When it comes to writing a review, sometimes the words are easy to put together, while the score causes problems and doubt. Sometimes, the opposite occurs and while you've got the score locked in your head, the words just don't flow. With Undead Labs' remaster of the cult Xbox 360 hit State of Decay, we seem to have run into trouble in both areas.
The reason for this quandary, is that while State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition contains dozens upon dozens of hours of enjoyable playing time within its bytes, it can't be argued that the game is as polished or as smooth as it should be. It can't even be argued that basic bugs that were present in the Xbox 360 version have been fixed.
If you haven't played the game before, State of Decay is a zombie apocalypse title where you attempt to lead a merry band of survivors to safety. In order for your crew to remain fit, healthy, and bite-mark free, you need to build a home base and keep it stocked with essential supplies - such as fuel, food, and medicine – that you scavenge during your forays into the wild. Provided you have enough resources, you can build up your home base to add medical areas, more sleeping room, better defences and the like. New members can be recruited to the clan as you play through and, should you build up a level of trust that allows them to be considered a friend, you can ask them to join you on missions or switch to control them as the lead player while your first character heals back at home. Characters can level up in various areas which make them more effective and new recruits aren't all that easy to find, usually requiring you to take on one or several dangerous missions to bring them into the fold, so keeping the ones that you have alive is quite important.
Let's run with an example to explain what we mean about those bugs. We were running with two main characters by the name of Rebecca and Dominic, alternating between them every few times we headed out, in order to allow the character that was left behind to heal. We could have just stopped playing for a spell, as the game works in real time (although bizarrely, the day and night cycle in-game is accelerated) meaning that your stocks deplete while you're not playing and your characters also heal. As it turned out, our protection of Rebecca and Dominic wasn't really all that important, since we couldn't have done anything to prevent their untimely deaths. Rebecca succumbed when her car got stuck on a rock that hadn't been rendered on screen until the car was actually stuck on it (thanks to the game's abominable levels of pop-up) and then the "exit car" command refused to work. Twenty seconds later, the game – deeming that "one wheel is off the ground" is the same as "car has rolled and is on its roof" – made the car explode. Of course, the five rucksacks full of supplies that we had worked darned hard to acquire were in the trunk as well, so it was a bit of a double whammy.
Dominic was killed after two zombies clipped through a wall and knocked him to the floor. When he got up, his foot had somehow also clipped through the side of a metal cupboard, meaning that he couldn't move to defend himself when six more zombies magically teleported through a closed door at once. His steadfast refusal to take any medication when on the brink of death, despite there being a break in the attacks and despite us hammering the button that would cause him to do so, remains unexplained.
As the omnipotent beings controlling the game, we remained very much alive. The only difference to us was that we were two strong characters down, and that the new randomly-generated character we were given was a bit rubbish at everything. We sent him into battle holding a table leg and a bit of food. The food designed to keep his stamina up while he was fruitlessly waving the table leg around with reckless abandon. This is because influence points – earned by completing missions and scavenging goods for the community - are a currency used to gain access to the community's resources. So as a new member of the team, you can't just waltz up to their locker and take all the guns and medication, or even something as basic as an axe. However, you can usually always afford that table leg.
It may be hard to comprehend that a game with such story-changing flaws as the ones we've presented above can actually be any good, but State of Decay proves that it is indeed possible. You see, while those two problems were nothing short of rage-inducingly annoying, we carried on playing. When similar things happened a little way down the line time and time again, we carried on playing. When we finally did put the controller down in frustration and gave up, we found ourselves coming back to give it another go a few hours later. And again. And again. And again.
We did say that this one was a quandary.
The simple fact of the matter is that State of Decay is nowhere near as polished as we'd have expected and features graphical clipping (and some ugly textures) that look like the developer was trying to make fun of 1998. On the flipside however, the structure of the game is utterly fantastic. Even if you've been playing for a few dozen hours and have a crew of characters that are all but maxed out on skills, you always have to be wary and you always have to plan out your next move, in a way that other zombie titles don't require you to. You never get to the point that you feel confident enough to just blindly go out roaming with whatever you have in your pockets, and deciding whether or not you really should stop to try and get that cache of medicine that you've just spotted on your way back from a mission, is always the difference between life and death.
