In theory, Undead Labs’ “State of Decay 2” is a game of grand choice and consequence, more than just another shambling corpse fashioned from the continued popularity of that wonderful excuse for justified lawlessness and mass murder known as a zombie outbreak. It seasons the ruthless undead-smashing of shooter standouts like “Killing Floor” and “Left 4 Dead” with a light layer of base-building and character-growth, forcing you to think in terms of your community’s fragile existence rather than your personal body count. (Cleaving a swath of zeds with a machete might win you a modicum of “Influence” — the sole currency of this shattered America — but kiting the crowds to filch a rucksack of food from a nearby liquor store will get you even more.)
In practice, however, the true threat to your burgeoning community lies not with the roving undead, nor the pockets of your fellow desperate uninfected in surrounding households, but the capricious whims of the game’s machinery itself, which threatens to explode into itself at any moment, often producing spectacularly-galling results which shake the very foundation of the game to its core.
Let’s be clear here: when it comes to our excessive, hyper-ambitious open-world games — where the road seems to unfurl forever into the sun-soaked horizon, where you can almost hear the whirring of the cash machine pumping infinite capital into its production — we don’t mind a few inconsistencies or even a few crashes. After all, we all laughed at the horrifying pseudo-centaur horse-men GIFs that last-gen classics like “Red Dead Redemption” shot out into the depths of the internet nearly a decade ago. And, to be sure, there are moments of levity in “State of Decay 2’s” non-stop cavalcade of technical issues: far-off zombies caroming into the skybox as if flung by trebuchets; cars getting stuck in invisible geometry, then miraculously unstuck, then rather un-miraculously stuck again; even the ever-present crashes can have a sort of mangled comic timing, like the curtain suddenly falling on a community theatre production of a lost “Walking Dead” episode. But there’s nothing funny about a game that relies so heavily on painstaking preparation robbing you of resources due to a broken quest, or a missing escort target, or a horde of the undead falling from the sky.
Poor Matthias; we hardly knew him, really. He was only a part of our community for a mere seven days, but in the nigh-broken crucible of death and despair of “State of Decay 2,” that can seem quite long. Though his skill set left much to be desired – he was merely decent at scouring through crumpled boxes and abandoned refrigerators for vital loot, and he was almost useless in a scrap – his sob story still moved us. As our sole neighbor, his coven of compatriots had fallen victim to a horde of the undead some weeks prior, but he was still willing to sacrifice some much-needed resources to keep us afloat. After that display, we had no choice but to take him in, even though we had no room, forcing him to sleep outside on a wooden bed in order to keep morale steady.
One night, Matthias accompanied our intrepid leader Luis on a routine supply run in the dead of night. He wasn’t the ideal backup for the situation, but more capable personnel like the soldier Donovan were shelved by fatigue and injury owing to a recent Zed raid on our compound, and thus Matthias had to step into his heavy boots. One of our hard-won allies needed a rucksack of food delivered, and we needed support from fellow survivors to deal with a hostile enclave of self-proclaimed looters that had moved in just a few blocks down the street, who threatened our turf. As we swept down that desert road, the truck fishtailing back and forth with abandon, who would have thought that a hulking Juggernaut would spawn directly on top of the vehicle, pushing the duo out into the cold night air with a grotesque grinding of glitched polygons, dropping them both prone and dealing inexplicable amounts of damage? Alas, poor Matthias, as the short scuffle unfolded, Luis firing wildly with his rifle as the beast separated your spine from its moorings, at least we could all content ourselves with the simple fact of your innocence. After all, it’s not your fault that the goddamn game bugged out again.
Such lapses of reality are unfortunately common in this particular apocalypse, and I found my survivors suffering from their cruelty again and again. I once drove a stranded survivor halfway across the map back to his home base, hoping to convince them to let me buy some much-needed meds from his crew. When I arrived at their house, he decided the best way to show his gratitude would be to run in the exact opposite direction, towards a canyon teeming with zombies. After busting some skulls, my quarry seemed to evaporate into the ether. Hoping for the best, I decided to quit and re-load my game — always a questionable proposition — only to find myself beset by the same group of zeds in the same deserted ditch. As I emerged once more, I found that not only had my former companion’s enclave decided to pull a vanishing act, they decided to take my ride with them, leaving me to sprint for ten minutes through fields of hostiles back to my med-strapped home, with only a handful of loot and a raging headache.
Eventually, I learned to just shrug off these continual mishaps as simply part of the game’s roughshod charm, especially when it came to optional content, like emergent side quests. However, when the thick layer of bugs manages to cover even the most basic missions, at some point, you have to throw up your hands and wait for a hotfix or two. For me, the sense that”State of Decay 2″ was a fundamentally misshapen game came when — after 10 hours of halting play — I finally promoted one of my standout citizens to a leader, activating one of the game’s core engines of progression in the form of goals that this new ruler would want to accomplish. An objective marker fell to earth, gracing my map, telling me to examine some bodies of survivors on the far east side of the map, an entire gas canister’s worth of fuel away. Eager to finally escape the specter of endless side quests, I fueled up a nearby muscle car and high-tailed it to the ragged edge of former civilization and smacked some zeds around, to find that there were no bodies at all in that pawn shop — just a pile of mediocre loot. Confused, I turned to my map for guidance, but the objective point had disappeared and highlighting it did nothing. And there I was, yet another plan foiled by the gnashing of the game’s gears and flywheels. All I could do was turn it off and hope for better missions to come.
Yet I still persisted in playing, for hours and hours. At its best, “State of Decay 2” is a dream game, for undead-heads and casual fans alike — an approachable zombie sim that manages to combine the two most satisfying aspects of the fiction to tell compelling stories of strength, strife, and survival. It asks players to balance the long-term survival of their settlement — through improvements like upgrading workshops or infirmaries, or moving HQ to a better-equipped building entirely — with short-term concerns, like clearing out the zombie infestation down the street before they attack you, or clearing out a powerful Plague Heart ahead of schedule to procure its juices to cure one of your dying citizens. And though it’s an unruly, messy, downright ugly game at times — the tutorial telling me how to stealth-kill a zombie still shows up now, twenty-plus hours into my walker-slaying quest, and the game’s aesthetic is best described as “vacant Americana” — there’s a pulsing ambition at the heart of it that makes you want to forgive all the flaws, to continue pressing on, damn the consequences.
But, there’s no denying it, “State of Decay 2″ is among the most broken high-profile games released this console generation, a delicate juggling act that hits you in the face with pie again and again, much past the point of any comedy. Those who manage to trudge through the muck will find a remarkable, if ramshackle experience that ticks their every checkbox for a great zombie game, save the unwritten one marked “stability.”