Bethany is dying. She'd been bitten by a blood plague zombie on a supply run gone wrong. She didn't have much time left at this point and a decision needed to made. She was past the point of being cured, leaving only two choices. She could be euthanised, which is a polite way of saying shot in the head or she could be exiled and cast out from the community she helped build. These are the kind of split decisions leaders have to make in the apocalypse; thinkers don't survive long in a zombie plague. A loud bang rang out across the derelict church, a concussive signal that another tough choice had been made. It's these sort of ethical dilemmas that define State of Decay 2 and in a broader sense the survival genre as a whole. They attempt to explore the innate human curiosity in what people are capable of when pushed to the limit and challenge the moralistic structure of society by confronting players with challenging decisions.
State of Decay 2 once again thrusts you into a hostile sandbox where society has collapsed at the hands of a devastating zombie outbreak where it's up to humanity's last survivors to re-establish communities. The game presents the player with difficult choices from the offset, the first of which has you selecting which duo of unlikely survivors you'd like to start the game with from a pool of four pairs. Each couple has their own short backstory of how they came to be together and varying randomised skills, but ultimately, all present similar starting scenarios. The narrative backdrop of State of Decay 2 is very much built on emergent gameplay in which your characters become what they've experienced more so than their initial backstories or starting stats. So, to a certain extent, your opening characters aren't as important as you may think.
In classic zombie apocalypse fashion, the player is challenged with moralistic choices from the first opening hour of the game that only scale up as you continue to become more invested in the characters. Your community will soon grow beyond your starting characters and expand to accommodate the various survivors you encounter throughout your journey. There's a greater emphasis on engaging with the individual in the sequel with players being encouraged to pursue specific party members goals, but of course, you won't be able to help but pick favourites - the game is counting on it. The game communicates this by naturally pushing your preferred characters to the top of the pecking order through community standing giving them the opportunity to become heroes and leaders.
A leader has a lot to contend with what with the game being very much segmented into two halves. There's the practical side of things. Your people have to go out and scavenge for resources and materials to survive. Then there's the management side of the community that requires you to build facilities for your residents and utilise the resources your scavengers gather. You'll usually find survivors gravitate towards one or the other of these specialisations with your soldier types obviously more geared towards supply runs and the professionals you encounter, such as doctors, more adept at home management. There's a significant amount of depth to the information on offer about your home base and its inhabitants with detailed statistics from resource usage to characters mood. This requires you to see your people as more than just commodities that need food and shelter, but human beings with thoughts, feelings and emotions.
This means there's some building involved as people need somewhere to sleep and food to eat. The building menu itself is quite intuitive if not simple. Each site has set out areas that you can build in and clicking on them brings up a menu for the available facilities. What is often lacking though is a great explanation of how some of the finer building mechanics work as it isn't always patently obvious. For example, the game may inform you that your community's morale would be boosted by having access to running water without explicitly detailing exactly how you do that. And even once you figure out how there's no further guidance on how to optimise that through the facilities functions or selection of mods. Now, nobody wants a situation where you have hour long tutorials or aggressive hand-holding throughout, but for a game that continually reminds you of the basic movement mechanics the odd tip on building management wouldn't have gone amiss.
The best thing is if you don't like your current location you can uproot and upgrade to something more suitable. This would mean loading your entire community into vehicles, resources and all, and setting out across the apocalyptic landscape. It's a risky proposition, but tempting when you scout out some of the bigger camps you can commandeer. The map is pretty sizable as well, albeit nothing in comparison to big budget open-world games, but enough to keep things interesting, especially when traversing it is no simple task. Dotted around the game world you'll find various outposts you can set up to expand your community's reach as well enclaves of fellow human survivors you can trade with.
One thing you're going to need when dealing with the denizens of the apocalypse is solid combat mechanics and Undead Labs apocalyptic sandbox doesn't disappoint here. On the surface of it the fighting is satisfying and simple with a familiar arsenal at your disposal and powerful melee abilities when dealing with smaller crowds. Further experience reveals depth with the possibility of specialising skills that give you the ability to create unique character builds adding additional combat options to engagements. There's also some pretty special and rare weapons out there if you look hard enough.
In terms of the core gameplay, there's no set linear narrative path as such. You explore, take outposts, destroy infestations, scavenge for resources, and help or hinder the other human survivors you come across. The overarching goal you're striving towards is eradicating the blood plague, a new mechanic in the State of Decay series. Essentially, it's a worse zombie plague than the one already ongoing, meaning it's more infectious and the zombies it produces are more aggressive. To defeat it you'll need to locate Plague Hearts, pulsating masses of flesh that act as the epicentre for new outbreaks. It's in this endgame that things can become mundane as you hit a wall of repetition with the rinse and repeat tactics inherent in finding and destroying the Plague Hearts. It's worth noting that there are further endgame goals related to your specific leader's legacy which can provide boons to further playthroughs on completion.
Multiplayer serves up a welcome break from the lonely desperation of solo survival. Matchmaking offers you the chance to join other people and help them gather the resources they need or the extra hands they require to finally get the upper hand on the undead. Similarly, other players can participate in your world and aid you in your endeavours to defeat the blood plague. You can, of course, just directly invite your friends to your game as well. This is a welcome addition to the series but in some ways also a missed opportunity. You can't create communities together or share long-term goals. Once you finish your multiplayer session and return to your own world the story progression you've made will not carry over making online encounters fleeting. Imagine the possibilities for emergent gameplay if players could persistently populate the same servers working together or battling over the dwindling resources. A lofty ambition, but one that can't help but be glimpsed in the potential of State of Decay 2's online multiplayer.
This addition to the series has certainly seen a welcome upgrade in the graphical department losing the notoriously janky feel of the original. It's clear a lot of work went into making this game more aesthetically pleasing and it shows, particularly on the PC, although this review is based on the Xbox version. Particular polish has been added to the slightly more varied enemies you now face with clear improvements in enemy animations. Beyond the smoother visuals there are no surprises, with the expected additions to the roster fitting comfortably into the usual zombie game stereotypes.
State of Decay 2's real magic lies somewhere between its emergent gameplay and permanent consequences, falling slightly short with its endgame requirements. Whether that be a community leader turning up just in time with those vital food supplies or an unexpected last stand leaving a sole survivor, the game's random cruelties frame its most memorable encounters. It's the tense moments frantically searching for some crucial medical supplies you'll remember. It's the mistake that cost you the groups' leader that you'll never forget. It's those experiences that will stick with you, reminding you that State of Decay 2's value is in its ability to make you care about the characters you develop. Ultimately, there are some people that will love this game, a dedicated audience that finds the unique mix of third-person action, survival mechanics and management sim engaging enough to tackle multiple playthroughs. In that sense, it's an interesting take on the zombie genre that offers something different to the usual violent affairs, opting instead for a more emotive experience that utilises emergent gameplay to give players the power to tell their own stories.