Hands-on with State of Decay 2

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Zombies were all the rage in 2013. “The Walking Dead” was the biggest show on cable. “World War Z” had just successfully made the jump from best-selling book to blockbuster movies. Countless games were released with that were either dedicated to zombies or featured zombie-killing special modes. Into this landscape came Undead Labs’ State of Decay, which turned the zombie formula on its head by focusing more on the humans trying to survive the zombie apocalypse than on the hordes of undead trying to feast on them. Now, it’s nearly time to return to a bigger and better post-apocalyptic world with State of Decay 2.

State of Decay 2 takes place 15 months after the end of the first game, and it’s immediately clear that things haven’t exactly gotten better for the few humans that have survived. Once again, you’ll be tasked with building lasting communities and overcoming a variety of challenges. You’ll need to gather survivors and resources as you explore the game’s world, making a lot of tough choices along the way. In State of Decay 2, every decision you make matters, and it’s ultimately up to you to define what it really means to survive.

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While State of Decay 2 will bring players through a detailed tutorial to get the lay of the land, our time with the game began several hours in. Rather than having to scrounge for every bullet and scrap of food, I found myself next to an already-thriving community that was well-stocked with weapons, food, medical supplies and backup. Finding, securing and building up these bases and outposts is one of the most important parts of State of Decay 2, especially since each outpost you claim offers effects like better ammo or medical supply collection. Since you can only claim a limited number of outposts at a given time, however, you’ll need to decide which ones best suit your play style.

The first thing I noticed is that State of Decay 2 is a true sequel that takes everything we loved about the first game and greatly expands on it. Featuring a huge roster of unique characters with their own backstories and motivations, there are more options than ever to manage your community and develop your base. What’s more, the game features three new maps (Meagher Valley, Cascade Hills, Drucker County), each of which is the size of the original game’s Turnbull Valley. The easiest way to get the lay of the land was to visit the Survey Points sprinkled throughout (helpfully labeled with binoculars on the map), zooming in on question marks to figure out what each locale offered in terms of potential resources or outpost effects.

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Your outposts serve as the hub for your motley crew of survivors, some of which provide side missions that can help build up your community’s resources, find other survivors to add to the group, or meet other squads of survivalists that you can trade with (or, if you’re so inclined, murder). During my time with the game, I was tasked with everything from exploring a warehouse on the other side of the map to find a couple rucksacks (stores of supplies that don’t take up slots in your limited inventory) of fuel, helping and working with an external group of doctors to improve my crew’s medical skills, and saving a woman who had radioed for help. There’s always something to do or someone to save in State of Decay 2, whether it’s done by your group’s leader or one of the other characters that you can, and occasionally have to, switch to.

Each of the characters you meet and play as has a unique combination of skills and traits that affects how you’re able to use them. Every character has four primary skills that dictate how they can interact with the environment: Cardio, Wits, Fighting and Shooting. Cardio determines how far you can run before you’re fatigued, while Wits determines your stealth abilities, enemy detection range and container searching speed. Fighting and Shooting are about what you’d expect, with the former dictating your level of health and ability with bladed, blunt (or no) weapons and the latter tied to how good your aim is.

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Each of the skills can be leveled up to seven stars as you play, simply by using them. For instance, the more you run, the better your Cardio skill is. The more enemies you fight, the better your Fighting skill gets. Once you’ve maxed out a given skill, you earn the ability to specialize in them and earn better benefits. As an example, I hit the maximum level in Cardio with one character and was able to unlock the Marathon specialization, which gave me even better stamina. Maxing out my Fighting, on the other hand, offered a choice between Close Combat and Endurance specializations. Finally, many characters have a fifth skill, some of which offer big benefits (the Mechanics specialization Engineering allowed me to craft silencers for ranged weapons) and some of which clearly don’t (unless zombies are scared off by Movie Trivia).

One of State of Decay 2’s most interesting new mechanics is that of the Blood Plague. If you are bitten by a zombie or zombies carrying the Blood Plague (you’ll recognize them by their glowing red eyes), you’ll notice a gauge on the side of the screen start to fill. Once it’s maxed out, you’ve got the Blood Plague. To rid yourself of it, you’ll need to find elements of the cure as you kill Blood Plague zombies or scrounge through containers. It adds a nice element of added stress to an already-intense game, as your condition will deteriorate the longer you go without a cure. Wait too long, and BOOM… you’re a zombie.

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As I mentioned, I was lucky enough to drop into State of Decay 2 with a thriving community already in place, which meant that I got to take a wide variety of weapons for a spin. Your inventory offers slots for Close Combat weapons like knives and rusty screwdrivers, blunt and bladed Melee weapons like tire irons and machetes, and Ranged weapons like handguns and sniper rifles. I quickly found out that it’s important to balance stats like lethality, durability and speed, as there’s nothing worse than falling in love with a head-crushing baseball bat only to have it break on you while you’re in the middle of a pack of zombies.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a zombie game without assorted the undead hordes. A lot of the zombies I ran into were of the shambling variety, mostly ignoring me unless I came to close or made too much noise. When they were alone, I was able to sneak up on them and drive a knife into their head or knock them down, finishing them off with a brutal (and tremendously satisfying) crush of the skull. Occasionally, I came across a large horde of them that offered more in the way of influence (your main resource for managing your community) for clearing them all out.

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Then there were the new enemies I encountered, often with less-than-ideal results. The first one I ran into was a Feral, which is an extremely fast-moving zombie that can be tough to land hits on and take down. I quickly learned that trying to shoot a Feral was next to impossible, so I chose to flail away with my carpenter’s hatchet instead. Thankfully, I had a fellow survivor fighting next to me, so we were able to take the Feral down without taking too much damage (though, in State of Decay 2, any damage is too much damage).

Things definitely did not go as well the next time I came face to face with a new enemy. As I was driving down the road in one of the game’s many vehicles, I saw a hulking, bloated zombie shambling across the street. Deciding to run it down as I had so many other enemies, I swerved over and was immediately and violently stopped in my tracks, my car taking a lot of damage in the process. I had just encountered a Juggernaut, a big baddie that can’t be taken down without a serious fight. After emptying multiple clips into the Juggernaut with my pistol and trying to kill it with a wooden bat, the Juggernaut managed to grab me, chomping down on my neck before literally tearing me in half as blood and guts covered the screen. It wasn’t a fun way to die, but it marked a fitting end to my time with State of Decay 2, and I already can’t wait for more.

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In fact, the only thing that would make the game better is playing with friends. Fans of the first game asked for four player co-op multiplayer, and that’s exactly what the team at Undead Labs added. Playing with a group of friends is a blast, and while the difficulty won’t change, you’ll likely be making more noise as a group and attracting more zombies than if you were sneaking around solo. What’s more, State of Decay 2 features cross-platform co-op between Xbox One and Windows 10 PC, so you and up to three of your friends can survive together regardless of which platform you prefer to play on.

State of Decay 2 will release on May 22, 2018 for Xbox One and Windows 10 PC. You can play the game via Xbox Game Pass or pre-order the Standard Edition for $29.99. Or, if you want to get in on the zombie-killing action sooner, the State of Decay 2: Ultimate Edition can be pre-ordered for $49.99 and includes four days early access beginning May 18, along with two add-on packs: “Independence Pack” and “Daybreak Pack” (available at a later release date) on both Xbox One and Windows 10 PC. The Ultimate Edition will also include a download token for a bonus copy of the console version State of Decay: Year-One Survival Edition.