For a monster so ubiquitous, the zombie has always played second string to the living, breathing people it preys on. In Voodoo folklore, the zombie was controlled by a bokor, a sorcerer who could harness the dead's 'zombie astral' to enhance his own power. In 1968, George Romero's groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead spent most of its time on the tensions between a handful of survivors holed up in a farmhouse. In 2012, the zombies in Telltale Games' The Walking Dead were supporting players to a group of people trying to impose normality on a world that rejected it.
Zombies aren't scary by virtue of what they are - they're scary by virtue of what they cause. Zombies are synonymous with societal breakdown, a Hobbesian state where life is nasty, brutish and short. They're a catalyst for resource scarcity, power struggles, depression, antagonism, the causing of harm both intended and otherwise. Zombies have always played second fiddle because they're much better at making us monsters than they are at being monsters.
Undead Labs, the studio behind State of Decay, must be aware of this, because the narrative this game is anchored to is a no-frills rehash of every piece of zombie fiction since Night of the Living Dead. Trust is a rare commodity in Trumbull Valley - both the military and the judiciary want to control you, less scrupulous types prowl the hills, and you have limited ability to intervene in the squabbling back at base. Undead Labs is charting very familiar narrative territory, and that wouldn't be a problem if they were good at it.
They're not, though. State of Decay's non-linear narrative is hoary and half-baked, heavy on the awful, repetitive dialogue and flat voice acting. Arch, snarky responses to simple questions are painfully common (the old "Are you okay?" "You mean aside from x, y and z, yeah" chestnut gets a good workout within five minutes of the game starting), and characters are archetypal to a fault, any development feels clichéd and superficial. State of Decay's central storyline is an unimaginative pastiche of every zombie story going, every new discovery something you've seen done better elsewhere.
State of Decay's not about its trashy pulp narrative though – never really was. As we push down into Trumbull Valley, an expansive rural province reminiscent of the settings in Z For Zachariah and Tomorrow, When the War Began, the game's mechanics begin to take centre-stage, impressive in their ambition and depth.
Anyone familiar with NorthWay Games' Rebuild series of Flash games will be accustomed to the balancing act State of Decay asks players to perform. Starting with an isolated base on the outskirts of a small town, survivors are tasked with managing five types of resource (food, ammunition, medicine, building materials and fuel) while developing it through construction, expanding its reach through the placement of outposts, and ensuring that morale doesn't get too low. To do all this, players must take control of one member of the group and send them out into the hostile land to scavenge and kill zombies, all the while paying attention to their stamina, health, and weapons.
State of Decay's strategy fundamentals are simple but strong, lots of little factors encouraging judicious construction and intelligent scavenging. Resources are scarce and do not respawn, the player can only carry one rucksack of one type of resources at a time, and sending other characters to scavenge puts them at risk of death, but you need those resources, because every improvement swallows more up. Meanwhile, the fragility of characters and weapons, not to mention the shadow of permanent death hanging over every hunt, means that there's a strong incentive to favour stealth over running into a horde and smashing them up. But, at the same time, every dead person is one less mouth to feed, one less attitude to bring down morale, one less body to get sick and use up medicine. State of Decay cleverly applies increasing amounts of pressure on the player through its systems, forcing them to be smart about the way they engage with the environment, the resources it provides, and the risks it poses, even as it forces survivors further and further into the valley with every journey.
In that way, the game's defined by the emergent narratives that grow out of the actions players take. A scripted event where the military threaten squatters with execution is window dressing compared to getting trapped in a tavern by a Juggernaut during a routine late-night scavenge, or accidentally alerting a zombie horde to your location halfway out of town when you've no stamina left, or plotting an early morning medicine run to the vet's office on the other side of town. State of Decay isn't just a game about survival; it's a game about survivalism, a game about strict planning and resource management in order to support a home base whose consumption increases with each passing day. And it's very, very good at being that game.
That doesn't mean State of Decay is perfectly executed, mind. Impressive though it is in its scope and density, it's very rough around the edges. Driving is often sluggish and unappealing, with acceleration caps and tinny engine sounds in abundance. Combat animations are jerky and can impact on hit recognition, the camera has a habit of jerking to incredibly unhelpful angles when entering houses, environment pop-in is frequent and pronounced, both zombies and humans have a tendency to clip through the landscape, and AI pathfinding is occasionally abysmal. At one point, two characters spoke in the same voice. None of these bugs, glitches and cut corners are game-breakers, but they do hurt the experience.
State of Decay looks bad on the surface. Its central narrative is superfluous and shallow, clogged up with atrocious dialogue and dull characters, and it's plagued with low-level technical problems. But dig a little deeper and there’s a game with cleverly-constructed, impressively deep systems working away, one that draws out engrossing little emergent stories about unexceptional people trying to help others in an increasingly hostile world. State of Decay's mechanics make you incredibly aware of the choices you have to make, the ways in which you stop being human and start being a monster; in so doing, it becomes such a complex and interesting project that it almost overcomes its laundry list of technical problems.