Sunday, 6 October 2013

Now Playing: State of Decay

State of Decay is a third person open world zombie survival game. It began life as an Xbox Arcade title before recently being ported to PC. It’s certainly an ambitious title with a lot of cool ideas packed into it. Unfortunately, the execution of a lot of those ideas is slightly flawed in one way or another, which sullies the overall experience.

The game is set in a fairly decently sized sandbox. There are small towns, farms and industrial sites to explore. Nearly every building can be entered seamlessly without any loading screens as you scavenge for supplies. There’s a great attention to detail throughout the environments, and there’s a decent little selection of vehicles to get about in.

It’s not entirely a free-form sandbox game, as there is a central storyline to follow and an ending, but there’s a large degree of player choice in how they want to reach that final goal. There’s also no central character as such, as you switch between different members of your community – and you’ll have to, at times, as people grow tired and need to rest. This idea is interesting, but a little flawed in practice. Playable characters can level up their abilities, so you generally only want to stick with one or two of them in order to max out their skills, and as a result, there’s very little incentive to keep switching to new people as you’ll find yourself at a disadvantage.

After moving beyond the opening tutorial section, the game really opens up. You have a home base which is where you’ll gather other survivors and store your supplies. You start small, but as the game progresses you’ll gain the option to relocate your home base to a variety of other locations. This base can be customised and upgraded over time by acquiring the necessary materials. But the base also consumes a daily amount of resources depending on how many other survivors you are attempting to support. The more people, the more mouths to feed.

This should raise the interesting dilemma of whether you should allow more survivors into your community, as they will drain your limited resources. And certainly, as some survivors have ‘key’ skills over others (chef, mechanic, etc), who you choose to let in should be a tough call. But unfortunately there’s no real reason not to invite anyone and everyone to join you, as resources are plentiful and easy to come by. Providing you keep your home base stocked up with a couple of regular supply runs, running low on supplies is never an issue.

I really liked the choice of various bases, and the customisation options they support. It lends a good degree of replayability to the title. Although the main ‘quest’ can be beaten in around 15 hours, there’s scope to replay it in a different manner, at a different base with different survivors. The bulk of the game, however, is taken up by the near constant stream of side missions to complete.

There’s a decent variety – rescue a survivor, clear out an infestation, deal with a horde, find a resource, hunt a special zombie etc, but due to the frequency with which they crop up (sometimes 2-3 every ten minutes) they quickly grow repetitive. You can ignore most of them without any serious penalty, but some of them are time based and a failure to act on your part can result in the deaths of other survivors.

There’s nothing wrong with that at all in concept, but once again the execution is off, as you may suddenly get a flurry of two or even three calls for help at once, in addition to the main quest mission you’re trying to complete. It all gets a little irritating as you find yourself racing from one side mission location to the next in order to stay on top of things. It’s not hard to do, it just gets very annoying and you feel like you’re spending more time babysitting your community members than you should be. It would have been great to assign other people to deal with certain missions in a similar way to how you can call them to pick up supplies you’ve discovered.

This issue really was my biggest irritation with the game. You can’t even stop at your base for five minutes to plan your next move without another couple of bonus missions appearing, and ignoring them isn’t always an option if you want to keep everyone alive.

My other major concern which ties into this, is the persistent world feature. Even when you’re not playing SoD, things continue to happen in your absence, so when you return, you may find a flurry of messages and new missions to undertake. Now, I do like this idea (although I think it should also be an option) but again, the execution is a little flawed.

Even leaving my base in good order, stocked with supplies and everyone healthy, I may return to the game the next day to find someone sick, or someone missing, and then whereas I was planning on hunting down a certain resource or continuing one of the main missions, I find myself dealing with all the drama I missed while I wasn’t even playing. To make matters worse, even more side objectives will then crop up, and you find yourself forced into what feels like an endless series of repetitive ‘bonus’ missions. I say ‘bonus’ but when they sometimes have penalties if you simply ignore them, that’s not really the case.

Combat in the game is fine. You have a nice variety of melee based attacks. Guns are a little slow and clunky, but okay. It’s a bit easy at times, especially if you take other survivors with you, but travelling alone certainly requires more thought and care on behalf of the player, as getting swarmed with zombies can happen quicker than you might think.

The real fun, of course, comes from the sandbox experience. A small example – scavenging for supplies in a house at dusk, I stumble across a zed. It surprises me and I let out a shot. I wasn’t using a suppressor and the sound alerts other zeds outside. They begin to swarm towards the house. I barricade the windows, but they force their way inside. I try to kill them as they come in, but more sound attracts more zeds, and I’m quickly being overrun. I’m out of ammo and the doorways are blocked, so I dash towards a nearby window, smashing through it and rolling away to safety.

The zeds follow and I run, heading for home base. I’m nearly out of stamina and I’m stumbling along, the zeds close behind me now. Suddenly, gunshots ring out and the zeds behind me fall. The guy on the watchtower I constructed at home base is covering me as I approach. I get inside and drop off the supplies.

It’s moments like this which really make SoD a supremely enjoyable and compelling experience. It’s such a shame the player isn’t given the time to really explore and experience the sandbox, as the game seems intent on ramming a constant stream of ‘bonus’ objectives down their throat.

Overall, SoD is a really solid, enjoyable title. It’s a title with a lot of good ideas, but sadly all of them are slightly flawed in one way or another. I’m not opposed to the story based missions at all, or even the side objectives, as they give the player a degree of direction in a world that would otherwise descend into a repetitive scavenger hunt. But they seriously needed to reduce their frequency as they quickly overwhelm the player, becoming repetitive chores to complete in order to clear out the constantly updating journal.

I’ve talked for longer than I expected to about State of Decay, but even so, there’s a lot of cool little features I haven’t touched upon. It’s a game I really enjoyed to play, but was also incredibly frustrated by. With just a few tweaks here and there, this really could have been one of the best titles I’d played this year. As it is, it comes close, but not quite close enough.


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Time for the Stars

I haven’t said anything about my writing for a bit, not since I released the Zero Sample series. As you may have guessed, I took a small break to enjoy the release of Rome 2, but I haven’t been entirely idle. I’ve been doing another edit of a book that will be going out to publishers in the near future (TLDK). That’s done now, so I guess it’s time to focus on a new project.

I think I said at the start of this year I wanted to overhaul a couple of my existing projects – AO & NI. That’s still the plan, but I need to think more about it. Both require fairly substantial changes, and I don’t want to rush into it without being sure.

I’ve still got another book (WFTD) which is sort of in limbo at the moment. I’ll decide what to do with that later, once we see how TLDK fares. I’m certainly not short on material, that’s for sure. I have some ideas for more Zero Sample novellas too, maybe an entire ‘second series’. But we’ll see how it goes. I definitely like the idea of writing more novellas alongside my full length stuff. It allows me to experiment a little more, mixing up different tones, styles and characters.

So I certainly want to get at least one more project out before the end of the year. It’s just a question of what it will be.