Founded by Jeff Strain, founder of ArenaNet and previously the lead programmer on World of Warcraft, Undead Labs is located in a modest office space in the Pioneer District of downtown Seattle. For those not familiar, Pioneer Square represents the 'old' part of Seattle, its buildings harboring the brick and stonemason work found in older cities like New York and Chicago. Compared to the rest of Seattle, a quilted fabric of mostly new construction and rushed structures hastily erected before the 1962 Worlds Fair, it looks ancient by comparison. But even though at first glace the area seems to bleed history, there is even more to it than meets the eye.
Underneath the cobblestone streets and crumbling facades lies the Seattle Underground. A network of underground passageways and basements that represent an even older city, with an even deeper history, that was leveled by fire in 1889. 31 blocks burned that day, and the new -now old- Seattle was built over top. It's still there, however, for those who take the time to look. Still vibrant and overflowing with stories of Seattle's booming brothel businesses and other popular dens of iniquity. Seattle was once quite the party town.
It's fitting that State of Decay is being developed in such a place. No, there are no brothels in the game that I know of (I'll ask), but it does harbor an unexpected depth that might not be evident at first glace to the unaware. And like those winding passageways beneath them, the developers at Undead Labs have crafted a game whose first impression only scratches the surface. Beneath, treasures are hidden under the feet of the player.
State of Decay is not really a zombie game. Of course, it takes place during a zombie apocalypse but calling it just that obfuscates what the game actually offers. It's much more accurate to call State of Decay an Apocalypse Simulation and Management Game. And even though it has the face of an open world zombie action title, its soul is firmly rooted in RTS's, business management simulations and personality simulations like The Sims. Of course, having played the game at conventions for the past year I've known what I was getting myself into. Last week however I was able to get my first real good chunk of time with the game, far away from the loud and distracting environment of PAX. It's in this environment, and playing from the beginning of the game, that the subtitles of the title began to shine.
You start off as a single character who -with an NPC friend- return from vacation and into a zombie apocalypse on one huge map. Outfitted with a small backpack, and a stick as a melee weapon, you slowly make your way through the first areas and finally -through some story prodding- to a populated enclave in town. It's within these first moments that the player realizes there is a lot more to this title than simply killing zombies. Inventory is limited by the size of the backback you're wearing, and as you begin completing tasks you suddenly realize that decisions like “what do I take?” are prime to the gameplay. In these initial sequences I found myself sneaking from building to building looking to load up on what would be the most useful. Medicine to heal myself, food to regain my stamina, another melee weapon...and then I found a gun.
I knew better than to use it.
Guns in State of Decay are a rare and valuable commodity. So is ammo. But their biggest risk isn't their rarity, it's their sound. Sound plays an integral part in State of Decay with both initial sound and echoes modeled accurately within the world for just about everything. Fire your gun and the shattering sound will travel the map, turning the attention of all the zombie's within a mile to your location. Guns are an effective, last resort tool that should be rarely used unless you have a getaway plan or no other choice. And it isn't just the zombies reaction that reinforce the danger. Guns are LOUD in-game, giving the player that “oh crap what did I just do?” response the first time they fire.
As I searched the camping structures within the first area I also had to be mindful of my encumbrance as well. Everything has a weight and can also break in State of Decay, so item management becomes even more complicated when weighing (lol pun) one's choices out in the field. Do I take that second gun I know I shouldn't use? Or grab that ax? The ax is slower, and much heavier than my machete which means I can't take as much medicine. Is it worth the risk?
After only playing the game about 20 minutes I was already getting into the nitty-gritty of item resource and management; making life and death decisions concerning an ax and a bag of potato chips.
Finally getting to the enclave where other survivors were already holed up opened up the rest of the games full range of dynamic systems. It is here, at the home base where the player can manage their relationships with other characters, build up their base, store their gear, and truly begin the act of long-term survival with the players journal acting as the central hub of information. Proper management of your base and your relationships are the biggest part of the process. The base itself will have facilities that can -or really need- to be upgraded, and blank areas where new facilities can be installed. Each of these will offer both bonuses to those living at the enclave and offer new abilities than can be carried out under the direction of the player. For instance, a home base will need a workshop. With an initial workshop damaged items will be repaired after a period of time if they are stored in the supply locker. Upgrade your workshop and you'll eventually be able to repair damaged cars as well. Build a kitchen and you can order someone to create a big meal which will add +20 vitality to everyone in the enclave.
