Zombies and videogames have always gone together well, partly it's because their AI is pretty simple to program (swarm the player) and enemies models don't need to be as distinctive as other enemy types. Another is that they are an unquestionable evil. In a medium where story telling isn't always the best, you need something the player will fight without question. Just like Nazis.
However, videogame zombies and zombie lore have always been very different beasts. Body shots count. You can usually get bitten and not really worry about it. That is until recently. Last year gave us The Walking Dead and Zombi U. My love of The Walking Dead has already been covered, but it was more a story in a zombie world then surviving in one. Zombi U on the other hand sounds a bit more like it. There, if you get bitten, you die and lose everything. Then take control of another survivor and you might just bump into your old guy, now the living dead. Kill him and claim your stuff back. Unfortunately it was on Wii U so not many have played it.
Meanwhile, three separate projects aim to give a real Zombie horror survival experience this year. Dead State, Project Zomboid and State of Decay. While Project Zomboid has released an alpha and is available to play in a early state, State of Decay is the first 'finished' one out. Despite the name, it's more like you have an entire county to cover, with one large town and two smaller ones with various croppings of humanity scattered about. Here you are dumped with the most unlikeliest of survivors and told to survive. You can trade with other groups, head into any building in the entire county to scavenge, all while trying to keep you and your group alive.
But it feels unfinished. Not in any particularly drastic way, things just seem to be missing. For instance Petrol is one of the five major resources in the game – alongside food, bullets, building materials and medicine – but I've yet to find any use for it. Near the start of the game you're warned about coming to over-rely on cars because of their engine noise and petrol. While the noise is true – and I've really paid for that one once or twice – the fuel is complete nonsense. Cars run indefinitely on nothing. There's also reference to needing it for running a generator, but once again I've never seen one, yet alone had my own.
Then there's the base building. It's a very good system, but I want the option to expand. When my farmhouse has a barn right across from it I expect to be able to make that barn part of my base. Unfortunately, all the game allows is to make it an outpost.
But back to cars for a second. They are possibly the game's greatest weakness. Their physics are all to cock, the slightest bump can send you sky-rocketing, they can spin on a dime, and go too fast and you're moving faster then scenery can load. Once you realise fuel isn't a factor bombing around the entire state without a thought becomes second nature. Then you build a machine shop that repairs to full working order overnight and they become your ultimate weapon too.
I realise that Undead Labs setout to create a playable zombie apocalypse, more a sandbox game then anything. And for this they've done a stellar job. However, this being a solo affair they've included a few stories to go with it, all you dealing with other groups of survivors. Yet none of them really get going. Two in particular spring to mind as being particularly disappointing. The Wilkersons for one. Ray, the ex-Mayor, also struck me as incredibly interesting. A man who operates as a negotiator and fixit man in the area, travelling between settlements making deals for what's needed. A rather unique take on the apocalypse survival. Except, you meet him twice, earn the ability to call a car at any time and that's it. Story completely told. Then there's the Court House, which in particular seemed to be boiling up into something juicy when all of a sudden the enclave is wiped out. But then I guess this is the zombie apocalypse.
I realise that it sounds like what I'm asking for is another The Walking Dead, with all this talk of character and story. In some ways, that's true. Telltale nailed the story there. But here it's more I feel like they present us with some rather interesting characters only for them to disappear after some token missions to gain some handy perk. Watch any good zombie movie and the conflict comes more from the other survivors then from zombies. The zombies are just the crucible to place them in.
All this moaning – oh God, pun not intended – isn't to say I haven't enjoyed my time with State of Decay. In fact I've bloody loved it. I've been hopelessly addicted to the game. It has that special something that whenever you think of stopping you decide 'just one more mission' and then it's several hours later. It's just that because of how long you play it, it's not hard to spot the areas that if they improved them this game would be even better.
At the end of the day I keep forgetting this is a Xbox Live Arcade game, not retail. It might not have anything to do with quality, but it does with scope. Maybe State of Decay 2 will address this, or now they're the biggest original seller on there - there's no dethroning Minecraft – we can see some pretty hefty updates once they've got the bugs under control. Considering the size of the team, this is a damn impressive work.
I now also feel a real need to give Project Zomboid a proper go – I tried it at Rezzed but struggled with the UI, and a con-floor is not the place to figure that out. I also can not wait for Dead State to release. That's the one I've really been waiting for as its more RPG style setting is more my thing. State of Decay just happens to have come out first.