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The Next Level In Gaming

Contributed by CJ

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State Of Decay is a strange beast.

When the first reviews hit it snared decent scores – high eighties for the most part – each acknowledging inherent flaws with screen tearing and odd bugs here and there, yet speaking highly of a wonderful compulsion that lead on far beyond.

Releasing to XboxLive it became the fastest selling Arcade game on the system, racking up sales in excess of ten million dollars in a week. Consider that the game costs just under £14 to buy, and that’s quite the achievement.

As for my part in all of this, I thought I was on top of my games, of titles forthcoming and the latest releases, I hadn’t heard of State Of Decay. Not even under my radar, but failing to register on it. At all.

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My first sighting was the second video of a playthrough on Videogamer, where Chris Bratt underlined the importance of persevering with the title, imploring that there was much more on offer than first perspectives suggested.

The footage I saw resonated as more than just your standard Zombie infestation, invasion or whichever nuance you might wish to apply, I just wasn’t sure quite how much at the time. At that point the game just looked fun.

I downloaded the demo the following Saturday, with a delicious hour or so to spare before work. The idea to get a measure of the game and see if the instincts resonating from those early sightings transpired once I’d gotten my itchy thumbs upon it. I kid you not, within a matter of minutes I’d bought the blighter.

I’d expected something a little bit, well, grotty looking to be frank. YouTube is probably not the best litmus test for visual fidelity – and pretty sure the footage I’d seen previously was set around night time anyway. To then be confronted by opening moments of such resplendence took me aback a bit, as sunlight washed the flame tinged colours of autumn leaves, deeper shadows bursting beyond casting crazy templates on the ground below. Where I hid. Where first flesh was torn and swathes of crimson smoothed over orange leafed hues.

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Bedding in, animations seemed respectable and early quirks of gameplay seemed intriguing. Yet that gut reaction of ‘I haz to haz’ still whispered within the immediate. Little did I know just what the game had in its back pocket.

The big surprise was the screen tearing seen in early footage, was gone entirely. Trampolining to the internet to find out more, I discovered a week or so after release Undead Labs kicked out a mahoosive patch, gnawing ravenously into a veritable ton of early niggles and v-syncing the game in the process. Whilst much of this may have been taking advantage of the financial relaxation of Microsoft’s patching policy, such a commitment to the game was really, really impressive. Undead Labs may be an indie team, but their passion for the project shone through with such an update. The game beyond, frankly, is amazing.

But I digress. Those introductions I mentioned are set on a campsite, and it’s here the game’s mechanics are introduced, as first flickers of the undead reveal their ugly-gobface collective. The aforementioned autumnal shimmers tickle over sporadic tents and caravans, with each nook and cranny temptingly hiding one or more of the whrrring, brring, shuffle footed monkeys. Yet that which first stirs the heart comes a little way further on – and the first sign State Of Decay is going to be a little bit special.

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There’s a calling to a car, and a drive to the far off town of Mount Tanner. Normally this may be nothing more than a brief cut scene, with a slice of over-written jabberwocky bollocking over the top. In State Of Decay it’s a manual drive, not to teach you how to use vehicles, although I’m sure that’s there, but a journey throttled in absolute silence, drenched in the refulgence of the day, duly haunted by the devastation of flashpoints previous. It’s a long drive – exquisitely so – and it’s here the game first hints at its mastery of pacing, of drama. Understanding wonderfully that it has a full box of colours to illustrate with, and the ensuing contrast of the beautiful against the dark of the ‘real’ is rapturously realised. As such a fabulous dichotomy to revel within.

Upon reaching your destination, you join up with a group of survivors, closeted in the safe of a local church. Wall tops are tinsel twirled with barbed wire, with a guard post above to dissuade any of the curious undone into breaching said razorblade slinkies.

From this point it’s imperative to prove yourself to the people around you. Doing so means venturing into the streets of Mount Tanner and raiding its homes and stores to bring back supplies, weapons and earning trust in the process. At later stages it’s possible to take one [now two, see later!] of the other survivors out with you, and those bonds help both individual confidences, as well as furthering the morale of the group as a whole.

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Discovered loot enables you to expand the homestead, else ascertaining the ability to set up safe houses elsewhere in the Town. Here you can fill their brick-built broken husks with weapons, traps and food; a place to escape, tool up and lock-and-load ready for extravagant new advances thereafter.

You start out with a chap called Marcus, but can soon switch out to a number of other inhabitants, and it’s of utmost importance that you do. Taking part in a mission will breed fatigue, and that person will soon tell you just how tired they are. Returning them to the homestead, letting them sleep and taking someone else out is an important mechanic to be mindful of. Furthermore, I think it helps you believe in the people on as screen as people, fragile things beyond just a health bar and a set of lives. Whilst characterisation isn’t rammed down your throat by any means, the preceding subtlety means it’s hard not to care.

