State of Decay 2 is a personal highlight of this generation, but it's by no means what I'd call a polished game. Two years after it launched in a pretty sorry state, it remains a very janky game, with strange engine anomalies, crazy physics bugs, and rather pedestrian animations and interactions.
State of Decay has something truly special about it, though. Combining a rich strategy simulation layer with open-world action is incredibly rare to see, and for me, incredibly compelling. No game on earth captures the essence of a Hollywood zombie apocalypse experience like State of Decay does for me, despite all of its problems.
This week, Undead Labs released State of Decay 2: Juggernaut Edition, bringing the game to Steam with cross-play for co-op, and adding a range of improvements. I've dived back in after a year or more away from the game to experience some of the less recent updates, such as bounties, but also the Juggernaut Edition itself, which brings heavy weapons, graphics tweaks, and a new open-world map to enjoy.
The way Undead Labs has doubled down on improving State of Decay 2 is exciting. As fun as the new features are in the game, I can't ignore how much it highlights the need for State of Decay 3 to push far further with its engine.
Living that Juggernaut life
State of Decay 2: Juggernaut Edition doesn't revolutionize the game, but it does bring a new map in the form of Providence Ridge, a desolate logging town complete with a "Camp Winchester" vacation spot, which seems like a cheeky reference to Shawn of the Dead.
State of Decay 2: Juggernaut Edition also brings some new graphical improvements, although it's hard to really make out a difference. In fact, some of the gamma and HDR seems a bit odd to me, with aggressive bloom on the new map washing everything in a misty haze. Perhaps that was the intended effect, but it gives the map this sort of drab, overcast climate that is the kind of mood I expect to get while visiting my family in the north of England, rather than in a video game.
Regardless, the layout of the new map is fascinating, with steep hills, thick forests, and unique bases with new facilities that don't appear on other maps. For returning players, it adds a breath of fresh air to proceedings and adds to the body of content in what was already a pretty beefy package.
The best feature, though, for me, is probably the heavy weapons. While they take a pile of stamina to swing and need to be positioned carefully over other weapons, they can devastate multiple zombies at a time, sending them flying onto the floor. They feel great to use and have a wide variety of options for players to hunt down (and swing).
Some of the other newer features that I haven't tried out previously include the cosmetic system, which gives you an extensive range of clothing to unlock as part of your scavenging, and the bounty system, which offers you unique rewards for completing specific tasks. Some of the reward packs are on a timed basis, too, with one set to be permanently replaced in April.
As fun as State of Decay 2 is, returning to it in 2020 just highlights how much of it still falls below the mark.
What State of Decay 3 needs to do better
State of Decay 2 is Undead Labs' first game on the Unreal Engine, and was built in partnership with Microsoft, rather than as part of Microsoft. The studio has also grown a fair bit since joining Xbox Game Studios, undoubtedly to beef up the possibilities for State of Decay 3.
State of Decay is a bit unique for how its roadmap of games was shared with its community long before State of Decay 1 launched, even. The goal has always been to create a connected, multiplayer zombie apocalypse survival simulator, and State of Decay 2 is a step forward towards that, adding co-op and expanded simulation features. With Microsoft's resources and funding, State of Decay 3 should be better than ever, but only if Undead Labs can iron out some of the game's long-term kinks.
The State of Decay subreddit is a passionate place of zombie-killing fans, but so often, the posts seem to be showcases of the game's annoying, and occasionally hilarious bugs. Sometimes cars can just vanish, or spin into the air and dart across the map. Even now, I get NPCs and zombies falling from the sky, a bug I wrote about back when I played the launch build two years ago. NPCs are wooden and act like idiots. In my most recent playthrough just now, I had an ally run straight up to an enemy and get instantly gibbed by a hostile shotgunner.
Friendly enclaves gather and block doorways, standing around like deers caught in zombie bloodstained headlights. The fact the game doesn't have dedicated servers is criminal, considering Microsoft funded the game, as it places dumb restrictions on the way co-op works. Even Minecraft has State of Decay 2 beaten in this aspect, with State's infamous "tether" stopping you from roaming too far away from the game's host.
State of Decay 2's animations are also painfully rough by contemporary AAA standards. Combinations of actions, such as reloading while crouched, look painful and unnatural, while weapon swings look cartoony, rather than immersive. These are just a few examples of the litany of small issues that coalesce to stunt State of Decay 2's overall quality.
There's a lot to love about State of Decay 2, and some of its rough edges amount more to charm than annoyance, but the simulation is so glorious and immersive, I just wish the engine and presentation were built to match it.
With Microsoft, all things are now possible
With Undead Labs now part of Microsoft, with full access to Redmond's resources, you'd have to hope that State of Decay 3 will push the franchise to new heights. The ability to hire more developers, access to Unreal Engine experts, and hopefully, Azure dedicated servers, should see State of Decay 3 achieve more of what Undead Labs has a lot of passion for — building the ultimate zombie apocalypse simulator.
It may be a fair while before we see anything official materialize. Still, with a new engine, more resources, and a bigger budget, I can see State of Decay ascending from its cult status and becoming one of Microsoft's pillar Xbox franchises in the future. Here's hoping.
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