Building a home is as vital as zombie headshots in State of DecayS

State of Decay is an open world zombie apocalypse video game that puts you in control of a band of all-too-vulnerable survivors. Turning the focus away from guns-blazing action makes this one of the best zombie games I’ve ever played.

Not that there’s a shortage of action here, but you won’t be splattering zombie heads Rambo-style very often. For one thing, guns are loud (even when equipped with a homemade suppressor) and tend to draw a crowd of undead. For another thing, resources in State of Decay are severely limited, from food and medicine to construction supplies and ammo. A lot of your time will be spent creeping through abandoned houses and exploring empty office buildings, fending off zeds long enough to find a stash of morphine or some garden tools you can use to split heads. You’ll hack, slash, shoot and drive cars from a 3rd person perspective (think Grand Theft Auto IV with zombies).

It’s tempting to draw comparisons between this game and DayZ – both restrict resources and offer an open world to explore. State of Decay is a single-player game, however. You’ll only interact with AI humans. State of Decay is also not as hardcore difficult as DayZ. You can survive a fair amount of abuse at the hands and mouths of zombies, sometimes fending off large groups single-handedly. Still, I have had one of my characters torn to shreds. It takes experience to know how to manipulate zombie hordes and avoid potentially deadly situations. You’ll kill more zombies with the hood of a car than with a shotgun.

(Mild spoilers below).

The map gives you roughly 16 square kilometers to explore, an area that includes some farmland, rough terrain, a river, several small towns, a state park, and one larger town. While you can roam and explore as you wish, there is a story that plays out and alters the conditions of the region as you progress. Initially, you play a pair of buddies who’ve been in the wilderness on a fishing trip for several weeks. When they return, they find the state park overrun by crazed cannibalistic zombies. Before long, you connect with a ragtag group of survivors holed up in a church.

The group quickly outgrows the church, forcing you to seek a new home. Completely independent of the game’s ongoing story, there is a steady drive to find and improve the place where you live. There are several potential locations on the map, and you can freely choose whichever one you prefer. They range from suburban homes to farmhouses and a trucking warehouse. You’ll need to stockpile some gear so you can refit any place you move into, and then gather more resources so you can build and upgrade your facilities. A watchtower is crucial to keeping zombies at bay, while a workshop lets you manufacture explosives and repair the cars you find. You can start a garden to provide a steady food supply too.

Building a home is as vital as zombie headshots in State of Decay

As you add more survivors to your group and build trust with them, you can freely switch to different characters, taking advantage of each one’s strengths in different situations. State of Decay has a role-playing aspect, as your skills (melee, leadership, shooting, cardio) improve with use, eventually unlocking special actions or maneuvers.

While you’re gathering supplies and trying to survive, you’ll also navigate relationships with other factions. There are other survivor groups who may join you if you can win their trust. There’s a family of nefarious rednecks, a judge who’s set herself up as a sort of benevolent warlord, an altruistic businessman, and an Army unit that doesn’t quite have as solid of a grasp on the situation as they think they have.

A host of small details make State of Decay highly immersive. Your fellow survivors can suffer from fear, anger, or sadness, and you can take them “for a walk” to kill zeds together to snap them out of it. There are high points like radio towers and billboards where you can climb up and scan the area around you, identifying points of interest that will from then on show up on your map. The game’s music transitions from melancholy guitar plucking during the precious quiet moments back home to tense, moody synthesizer lines straight out of an 80s horror flick when the house you’re exploring is suddenly overrun by zombies.

Building a home is as vital as zombie headshots in State of Decay

Not that the game is without flaws. It can be glitchy at times. My current headquarters is a farmhouse, with a barn about 20 feet away. At least once a day, one of my fellow survivors gets lost and “trapped” in the barn. It’s an easy rescue, but a bit odd. Can we just make a house rule? No one goes in the barn again forever? The pace of the dynamically generated missions can seem frantic at times, as well. To take advantage of the open world, you’ll want to go exploring, but you’re constantly getting calls over the radio. So-and-so needs help, such-and-such found a weird zombie, Jim is having trouble carrying that food cache, Wendy needs you to climb a tower, Carl has a question about his new girlfriend, Julia is feeling sad, and on and on. I wish these missions would turn up a bit less often.

State of Decay also has a weird real-time aspect, in that the game world sort of persists even when you’re not playing. Some of your stockpiles will be used up, while your characters will heal and rest (and go on missions) when the game is turned off. It’s an interesting idea that ends up being a bit confusing and not especially fun. The game’s second update, due in the next few weeks, will shift many of these real-time functions to reflect actual in-game time instead.

None of these flaws would be enough to keep me from recommending State of Decay to anyone who likes zombie games and open world exploration, even if it were a $60 title. It’s only a $20 game though – currently available only through Xbox Live Arcade, although a PC version via Steam is in the works – and at that price point, you get a lot of zombie-splattering bang for your buck. It’s also something of a testbed for Undead Labs’ future plan, a larger multiplayer online zombie game with the working title Class 4. If Class 4 is as innovative and fun as State of Decay (which has already topped half a million in sales), it could be the best MMO in years.