But these base facilities do not exist within a vacuum. They have a direct correlation to the mindset and actions of the NPC within the enclave as well. Much like how your Sim will get tired and cranky in The Sims if you don't make him a bed, if you don't have enough sleeping facilities for your NPC's it will take them longer and longer to reach a 'rested' state resulting in the lowering of their stamina and vitality. This becomes important when your own character becomes tired or injured and you must swap out with another NPC -with which you have a friendly relationship with- to continue missions for your enclaves survival.
After a few missions my first characters stamina was halved by his continual night and day foraging, leading to him being a particularly terrible fighter. Not the best person to be sending out during a zombie apocalypse, so I had to switch to a friendly NPC while my first rested up. Of course, I didn't have enough beds and to construct more I needed to scavenge building materials from out in the world. To find them I asked my radio operator to call out to the world to see if any other NPC's -the ones I hadn't met yet- had seen some. A few minutes later I was given locations on my map, I retrieved the materials and I could construct more beds to make everyone in my enclave much, much less cranky.
You'll also need to find the appropriate NPC's to man these facilities as well. An NPC with a talent for cooking should handle the kitchen. A tinkerer is a good in the workshop. Without these specialized characters, these facilities will never offer their maximum potential.
Did I mention this was an XBLA game?
“So what if an NPC is cranky?” you may ask. Apparently things can go very bad. NPC's who've reached the end of their tether, either because they don't have the correct facilities or you perhaps -maybe- hit them with your car, will begin to cause trouble within the enclave. Sometimes leaving so you can't switch into them when everyone else is tired, sometimes stealing things from your supply locker before you go, sometimes hurting or killing another member of the enclave while they're trying to steal. NPC's who become too sick due to inadequate health facilities will can ask you to kill them to ease their suffering.
Most of this can be caught before it gets that bad. A problem member of the enclave can be taken out for a 'talking to' or even be asked to leave the enclave. However, asking them to leave and being met with their refusal will result in the loss of leadership points.
Leadership points? Yes. A pool of leadership points, replenished by bringing useful items back to camp, are spent to give orders to characters within the enclave. In addition to this, all characters gain levels and points in 4 personal attributes. Melee, shooting, wits (searching) and cardio. In classic Elder Scrolls style you gain points in these attributes when you use them, which then opens up both passive and active skills for your character. The tricky part is these levels, skills, and attributes are only attached to the character you are using at that time. Leading to a situation where you'll have various NPC's within the enclave better or worse at certain tasks, making the management of these characters -as in, do I want to send my really good shooter out on this mission or save them for later- even more complex. Especially with the world as dangerous as it is.
The world map in State of Decay is huge and though there are cars littered throughout, their ability to make a lot of noise and break down if you hit too many objects can make them a risky form of transportation. As dangerous as the world is, however, it's also tempting. With tons of buildings to explore and tons of items to find, you'll find yourself continually distracted by “whats over there?” moments that will pull you further and further away from safer domiciles. During my last 20 minutes of play I found a downed commercial airliner in the middle of a corn field. Huge and hidden in plain site.
As much as the systems management comprises a huge chunk of the game, it's in these moments of exploration that the more subtle magic in State of Decay comes through. At one point back at the enclave I took a mission fairly far out from the safety of home. Sitting at my supply closet screen I brought everything I thought I would need. Melee weapon, gun, medicine, food for stamina...I still had a smaller backpack so space was limited but I thought I would be OK. 20 minutes later I'm sneaking around town trying to reach my objective and am forced to take out a few zombies who were in my way. At that moment my melee weapon breaks and I realized I had forgotten to bring another one. I have a gun, but I dare not use it. So there are am, for the next 20 minutes, sneaking from house to house, crouching from bush to bush, desperately searching for a new -quiet- weapon to use as hordes of zombies pass by.
I'm reminded of a quote from the movie Jaws. “You know that was the time I was most frightened... waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again.” -Quint
State of Decay is a magnificent take on the zombie apocalypse theme, bringing something to the genera it's been sorely missing. Depth. Much like the later zombie movies -such as Day of the Dead- the focus has been moved from the zombies themselves to the people caught up in the horror, leading to a dynamic which is essentially more human, and more accessible to our understanding of day to day struggle. So far, all the pieces seem to be in place, and with a few more months left I think Undead Labs will be tying the multitude of strings running under the hood of this title even tighter. For those into complex simulations, resource management, and the smell of decaying flesh, it looks like this is one you're not going to want to miss.
State if Decay will be released in June on XBLA
You can watch our 30 minute developer walkthrough of the game from PAX East below.