You look out over your backyard. There are a few mates pitched in makeshift beds, a little campfire going, and a storeroom full of cool stuff. Everyone seems pretty relaxed. You look over the fence into the vast canyon beyond and notice about 20 zombies meandering towards you. This is State of Decay 2.
Five years after the original game’s release, State of Decay is returning to Xbox One and PC screens. A survival game at its roots, the premise is all about creating and supporting a thriving anti-zombie community, by building up bases and making sure your people are well looked after.
State of Decay 2 features co-op multiplayer, and Undead Labs’ founder Jeff Strain wants you to know that it’s a simulation game first, zombie game second. State of Decay released in 2013, but it was about six months prior that developer Undead Labs knew they needed a sequel.
“When we had to announce that we weren’t going to be able to ship with multiplayer at release, that was a very painful decision,” Strain tells us at a hands-on event in Sydney. “We were a small team, creating our first product, with an unproven new IP. I’ve been in this industry for 20 years, but State of Decay was a very unknown formula. Even Microsoft was like, ‘we don’t even know what this is’. We did know, however, that the core experience we were making was begging for a co-op multiplayer, and that’s what everyone wanted after we shipped: ‘I just want to be able to play this game with my friends’. So, we knew that when we had to cut that in order to get the game out the door, we needed to do another one, and that if the game was even moderately successful, we had to do a sequel.”
Once the team had decided that State of Decay 2 needed to ship with multiplayer – this game has drop-in, drop-out co-op gameplay – they had to start everything from scratch.
“The thing about multiplayer is it’s not just something you can graft on after the fact; once you start developing the object model of the game, how items are represented, how characters move, all that stuff, if you haven’t built it around a networking model, you can’t simply graft it on and be happy with that,” Strain explains. “For us, working on State of Decay 2, we knew we were going to have to change game engines this time around, and that was really frustrating for us, because usually when you build a sequel you get to start where you left off – kind of stand on your own shoulders a little bit. We didn’t get to do that. We had to take a step back and kind of rebuild a lot of the fundamentals for the game from the bottom up, which gave us the fresh opportunity to build it around a co-op model.”
If all this is sounding a little new to you, State of Decay 2 is easy to get into, even if you’ve never played the original. The team have built a game that should appear familiar to anyone that’s played a third-person action game or simulation game, and the studio head thoroughly enjoyed watching us rookies during our time with the game.
“It’s always surprising to me how many people, when I show them the base building screen and the community management screen, go ‘ohhhh!’. It’s like a light bulb going on. This is what this game is about. The shooting and killing of zombies and throwing grenades is almost truly – when you get deep into the game – the kind of thing you don’t want to be doing.”
He’s not wrong. In our couple of hours with the game, the zombies became more of a distraction or inconvenience, if you will. You simply need to go and recruit some more people for your community, or gather some ammunition or food for your town – there just happens to be a horde of zombies and a plague heart on your route. While it’s not frightening or daunting, it’s annoying and occasionally stressful. What if I use all my ammo on these guys and have none to take back to camp? What if one of my co-counsellors gets infected and I can’t cure them? The zombies really are just a distraction from the real issue in State of Decay – survival.
Strain tells us he tries to ease people – new players especially – into this concept as slowly as possible. “One of the things I like to do with new people when they first start playing is I like to make sure they’ve seen those things. They don’t have to do a deep dive to any degree, I just want them to know they’re there. In the product that we will ship, the tutorial that you go through in the beginning does just that. It says ‘hey there’s this and this’, and then you can go out and shoot some zombies and have some fun. But the seed is planted, so when you get back to building your base and really start going through all those options, that’s when the depth and sophistication of the game really reveals itself.”
Wondering what to expect from State of Decay 2’s story? So is Jeff Strain, it would seem. He doesn’t know how the game will fare for players.
“The reason I say I don’t know is because unlike the first game – that had a linear story that took place over three acts – we’ve developed a lot of technology into the sequel that changes the way the story unfolds depending on how you play. Every character and every other survivor that you rescue in the game has potential story hooks, things that can happen depending on the conditions of the game, the experiences that character has. All that comes together to tell a unique story depending on the decisions you make as a leader of that community. Sure, we follow a narrative structure – it has a beginning, middle, and an end – but when you get to the end of that community and you’ve played for 30-40 hours, you’ll feel like you’ve experienced the apocalypse, but it’s different every time; not in a choose-your-own-adventure type way – turn to page 26 if you said yes! – but through looking at the ethical choices you make, the kinds of people you bring into your community, and the things you build in your base. All of that plays into the engine that drives the story forward. It will be a unique story for every player, and that’s really the holy grail for us.”