I’m a zombie apocalypse fanboy. I think it’s a really interesting thought experiment into what human beings are capable of. That said, I’ve never played a zombie game other than Left 4 Dead 2. They’re mostly singleplayer experiences, and that’s not for me. Finally State of Decay 2 arrived, a zombie game with some co-op goodness. XBox Game Studios granted my request for a review copy of the ‘Juggernaut Edition’ Steam release, so I quickly found someone in my stream community to play with and we scavenged our way through a new apocalypse.

State of Decay 2 is developed by Undead Labs, and published by XBox Game Studios, and with the involvement of Microsoft, I think we’re safe to expect AAA game quality. It released initially on XBox Live as a ‘play anywhere title’ on May 22, 2018 for $29.99, which was a tempting price. I played it at launch on PC, and was less than pleased for reasons I’ll go into later. On March 13, 2020, State of Decay 2 released on Steam with it’s ‘Juggernaut Edition’ for the same price. The price remains tempting, if not more so. It is also a full release, no early access. You can still purchase it through the XBox app or Steam, and crossplay is available between PC and XBox.

The game takes place in a modern day setting. The initial zombie invasion has occurred, and basically destroyed civilization. There is a general story based around your group’s survival, but it’s very light and very generic. This isn’t a bad thing, as your choices are what actually build your story. I think the best thing about the game is it’s realism, it basically plays like a season of The Walking Dead television show. Zombies are an ever present background, but other survival needs pop up to drive your actions. Maybe you need food, maybe you need weapons, maybe some strangers call on you for help – maybe they aren’t friendly either. I cannot overstate how fun this was, to have such a dynamic system available. Nothing felt on rails or forced. I ignored a lot of calls for help, and they actually up and left the area eventually reducing the number of ‘safe’ areas on the map. Kudos to Undead Labs for a really authentic feeling experience, and great story system.

The game plays super casual, all the controls are very intuitive. You can play it solo if you want, but it offers drop-in co-op. More on multiplayer in a moment. The game’s graphics are stylized, and the music and sound effects are great. The core gameplay is scavenging and prioritizing in an open, persistent world. There’s a steady trickle of supplies, but your meager carrying capacity requires you to make decisions on what to take, what to keep, and what to sell. Do you take the rifle you found as your first gun, or the food supplies so your camp followers stop fighting? Every choice you take has a small, but collectively meaningful impact. Another nod towards realism. You also respond to calls for help over the radio, as well as manage your group’s own priorities and needs.

The ‘base building’ is more management than construction, and doubles as your character progression. You take over an abandoned building (trying not to give spoilers), which offers a finite number of spaces and unique amenities. You may have a sniper tower for protection at one base with 5 upgrade slots, while another base may offer electricity and 7 upgrade slots. Yet another choice with consequences to make. This is really an underlying mechanic of State of Decay 2 and it is awesome. Meanwhile at your base, you can collect followers with different skills which can come in handy. Construction traits are good for building facilities at your base, while Shooting traits have more direct and obvious uses. These traits help to illustrate more about ‘everyday people’ in the apocalypse, and you can see some pretty wild and funny traits come up. You can switch between followers as your active character, which is absolutely necessary. If your character dies, they’re only coming back as the undead. State of Decay 2 serves up a steaming hot plate of permadeath.

I want to take a moment to focus on the multiplayer, because that’s what I care about most. It’s also how I played the entire game. I always had someone from my Twitch community with me, so my experience is totally through a cooperative lens. The implementation is mixed in my eyes. It’s really easy to join and invite people. All players must remain ‘near’ the game host. If they wander too far, they will rubberband back to the host player. The distance is pretty generous, and I don’t think it’s really a problem, but it is worth mentioning. And while we’re on the subject of the host player, only the host player can ‘progress’ their base. Other group members can find their own loot, deposit to their community, but they cannot manage their own base or progress their own storylines. A bit of a disappointment.

There are a few cons worth mentioning. There were connection problems occasionally with the multiplayer. Not enough to make you want to quit playing, but enough to aggravate you. It largely occurred while we were traveling in separate vehicles. I also thought there was way too much radio chatter. I thought the radio mechanic was an interesting one, different communities communicating during the apocalypse, but it was really just too much. I had barely enough time to manage my own community, let alone respond to anything that came over the radio. It was the one thing that seemed less realistic.

The game has most certainly improved from launch. I couldn’t even get the XBox app to connect when I tried initially, and the controls were just terrible. Both have drastically improved, and you can really see that they’ve put in work to manage quality of life issues. The community around the game is still pretty lively. Granted that I was streaming and had other people to fill the group, but there are still people playing the game both on console and PC. I really want to emphasize how realistic the game is. Undead Labs has just gone next level with the though behind their mechanics in game. To that end, I’d strongly encourage you to play it one difficulty level higher than you normally would. I completed the first campaign in about 16 hours, and looking back, I think I would have enjoyed it more with more difficulty. I am completely on board for any additional content for the game, or any future sequels. I still have more to explore in the Juggernaut Edition, and I cannot wait to experience all of it.

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