So, I started off this section of zombie games with a bit of a treatise on why zombies are so pervasive in our culture and you can read that part here.
Now I’m going to go on to review some zombie games, having worked out the psychological draw to take on the undead masses. You’re welcome.
BE WARNED, SPOILERS!!! (and probably swear words)
State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition
I first ran across State of Decay (developed by Undead Labs, published by Microsoft Studios) on Xbox 360 when it first came out in June of 2013. It was a small download at the time and my husband and I dabbled in it briefly before basically putting it aside. Not sure what the non-catch was. For my husband, it likely was the repetitious nature of the game; seek supplies on missions over and over again. He likes a really good story in his games. Not that I don’t, but I am far more amenable to repetition than he. So, given that, I’m not sure what didn’t catch me the first time either. Maybe there was some other game out at the time that I was caught up in and didn’t really give it the time of day.
Enter State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition on the new Xbox One (or as I affectionately call it, the XBone), in April 2015. Since more and more of my time was being poured into the XBone, I figured I’d give it another shot, especially since it seemed to have added some DLC content (Breakdown and Lifeline along with the original game). And because, zombies.
Now, I’ve mostly just played the original State of Decay, and dabbled a little bit into Breakdown and quite a bit of Lifeline.
State of Decay
The game opens up on you as Marcus, a dude out with his colleague and friend Ed, on their annual “get away from work” fishing trip up at some remote camping area. Now, the thing is, as soon as the screen clears, and you look around, you realize that Ed is yelling for help, under attack by humans. No, not humans, ZOMBIES!! Of course, it seems to take the characters a while in the game to realize that is what is actually happening. But seriously, would it really take that long to figure out? Okay, not hugely long in the game, but I feel like our culture has been saturated enough that the merest hint of a damn zombie and we’re going to be all over that shit. So, I have little sympathy for characters who seem to be all “What the fuck is going on here?” when there’s rotting dead people attacking your friend.
But nonetheless, you wade into the fray, dispatching the zombies with helpful little hints from the game. Game tutorials have basically gone this way, integrating the “how-to-play” the game into the first bits of opening gameplay. I remember way back when, the game tutorials were separate. A little instructional on the side or in the insert, or the game would come to a pause to deliver its “do this now” sort of thing. Starting off a game these days is much smoother, I think, although not only for the integrative style of tutorials these days but also due to somewhat similar controller schemes. “A” for jump, “X” for attack or interact, etc. Not hugely exactly the same across the board but enough similarities that you can generally make your way through the beginnings of a game with very little instructionals always up in your grill.
You and Ed start to figure out that something very wrong is going on (seriously) and make your way to the Ranger Station where some survivors are holed up. From there you pick up another survivor, Maya, a kick-ass military chick, also on vacation, who has just lost her buddies, but whom you can also switch to and control. Any character you have made “friends” with, can become controllable. But to start, you have Marcus and Maya. Ed for some reason, no go, until later in the game, along with other survivors also later on in the game. So you can choose to build up one character with points and skills or switch out and build many up, however you like. However, there’s a little bit of a catch to this game. If your controlled character dies, that character is perma-dead.
We humans don’t do so well with this sort of thing, I’ve noticed. We tend towards attachment. No judgements or whatever, it’s just what we do. And that’s to all sorts of things: people, things, places, ways of behaving, jobs, animals, concepts (beliefs), etc. And characters of video games. Hell, of video games themselves. People will defend their chosen game ferociously. Because, human. So Perma-Death, the concept in video games of permanent death of your character, no take backs, no save reloads will save your ass, that particular character is dead, Dead, DEAD. I know this is meant to be a point of challenge. You must be careful or else! But I know I get quite attached to my Marcuses. Maya too. I have absolutely restarted the game upon having Marcus killed out in the field, due to either my stupidity (didn’t bring any medicine with me, or bit off more than I could chew) or some dumb glitch of the game (which is probably even more infuriating). You put in all that time into leveling up this character and squish, zombie food! And like I said, since there is no save file under your own control that you can go scrambling for to desperately reload, permanently gone.
I remember going online to hunt out information about this and ran across many other players who felt the same way and who also started games all over upon death of a favored character. There did also seem somewhat of a split though; there were folks in the camp of liking this feature, stating they found that perma-death added more challenge or realism to the game and the folks who wished this feature didn’t exist at all. There was the usual back and forth about this on the forums, about which was better, people making their case from every level of insistence, calm to “you’re stupid” to outright anger (because…. human). But of course, it was also online in some forum that I read some comment and found the way to “game” the game, basically quitting from the Xbox “home” page if you knew with certainty that you were going to die, before the actual death and before the game’s autosave feature kicked in, solidifying your poor character’s doom. Yeah, I’m in the camp of “I don’t like this feature”.
I generally play games for the fun of it and I know I get attached, so yeah, it’s a choice I make. I’m perfectly fine with it. I’m also perfectly fine with people choosing the other camp, too. Games should be played as the player wishes to engage them (within the bounds of the game’s own boundaries, layouts, concepts, etc, of course), and not as other people tell you to do so. I know we get attached to what we perceive to be “ours”, or feel that our way is the best way, or whatever. Because…. you guessed it, human. I could (and probably will!!) do a whole entry, or probably many entries, on this phenomena in the gaming world and the intensity of the attachment of gamers to their chosen media.
So, the game is generally a survival game. You must find and fortify a home base, go out and collect food, medicine, ammo, construction materials, fuel and find other survivors. There is a series of main missions that follow the story to the end of the game, along with other side missions you can do or not do. There’s a lot of these and they range from, go find signs of survivors to help your own survivors because apparently people are constantly too dumb to get themselves out of the messes they got themselves into in the first place, to assuaging the emotional health of your band of survivors: anger, depression, hopelessness or assisting fellow enclaves (other bands of survivors nearby) or your own people with freak zombie hunts. Overall, the goal is to survive and figure out how to get out of the valley.