The inventory limitations mean that while it's nice to carry a relatively heavy grenade launcher and a few extra rounds with you to fight off a huge "Juggernaut" zombie, you'll have to sacrifice something else in order to do so. Characters can only carry so much weight before they become encumbered, which causes serious problems with stamina. They also only have so much space in their backpack with which to carry things, although as mentioned, you can indeed put things in the trunk of vehicles. Usually, you'll reserve this space for caches of supplies that you find so that you can bring a stack of things back to base in one shot without needing to make multiple trips out into the wilderness, but if you really want to, you can use a car as a kind of mobile supply unit. You just need to remember that it'll all go up in smoke if you roll the vehicle or beat it up too much. If you're lucky another car will be nearby if yours ends up on its roof, so you can engage in a mad panic rush to transport the rucksacks from your stricken car to the new one, one load at a time. It should be said that rolling cars isn't particularly easy thanks to the somewhat immature digital nature of the handling model – you can go from top speed to stationary in less than a second in any car - but it happens. Usually it'll happen thanks to a bug.
If you choose to take the launcher, maybe you'll have to choose a weaker and lighter melee weapon. Maybe you'll only take two bottles of painkillers, as opposed to your usual three. Maybe that sidearm will be left behind this time. The choices are endless, and you really have to think about the kind of tasks that you'll be taking on as you venture outside of the confines of the base. On tougher missions, you might wish to spend some of your influence points on inviting a crew member to come along with you. There are times, usually just as your character is being pulled in half by two super-dangerous "Feral" zombies, that you'll utter the words "I knew I should have brought Archibald with me. THIS WOULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED IF ARCHIBALD WAS HERE!"
Not only is all this free-roaming zombie battling addictive, but it's also plentiful. State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition provides remastered versions of the original game, as well as the two DLC packs, Breakdown and Lifeline. Both of which – the excellently-designed Breakdown especially – will provide hours upon hours of extra playing time.
The overriding problem with the otherwise amazingly value-packed package is that, while State of Decay is a fantastic game that truly is right up there with the best of them in terms of the way it makes you feel about the entire experience, the bugs are sadly enough to pull you back into the real world time and time again. Clipping, pop-up, and framerate issues – even the muddy textures – are bad enough, but we could have lived with them given the quality of the game as a whole and how much fun we were having. When we say that the structure of the game and the intended final product would have been heading toward picking an 8 or 9 from us were it bug-free, we're really not joking.
But the things we absolutely can't live with is having our time wasted. When you've played through a mission to save an AI character from a horde, brought them back to the base, and then not been able to progress as they suddenly can't navigate around a box that's near the base door, that's wholeheartedly frustrating. When you go to save three people, clear the property, and watch as only two get into your car for transportation home, while the third just stands there looking at the wall, that's frustrating. When you're killed because your two AI compatriots decide to both stand and completely block the only escape route while doing nothing to save you as your character is being set upon by zombies, that's frustrating. When a zombie you're attacking clips through a chainlink fence and you suddenly find that you've clipped through it too and now can't get back to your car without facing off against an entire encampment of foes, that's frustrating. When a 3,500lb SUV driving at 90mp/h is destroyed by a three foot tall rickety wooden fence or a random and unrendered dip in the road that causes your car to flip, destroying an hour's worth of scavenging, that's frustrating. When a male character suddenly speaks in a female character's voice, halfway through a mission, that's frustrating. When you do something as simple as checking the leaderboards an hour after you've started playing, only to see that you've apparently killed 83,000 zombies in total (despite still not having earned the achievement for killing 500 of them), that's frustrating. When you try to load the game and it just freezes, that's frustrating. When you realise that a game that's absolutely crying out for online co-operative play – this would be outstanding with four players at a time – offers absolutely no multiplayer options at all, that's frustrating. When you download a 3.7GB "day one" patch and it appears to do nothing at all to improve matters, that's frustrating.
But what's more frustrating is that State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition offers such a tantalizing glimpse at what could have been. If you play, there's a chance that you'll enjoy it for a fair few hours, even if you do scrunch your face up and say "Eeeeeew!" at some of the more obvious graphical problems. But there's also a chance – a much more likely chance - that you'll be so sad that it came as close as it did to being one of the finest games to be released in recent years, that the frustration will eventually get the better of you and cause you to stop playing. The ultimate frustration however, is reserved for the constant feeling that while you're having fun, you're only one bug or glitch away from losing a character that you've spent a few hours improving. That just isn't good enough.
State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition is the ultimate mixed bag of mixed bags. A fantastic value proposition for fans of the admittedly somewhat buggy original, the package will provide stacks of playing time if you become hooked. The problem is that you may not get the chance, since this apparently "remastered" edition of the game doesn't seem to have had any real work done to it outside of the visuals, which remain incredibly sub-standard in terms of performance. We'd have imagined that clearing out experience-breaking bugs would be the first place you'd start with a remaster, but it appears that we were wrong. The excellence of the game's design does manage to shine through a lot of the time, though.