After the Seattle-based studio, Undead Labs, released their first game, the Microsoft published and Xbox console exclusive State of Decay, founder Jeff Strain was open about the lack of multiplayer being the games main problem. He has spoken about the absence multiple times and even talked about the possibility of patching a multiplayer mode into the game. With Strain coming from a background as being lead programmer for the huge, long running success that is World of Warcraft, it's easy to see why.
So what did they do with all of the feedback gathered both from within the development team and from the community, regarding this lack of multiplayer? Well, the Undead Labs team's multiplayer ambitions may not have been implemented in the original game but they are central in the sequel. At first the plan was to let the game evolve into a full blown zombie themed MMO, but that plan got scrapped in favour of the co-op experience we're now seeing. This switch in focus does make sense too, as it's looking to be more easily absorbed by ordinary players while, at the same time, it gives fans of the original exactly what they have always asked for.
The co-operative gameplay was previewed behind closed doors at this year's Gamescom event and the system behind the multiplayer mode looked great. Let's set a scenario; you're out looking for rations and a possible zombie cure for one of your most valuable community members who's been infected and is in really bad shape. You find yourself in a relatively undead-inactive neighborhood and everything seems to be going your way. Some houses still have stocked medicine cabinets, a car outside is driveable and you're thinking it's too good to be true - and you're right. Some AI survivors come rushing past the building you're in, honking their car horns and a horde of angry zombies is approaching fast as the car continues off into the distance, leaving you in the middle of an undead horde with some tasty flesh covering your body. You keep your cool and fire a bright flare from your flare gun in hopes of someone seeing it and acknowledging your need of assistance, making saving you a priority.
In State of Decay 2, the multiplayer aspect is triggered either through your friend list and its option to join someone else's game, or through the aforementioned flare feature. When a player sends a flare up, other players who have registered themselves as "willing to help" in the menu get a notification that someone needs them. From there the notified player can either refuse to help or easily join with the press of a button. Once in the other survivor's game the co-op partner can help out and drop out at any time. When the transition between the single- and multiplayer modes were shown at the Gamescom event it seemed seamless and took little to no time. In seconds, the two players demoing the game were standing side by side, fighting off some rotting corpses together before they ran off in separate directions so they could cover more ground and find more loot. Turns out the small neighborhood the pair were scavenging housed two AI characters and after helping them out of an undead pickle the two agreed to join the player's community. We were, however, told not to trust all of the AI characters - they're not all good people or assets to your team.
When we asked about the possibility of luring co-op partners in and straight up shooting them in the head and taking their loot, Strain assured us that that kind of scenario wouldn't be possible at all since you can't shoot other players directly. There will also be some kind of reward system active for players helping others out, however, what the rewards are and any intel on how they will be distributed wasn't shared.
The aspect of co-operative play isn't the only breath of fresh air for the series, there are plenty of new mechanics and overall fresh content to look forward to. Speaking of fresh, one of these new additions is a new infectious zombie disease - yay! The blood plague is a new zombifying infection that gets passed on from a new type of undead, fittingly called the blood plague zombies. These hunks of rotting flesh sport some cool looking, glowing red eyeballs and if they get a taste of human, that human's days are literally numbered. When one of your community members gets infected a timer starts counting down in the game and if that timer ticks all the way down to zero, well then that individual turns into one of the many hungry husks walking around with glowing eyes. This disease brings a new problem to the table as it can infect valuable members of your small zombie fighting community and when they turn they can eat their way out, wrecking all that you've built up from the inside.
There will also (of course) be plenty of different types of zombies, like the massive juggernaut and the frail but horde-attracting screamer, to run from and/or shoot right in the face. While we're on the topic of screamers and their horde attracting abilities; as in the previous game, sound draws zombies and you can use that fact to your advantage. Say you find a gold mine of supplies inside a hospital but said hospital is overrun by starving Z's, you can put your co-op friend in a car and have that friend honk the undead away for a bit while you scavenge - so many possibilities.
Of course, killing zombies isn't the only focus of this zombie sequel, the developers have promised a massive map with plenty of room for the many activities available. We've known about the expanded base building system since the game was officially announced and we've since then seen more features pop up. State of Decay 2 will bring a deeper character progression system to the soon-to-be series, outpost building and the ability to expand safe zones. The State of Decay 2 map will, when you start out, be covered in a red filter. This red filter indicates that the area underneath is an active zombie zone and these are clearly zones you want to stay away from if you're not properly armed.
Regarding the relationship between you and your community members, there will also be some dialogue and options within those conversations. At the end of the demo version we got to choose if we wanted to shoot or exile the doctor of the group who had been infected with the blood plague (of course we chose to put a bullet in his skull because we didn't want to be eaten by an exiled plague zombie later on) and got to have a really saddening conversation with the guy before his brains got splattered across the picket fence behind him. If one of your community pals happens to die, like Mr. Doctorman did in our game, the game still displays them on your character screen - but as a name on a tombstone. If they die in droves you'll soon have a cemetery to greet you when you pause the game. We thought it was a grim but really fun touch, and the rest of the people in the preview room seemed to agree.
Compared to the first game, State of Decay 2 looks like it's taken plenty of steps in the right direction, with co-operative play taking the series the closest to where it needs to be. We'll be kicking some zombie ass on Windows 10 PC and Xbox One this coming spring, and it looks like we'll have a great time doing so.