Occasionally other survivors are discovered, but bringing them back can cause trouble. The current residents may resent their arrival, fearing the extra pressure placed upon food stocks and of their own survival. If there’s not enough places to sleep, their meandering can also affect the ecosystem within the group. Building stocks can be used to erect a tent and beds in the garden, a workshop to craft weapons and curb the rising tension within the group, but as more and more people arrive you may have to scout for new places to live.

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Here the game shows brilliant cards, effulgently more than your standard zombie game, but primarily one of human management. State Of Decay is quite the apocalypse simulator, of what it might be like to strive to keep living through this coffin dodging end of days.

That’s not to say the game shies away from horror roots and the downright scary, because that’s so not the case. State Of Decay is punctuated with thrilling drama, times where I’ve screamed at the screen because the moment was important, more than an avatar on the telly in front of me, I was invested in their, my desire to keep them, me, alive. Did I mention perma-deaths? Oh yes, perma-deaths.

At one point I was informed of a group of ne’er-do-wells who had been robbing survivors, rather than the broken homes of the lost. These gents were said to be on a farm, and may well know the whereabouts of the local doctor.

I examined the map and saw the location arrow pointing off screen. I zoomed out – I didn’t realise you could zoom out – and the arrow was still pointing off-screen. When I finally found this farm it was miles away.

Setting off on the long drive, piling into zombies with my car along the way, I soon discovered that the hordes I’d been gleefully using to colour the bonnet red had begun to damage the vehicle. I left the flaming wreck and pegged it down the highway, looking for another car, truck, anything that could closet me in greater safety.

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When I arrived at the farm, it really was in the middle of nowhere. The boys I’d set out to find were cagey, aggressive, less than impressed by me and coming off as bloody untrustworthy in return.

From memory – as if it was something I’d lived, but will undoubtedly bastardise in the words to follow – one of the lads moved to the window and said something along the lines of “They’re coming”.

Rushing out of the front door to glean a panoramic opinion on tummy knots and rising panic – I saw dots on the horizon, hundreds of them, racing across distant corn fields. They might not be here for, what, two, maybe five minutes, but trapped within the bookends between now and then, I was terrified.

The blokes from the farm began battening down the hatches, wooden beams hammered into window frames to prevent, nay stagger their eruption inside. Panicking, yet proactive, I made my way through the front door to try and hack into the advancing masses, trim them back. Games had taught me I could do this, that such fervour and bravado would only be rewarded with a wonderfully violent and dynamic flourish. Did I learn nothing from my beloved Dark Souls? Such a bloody fool.

The cadaverous proletariat flooded forth and tore into me. My stamina, used for both attacking and running, ebbed to naught but a flicker. I tried to run away – I was pounced upon and bitten. I tried to swing an axe, raise a gun – the claustrophobic mob raged in with slavering maw once more. Hysterical and screaming at the tv at this point, I flailed for the right answer, but death demanded sacrifice. My character died.

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I was mortified.

I’d lost Maya. Maya Torres. Maya was awesome with her axe and I’d taken her out on enough missions to have levelled up her ability to squelching that blade through rotting carcasses quite a way. Yet blood ran deeper than stats. It really did seem like the whole incident was a memory of mine. Those bastardised Chinese whispers above a tale of my own. I felt genuinely guilty, remorseful, affected.

For a game to do that is incredible. That’s what I game for! Those disco-ball diamonds of groove-o-special that make experiences such as these so fabulously vivid and memorable.

With State Of Decay some may say that diamond is a fairly rough one, focussing on the bugs that still remain, and that it’s not comparable to the likes of the PS3’s highly acclaimed The Last Of Us. Nor should it be though. State Of Decay is from an indie developer and sells for a third of a full price title. Yet the sheer love resonating within the code and the brilliant ambition the title radiates makes for one of my favourite experiences this gen. It’s immersive, has encapsulated me utterly and stolen so, so much of my time.

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In all this time I’ve struggled with the score. Yet, as I have with Animal Crossing, I’ve found myself coming back time and time again. Swatches of play that might fill up half an hour, an hour, even a space of fifteen minutes or so in order to have a pop at clearing out one of the infested houses in Mount Tanner. I flat out love playing it.

Pros

+ Superb pacing. The game understands that moments of silence, of quiet are just as haunting –and important – as those infested with the undead.

+ Atmospheric score by Assassin’s Creed’s Jesper Kyd.

+ Really immersive and fabulous fun to play.

+ Ongoing commitment from the developer to keep refining the game.

Cons

- Still a few bugs in the machine, a bit of clipping here and there. Don’t let them put you off.

90 / 100XP

As such I’d say the game is essential. Such strive and ambition, matched with a fantastic price tag has to be supported. Flat out has to be.

Undead Labs are undoubtedly a developer to watch, and with State Of Decay have sold me entirely on the superb talents they have in abundance and of the blistering potential of efforts in years to come.

Thus far, my Game Of the Year.

- CJ

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Plus XP Contributors On September - 9 - 2013

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