It’s third person style and of course you can collect weapons, guns and you can specialize in bashing, slicing or shooting, leveling up skills for your controlled character. You have to deal with things like fatigue and health, such as if you’ve been running around for a long time, exploring or killing, eventually a chunk of your fatigue will not recoup to full. You can stuff yourself full of coffee or found energy drinks to temporarily boost this back to normal, but eventually another level of fatigue will kick in and it gets lower and lower. It’s not permanent but you do have to basically have to put your currently controlled character to pasture for a period of time to let them rest. You can switch out to someone else, which points to the smart choice of getting several characters up to par. You can choose various things for your base, like extra storage or bunk beds, garden, kitchen, workshop, medical areas and upgrade them. You can find other home bases to move into and of course, everything has pros and cons. You can make outposts out of nearby structures to add in mines to blow up zombie hordes that might be approaching your home base. You find resources by searching homes, stores, warehouses or helping other survivors. There’s “fame” and “influence” to deal with as well, with your own people and other survivors, which allows you to pull items from storage. There’s even a little backstory for each survivor in your group and everyone you meet is of variable race, gender and different skills.
Although generally about the zombie apocalypse and you do get to bash zombies and their freaky mutant counterparts (that show up later in the game), it is less about the direct interaction with them than it is around building survivability. Although you really could just go about bashing away, if you wanted to. It is fairly repetitious in many regards. Seek out resources, grab a car, go forth to collect them, bring them back, go out again. There’s not much by way of deep story and well, that’s basically it. However, there’s something very addicting about the game for me.
Like I said before, I am much more amenable to repetition and although the grind is not how I want to play my games in general, I don’t mind it in certain cases. Especially if there’s shit to collect. I love how the digital world can fulfill my packrat-ish ways. (“Ish?” my husband scoffs incredulously) So games where I can collect stuff, well…… let’s just say when there’s an option to put points into “Carry Shit” skills or strength, I’ll do it. So I can carry more shit. Yep. So, collecting resources. Clearing the map (each area on the map that you have collected stuff from is circled with an X through it), finding everything there is to find, oh yes. I’ve yet to clear every single house before finishing the last mission to leave the valley, but this time around I’m giving it a go. Plus the update of adding storage to cars…. that made things a little easier. But for a fairly “simple”, “little” game, I do play it a lot.
From reading info about the game, it looks like there was an idea that the game would be a way for players to create their own plans around survival and be able to institute them but in actual play, you still have to set up according to the options given. It’s still fun but I think a game where you could think up your own plans and test them out would be fun. Probably terribly difficult to program in terms of choices and options, although maybe you could make it somewhat structured in offering “recipe” type things like in Dead Rising 3 or Sunset Overdrive where you can make crazy combos of weapons.
State of Decay: Breakdown
In Breakdown, the first DLC to come out (November 2013), you start off with a random character, with options to “unlock” other characters later and you start off in some random place on the map of Trumbull Valley. There’s just you and Lily Ritter (your radio person from the main story, who also, interestingly enough, has Lupus, and is sick enough that she is not a controllable character and can’t go out to forage. But she does her part by communicating on the radio), no resources, no home, and you must find a new base, find survivors and start trying to survive. The ultimate goal here is to find and fix a RV and get out of the valley. Trick is, there’s different “levels” and things get harder and harder through each level, and you can only choose 6 people (including Lily, of course) to go with you in the RV. Which, personally to me doesn’t make sense, because there are tons of cars laying about the other survivors could use to leave, right? But in any case, after you get the RV fixed, you can leave whenever you want so that means you can run around and do whatever you want. There’s still the crazy amount of side missions: go help this person, go check out this signal, oh we need more materials, blah blah, with the radio constantly telling you that you are “running out of time” (just like in the original) until you want to tell Lily to just shut the fuck up, please! Once, you leave the valley in your RV, you get a score for the level and over you start on the next level. You have some supplies, your stash, Lily and the character you were controlling at the time, and now you have to find a home base and start over. It gets more challenging as you go on. There’s the addition of little challenges/achievements for each level. You know the type, “Killed 50 out of 1000 zombies with a spoon!” and you can try to complete these in each level. So, similar to the original with little twists. I haven’t played past level two so I can’t really comment on how challenging it does get.
State of Decay: Lifeline
Overall, it’s an enjoyable, fun little game. I wouldn’t say it’s that emotionally heart pounding or even that challenging (although there have been times when swarmed with a horde by chance and my favorite character is basically gonna get eaten…. then I’m yelling at the screen and bouncing around in my seat). When I just want to run around and collect stuff, beat up zombies, I play the original or maybe Breakdown. If I do want some adrenaline or even a little anxiety running through my system but don’t want to invest into a heavier and more intense game like Dying Light, I’ll play Lifeline.
What did I gain from the game, or think about?
Well, what would I do in a zombie apocalypse? What kinds of plans would I make to shore up my “home base”, to protect my loved ones? My husband and I have often lamented over The Walking Dead, frustrated with their apparent lack of any learning around the zombie apocalypse after a year, or hell, even six months. We have discussed putting different triple checks into place for our “home base”. I would very much like a game in which I could test those ideas. But I often found myself thinking while I played is: would I really be able to deal with the insanity that is the destruction of civilization? The horrors of the gore, the sounds of the undead, the very fact that there are undead? As I run around, feeling stressed out that I just lost yet another doctor, or my base is not beefy enough and is overrun, I wonder if I’d be one of the first to go, or if even I survived that eventually I’d just do myself in (unless my husband had made it too, then I’d probably stick around)? May I, or you, or anyone, never need to answer these questions in real life.