Zombie survival games have always been on my radar as something I definitely should enjoy. I find the concept and evolution of the zombie to be endlessly intriguing yet horrifying because of their proximity to humanity versus other monster types. Moreover, I love the idea of gathering resources and struggling to survive in games. It opens up an avenue to explore the rawest parts of being human by testing what individuals would do for survival. So far, I haven't found a single zombie survival game to satisfy what I think could be an emotional yet thrilling experience. Nevertheless, I've trudged on in the hopes that one could pull me in and impress me, and so my search has brought me to State of Decay 2. So was this the one? Was this the game that finally did it for me?
Well, the short answer is no. It has the emotional depth of a teaspoon as far as human interaction and story goes. Maybe I've been spoiled with the emotional rollercoaster that was The Last of Us and its zombie-based story, but I had hoped that State of Decay 2 could offer up at least a little more impactfulness than it did. In the game's beginning, you get to pick a pair of survivors with different stats and backgrounds. The tutorial section does a little bit to paint the two characters' relationship as they move through an area gathering resources. This inevitably ends when the secondary character gets bitten and infected by what the game calls the "blood plague." Call it whatever you want, it's still the oldest zombie plot device in the book, but since clichés seem to never be weeded out in other zombie-based media, I was willing to go with it. I fully expected to go on some long quest to save my partner, maybe encounter one good twist, and either succeed in curing them or be forced to take them out before they hurt others.
Nope, turns out that was just a continued part of the tutorial. The means for curing the blood plague is easy to come by and many of the people in your group of survivors are going to come in contact with it at least once. I didn't expect State of Decay 2 to be a story-driven game, but I thought there would be at least some semblance of a connecting, mission driven plot. There are quests in the game, usually given to you by other settlers in the area, but these are usually just used to build external relations for trade and whatnot. You gain reputation points by completing each mission and can spend the points like currency on new settlement areas, recruits, or items.
State of Decay 2's main focus is base building and resource management, and it's actually implemented really well. Each settlement location offers different types of resources to start with but also gives the player a few places to build things like infirmaries, gardens, firing ranges, or other useful stations that help gain more resources or use resources to further the health and stats of your group. Further resources and man power can help to upgrade and modify each structure, adding a sense of personalization to each settlement. However, resources are limited to how much you can haul back from the zombie infested area you inhabit. Looting something like an old restaurant will likely yield more food-based resources while looting houses can be a mixed bag. There's not much in the way of accidentally stumbling upon places that will have the resources you need since you can fill out your map easily from a vantage point, but it's always satisfying to find and haul back the resources your group is low on.
Each successful haul gains that character some standing within the group. Once out of the tutorial, the player is no longer limited to their starting character, and they can switch characters at almost any time. This means that you have more control over how much resource gathering each character does and how much standing they have. Eventually, characters with a high enough standing can become leaders who provide legacy bonuses and function as a sort of new game plus mechanic. However, once the leader is chosen there's no way to simply switch leaders unless you're willing to purposefully get them killed. This however loses you a good character since character deaths are permanent, so you should be careful when choosing.
To make permadeath even more of a factor, character skills can't be leveled up simply by using reputation points. Each stat is leveled by practicing either at base or out scavenging, and so while taking a character out who has a low stat in shooting is a risk, it also helps make that stat better. In this way, you're growing your settlement(s) and your settlers each time you go out and return safely. It makes for a well greased machine when you eventually have a few settlements and the general knowhow of how looting areas works. However, it can lose its charm rather quickly.
Sadly, the gameplay eventually boils down to a repeated cycle of running out for supplies, returning and fulfilling some settlement needs, and going out again. By the time most of the places close to your main settlement are fully looted, the repetitive gameplay only becomes more taxing as you have to go farther and farther away from base. There are vehicles you can get that you can load up to get more supplies at once and playing online with a group of friends is probably infinitely more rewarding, but the single player experience leaves much to be desired after a few hours of play.