As themes, both zombies and post-apocalyptic survival have been attempted many times over the years, and as the title implies this is the second lungey bite at delicious brains for Undead Labs (a studio set up specifically to make zombie games). There's a lot to love about State of Decay 2, but, much like the group of suspiciously well-fed survivors who live on the farm down the road, there are reasons you might want to avoid it.
If you've played State of Decay, then know that State of Decay 2 is similar, but more: the three map areas you can settle in are bigger; you can play single play or in co-op with friends; the zombie types are the same (regular shamblers plus the Freak zombies – Screamers that attract others, Bloaters that explode and damage you, Ferals that will destroy you and
Absolute Units Juggernauts that charge) but there's a secondary Blood Plague infection that makes some better, faster, stronger; your community is still a mixed bag of characters with different Traits and Skills, but the pool of those is now bigger to draw from.
Because Skills and Traits are thrown together randomly to cook up a survivor, the characters themselves become one of the best parts of the game. Skills are functional and useful, including the basics of Cardio, Wits, Fighting and Shooting, and a clutch of more specific ones that help things like utilities, medicine or gardening. The Traits can have more to do with personality, and they shake things up. One day you might meet a woman who is a delicious survival burrito of amazing blade skills, methodical thought and outdoorsmanship. The next day you'll run into a dude holed up in a nail salon who snores and starts fights with everyone, but the problem is that he's a gardener and that would really help you with your food yields. He is a crap sandwich but with, for some reason, a marshmallow centre.
Just like in the first State of Decay some of the personality traits don't have an impact on the game (like 'really liked riding bikes') but do serve to make your little minions feel unique, so when they die you can be like 'Oh god, Manny… I'll ride a bike for you, Manny…. He loved bikes…'. They also change how your survivors approach problems (I have a lad called Dave who just suggests we do everything with guns) and what sort of leader they'd be (Dave would rule with force), as well as what upsets them (Dave gets antsy if we're low on ammo) and what they want your home base to look like (Dave is unhappy unless we have a watch tower to shoot zombies from). The expansion in how the survivors can interact, and all the ways you have to balance their varied needs, is extremely good and a delightful, if sometimes harrowing, experience.
As you pick up more survivors you use up more resources, including space, which, in a zombie infested wasteland, is at a premium. You only have so much room to upgrade your home base, so you have to choose what to prioritise. While you can supplement your incomings with outposts at places like restaurants, medical centres or power stations, or increase your Influence to try and move to a bigger home, you won't be able to get everything you need without going out on regular scavenge runs, which gives the game a clever difficulty curve. As you loot everything close to home you have to travel further and further out, and the world only gets more dangerous. As time goes on you'll encounter more Freak Zombies and wandering hordes, infestations that threaten to overwhelm an area, and Plague Hearts churn out Blood Plague zombies and have to be destroyed.
Expeditions out into the unsafe, uncaring world can sometimes be genuinely tense. The feeling of success when you make it back without your car exploding or with a key survivor still alive is fantastic, because they can go wrong without warning and turn on a dime. Unfortunately this is usually down to your own incompetence or the game's jank getting in the way of itself, because for the most part surviving in State of Decay 2 isn't really that hard.
The Blood Plague is supposed to be an ever present threat that can kill survivors if they take damage from Plague zombies and you don't have an infirmary, but none of mine got close to even being infected. I never had to ration food. We never ran out of beds. Barring any cataclysmic problems, and while the end game gets more interesting, the mid-game of State of Decay 2 runs into the stale survival wall quickly, i.e. the boring point where everything is basically fine and you just keep doing the same things over and over again for hours. Eventually you'll want to move into a new neighbourhood and start fresh just for the thrill. To walk out into the darkness armed only with a knife, just to feel alive.
This is not aided by a) the side quests, where (despite a smattering of unique side quests) you're mostly just helping a lonely woman in a mac get back to her friends and discovering they're all dead, and b) some fairly hilarious performance issues. The Xbox One X must have real brand loyalty, because it rendered a lot of textures in black and green. Some of your toughest, down-to-the-wire survival moments will be because your car got stuck on a tiny rock as a horde surrounded you. Survivors can spam voice lines seemingly at random, or glitch into the air. Zombies themselves frequently get stuck on things and in walls -- although to be fair this can be helpful in critical moments.
State of Decay 2 has some lovely elements that will make you want to keep playing, and yet others that make you want to turn it off again, so you get caught in a fretful loop of not knowing what to do with yourself. Like some kind of restless corpse shuffling back and forth with no purpose, perhaps…?
Developer: Undead Labs
Available on: PC, Xbox One (reviewed on)
Release Date: May 22, 2018
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