This is the prevailing theme of State of Decay, Undead Labs' sandbox survival-horror game for Xbox Live Arcade. It's a game focused on the chores of survival in a post-apocalyptic world: scavenging for supplies in vacant buildings; trading with and aiding neighboring groups; comforting and managing emotional states of your own survivors; and, of course, dealing with the occasional zombie attack on your home.
State of Decay is constantly pulling you in many directions, making it difficult to decide what mission you should take next or what resource you should hunt down. The deluge of missions, radio messages and scavenging cycles never stops, and the hostile nature of the environment itself hardly provides incentive for pause to soak in the scenery. State of Decay doesn't worry too much about story or presentation, instead opting to throw you into the game without much buildup. You and a pal – on a camping trip in the fictional area of Trumbull Valley in Anywhere, USA – suddenly are attacked by zombies as you get off the boat. After the bout, you encounter your first group of survivors and begin undertaking missions and getting a lay of the land. You're the type of guy who just needs to take charge.
From there, State of Decay ushers players into a juggling act of missions, exploration, zombie trimming around town and caring for the psyches of bunkmates. Taking too long to tackle a mission could mean losing it altogether or suffering the ire of someone in your group. And each person's mood or behavior affects the overall morale of the group. When morale gets low enough, people will either leave, commit suicide or even steal things.
The simple act of zombie culling is also a necessity. Zombies aren't often found in large groups, but will occasionally gather in hordes of up to ten. When left unchecked, these hordes will aimlessly wander about town until they eventually find your homestead and come in for the attack. It's easy enough to take out a horde by yourself – a car makes a handy battering ram – but your AI compatriots, however, are armed with clubs and guns and won't fare so well on their own at the house. As such, it's a good idea to get out there and put down a few undead now and then.
There are times when you can't do what you want, though. Part of being a leader is recognizing what needs to be done and when to do it. Sometimes a depressed ally at home is a more pressing matter than running out of building materials. Sadly, the majority of this maintenance revolves around taking this depressed ally out for a little zombie killing and a stern talking to, but it's still nice that State of Decay makes you account for these individuals. The zombie apocalypse isn't a cheery place, after all, and failing to nip depression in the bud means it'll spread to other members of the group, eventually to irreversible levels.
Completing missions and securing supplies for the group in State of Decay earns you influence, which is the game's currency and means of progression. Influence increases when you stash stuff in the communal supply locker too, which AI pals can then pull from and use when running out on their own missions. Your companions go about their business when you're not around, which helps create the illusion of a (mostly) living world. The downside is that if you ever place anything nice in the locker, like a really good, rare gun, you're just giving it up to the group and will probably never see it again.
This independence also causes a hang-up when trying to switch between characters, an important mechanic for continued prosperity in State of Decay. As you continue to use a specific character, they will start to tire and lose stamina, which governs how long you can run (not long at all) and when you can climb, and how much steam you have with melee weapons. This varies from character to character, but when you've had a long day of zombie killing and want to come home and relax, only to find every other character out on a mission, you basically have to stand there and wait until somebody is available so you can switch. Once you've gathered together a large stable of survivors, though, this is rarely an issue.
On paper, State of Decay is a tense experience, providing interesting choices and missions that feel relevant to the setting. Of course my group is going to help one of my supply runners who's gotten himself in a jam – we need him and, more importantly, we need his supplies. In execution, State of Decay constantly takes you out of the whole experience with odd AI behavior and incessant technical hiccups – like when you undertake a mission to hunt down a feral zombie in the woods, and after you run it over with a car, the AI escort nonchalantly gets out and walks away, in the middle of the night and completely unarmed. Or when a survivor gets stuck in an endless loop of nailing a board to an exposed window, watching the zombie outside pull it off, and then nailing another board onto the same window.
The technical hurdles are very steep at first, but once I put about five hours in, the sting started to dissipate. These flaws mar the atmosphere that State of Decay tries to create. If you can stomach them, however, the game's sense of urgency and its mountain of tasks and systems will be a nice vacation away from the societal constraints of your everyday, zombie-free life.
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