Saturday, June 15, 2013

Game Review - State of Decay (XBLA, 2013)

A little over 17 years ago, Resident Evil made survival horror a mainstream gaming genre.  As the underlying technology has advanced and games have become more sophisticated, I’ve gotten more and more excited about a true survival game, one that focuses more on staying alive than the classic horror elements that usually accompany them.  I imagine a game with RPG elements, as the initially out-of-shape protagonist “levels up” while developing the skills necessary for surviving the post-apocalyptic world.  Many games have captured those RPG features quite well, but I’ve never seen those features embedded effectively in a survival game.

Until I played State of Decay.

State of Decay is a true survival game, where gathering supplies is (almost) as important as fighting off zombie hordes.  Members of your ragtag group of the living will hone their skills in the process, becoming more proficient fighters, marksmen, scavengers, and all-around athletes as they struggle to survive.  It’s a really neat system, as you’ll have to make time to find more food or medical supplies between excursions to eradicate particularly heavy zombie infestations or make deals with neighboring groups.

It also features a particularly interesting (and I think realistic) emphasis on the community.  There’s not really a main character per se, but rather a group that evolves as new survivors are brought in or old members are torn apart by the undead.

This setup leads to one of the most exciting features of the game: as you control a character, they will eventually get fatigued and taking excessive damage leads to more permanent injuries, both of which reduce that character’s effectiveness.  A fatigued and/or wounded character needs to take a break to recover, which can be accomplished simply by switching to another active character for a time.

Characters will also bring specialized skills to benefit the whole team; for example, a good cook can prepare better meals for better bonuses (assuming you have the food supply), and someone with medical experience can help treat the wounded more effectively.  Combined with the characters’ gradually improving skills, this feature sets the stage for the game’s focus on realistic and challenging survival.

Another consequence of the group-centric play is the fact that a character’s death is permanent, and you might even need to take a mortally wounded ally to a secluded spot to prevent them from becoming a zombie.  To hammer these impacts home, the game automatically saves your progress and doesn’t give you the option of maintaining multiple save files; a character’s death is immediately saved and can’t be undone without restarting the game completely.

Unfortunately, the biggest flaws in the game come from an incomplete application of the challenge of survival.  First off, with the right items, it’s possible to prevent a character from ever becoming fatigued, so you can run around with the same dude for days with no repercussions.  Furthermore, as a character’s skills reach their highest levels, he or she will become incredibly efficient at slaying zombies.  As a result, the last third or so of the game abandons the tension of sneaking by a group of zombies to loot a convenience store, instead allowing the player to eliminate all zombies in the area with ease.  It undermines what I’d say is undoubtedly State of Decay’s strongest feature, which is terribly disappointing.

The emphasis on community also falls a bit short because it fails to capitalize on emotional tensions.  Despite a generally well-written script and great voice acting (I’d say that one of the primary characters is one of the best-presented characters I’ve seen in a game), the characters are surprisingly unfazed by their friends and loved ones dying.  If you lose a character, you’ll hear a few bland platitudes, but none of the emotional breakdowns that I’d expect.

To be fair, these facts are only disappointments because the game does so well with so much – the survival-based gameplay is compelling, the characters and their interactions are realistic, and it’s generally a clever game.  It just doesn’t hit all the high notes, and the last 6-8 hours of an 18ish hour campaign get awfully repetitive.

As for some other details: State of Decay won’t blow you away graphically, but it doesn’t distract from the gameplay and it does have a few nice animations (watching characters jump into the back of a pickup, for example).

Sound quality is pretty darned good, too, with zombies sounding appropriately squishy, and phenomenal voice acting, as previously mentioned.  One complaint on the sound is a relative lack of voice actors; with a constantly-evolving game world and random new characters appearing at times, it’s no surprise that voices will be reused, but it seems like there are a total of four actors for the entire game.  It gets a little tiring.

The open-world setup is used quite effectively, giving the player the freedom to explore the world as desired.  New infestations and neighboring strongholds will appear from time to time, so it doesn’t feel like a stagnant world; it’s a little different every time you play.  The randomly generated side quests aren’t terribly interesting (they’re always effectively “get this thing” or “kill zombies here”), but they’re pretty fun until the fourth or fifth time you’re asked to do the same thing.

State of Decay is an exciting game with a lot of promise.  The first game I’ve played that uses RPG elements to provide compelling survival-based gameplay, it’s an interesting and enjoyable game.  It has its flaws, but I think it’s a proof of concept for true survival games.  I’m really excited to see where this genre will go in the future.

My Rating: 8/10 – great.

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