Games Review: State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition (Xbox One, 2015)

Zombies have become the sort of thing you either love or hate. They’re ubiquitous these days and nowhere more so than in video games. I’ve cleaved my way through an unthinkable amount of shambling video game corpses in my time but State of Decay still managed to come as something of a pleasant surprise to me, despite a wealth of glitches that threatened to derail the entire experience.

While State of Decay is happy to let you think it’s like every other zombie game out there, the truth is that it’s an entirely different beast altogether. There are two things that stand State of Decay firmly apart from its contemporaries – the base building mechanic and its robust community management. Your player character is not your sole concern here – you have to think about how you’re going to keep an entire group of survivors alive. This is accomplished by scavenging the wastes for food and ammo, as well as recovering and collecting parts and materials so that they can better fortify their base against the zombies that pinwheel stupidly around outside at all hours of the day and night.

The beginning of the game puts you in control of a guy named Marcus. Marcus and his bro Ed were enjoying a nice quiet fishing trip when, wouldn’t you know it, the zombie apocalypse just happened to get rocking and rolling. They, and another survivor they meet named Maya, shack up with a fledgling group of survivors who hastily barricaded themselves into a local church. This is where the community management aspect kicks in. You need to keep everybody fed and happy but you also need to grow your numbers if you want to survive. Both of these things require leaving the safety of the church long enough to get some scavenging done. Once you start bringing new survivors into your community, you’ll need to find beds for them and start adjusting your supplies as required.

As if scurrying around the wastes looking for supplies wasn’t risky enough (and it’s perilous as hell, even in the early game), State of Decay enforces permadeath. If Marcus gets eaten on your watch, that’s it, he’s gone. Control then shifts to another character who will rise up as the community’s new leader. This lends a real roguelike aspect to the proceedings. Your characters level up according their preferred method of zombie slaughter so when you spend a lot of time crafting a character into someone who is of genuine benefit to the team only to have them get torn to shreds on a bungled scavenging trip, you really feel the weight of their loss as you try to rebuild.

It isn’t long before you’ve outgrown your little church home and are forced into a larger property deep in a suburban area. Things didn’t go well for me early on; people started getting sick with worrying frequency and I hadn’t the materials to knock my infirmary into shape so they could be treated. It was at this point that the game played one of its more stomach-turning cards – one of our number was close to death and any hope for their recovery had faded. I had to drag him out of town, into the forest nearby and put one in their head before they died and turned on us. That was a heartbreaker. And the game does this sort of thing to you over and over, bloody-mindedly asking you to make impossible decisions and seeing if you do the thing or quail in the face of it.

Though I never played the original version, a quick bit of research tells me that the original was already rather vasty to begin with. This new, updated version comes equipped with a pair of DLC packs that dropped around a year ago called Breakdown, which adds a slew of fresh items and characters, and also adds the Endless Mode gametype which drops you into the world without a story to follow to see how long you can hold out. The other, Lifeline, is a story-based pack that focuses on how the military reacted to the outbreak of zombie infections.

I mentioned in the intro that State of Decay is a problematic title and the bulk of its problems come from its myriad glitches and bugs. I mean, there’s just no getting around them. Stuff pops into the world all over the place – items, materials, environmental pieces, even goddamned zombies. At one point I had a neighbour lady kick the bucket with this crazy-huge bag of supplies she’d hoarded all to herself still on her person. I scooted over to her location on the map ready to nab the loot, only to find that the model was bugged and I was unable to grab the bag. There was so much stuff in that bag I could have used and I just had to leave it.

The combat walks the line between aggravatingly sluggish and inoffensive. The camera, on the other hand, is a base and vile betrayer. If there’s anything it can get stuck on, it will, and I do mean anything. Walls, rocks, trees, me, zombies, one time it got stuck in a garage door and I couldn’t get it out. It went out of its way to mess with my view and it very nearly got me killed on several occasions because I couldn’t see where I or the zombie attacking me was.

But even though the camera was a foe more dedicated and treacherous than any zombie in the actual game, and even though the bugs were often so bad they made me want to turn the Xbox off and never look back, I found it really hard to resist the pull of this game. It always managed, despite its many flaws, to leave me wanting more. It’s far from the best game I’ve ever played and it sure as hell ain’t the prettiest. But it dares to try something different with its method of character building, careful management of your growing community and focused levelling. I was willing to grapple with State of Decay’s infuriating technical problems because it gets everything else completely right.

If you’ve grown tired of the usual zombie fare and you’re keen for something different, State of Decay is a great place to start. You’ll love it and hate it in the same breath but if you can push through all the bugs, it will work far harder than most games to impress you.

Review Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Unique community management; permadeath puts characters in real peril
Lowlights: Camera actually hates you; bugs and glitches for days
Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: 28 April, 2015
Platform: Xbox One

Reviewed on Xbox One


This content has recently been ported from its original home on The Iris and may have formatting errors – images may not be showing up, or duplicated, and galleries may not be working. We are slowly fixing these issue. If you spot any major malfunctions making it impossible to read the content, however, please let us know at editor AT

David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.