombies are typical video game undead in that their are several special boss forms and the rank and file zombie is given to running when they want to shake off the eerie shuffle of a true zed-head. Head-shots are the only way to take them down, however, and the rather clunky third-person aiming of the game engine means that dropping a zombie with anything but a shotgun blast takes a little practice and a cool head. And not trying to use the alcoholic accountant as a front-line scavenger.

I love it. The strategy of the game is really just a way to link your self-assigned missions with more narrative and importance, but it works for me. The coolest artifact that carries over from other Rockstar games, though, is the no-save gameplay. The only way to save your status in this game is to exit the game and fall back on your last checkpoint. And death isn't the safety net it is in other games, either. You command a whole party of survivors, or at least the ones willing to friend you in the game's trust meter. And when whatever character you're controlling gets turned into hickburger, your control shifts to whoever is left back at your base. It makes the game persistent and adds tension even when the zombies aren't that threatening. Because one screw up, one overconfident decision to press on to another mission without stocking up on meds, and your fiery assault-rifling Latina will get wishboned by a zombie. And then you'll have to replace her with Ed the American Idol fan.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': By now you should really know if you'd like this game or not. It's well-crafted and pushes the genre forward in an interesting way, but it also doesn't break the rules or really surprise you, either. Sandbox fan? Get it. Zombie nut? Get it. Enjoy inexpensive games with high replay value? It's a $20 download through Xbox Live, and I find that the combination of base-building choices and character progression gives you a ton of different ways to approach the game. And the brutal way the game makes you lose vital characters and then just press on not only evokes the genre magnificently well, but it also makes you wonder whether it's worth it to restart from the beginning just one more time.

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