It’s a common trope in zombie fiction to imply that the humans are the real monsters, usually because of some horrible way bad people take advantage of a zombie apocalypse to be extra bad (like Negan from The Walking Dead, The Governor from The Walking Dead, or every other character from The Walking Dead). Rarely has that idea ever been illustrated as clearly as it is in State Of Decay 2, a zombie survival game in which you regularly have to ask yourself if certain people deserve to survive the zombies. It’s not that State Of Decay 2's world is particularly full of evil men, though. It’s more that a lot of the people in the game are just big assholes who can’t put aside their own bullshit for long enough to recognize that society has completely collapsed, zombies have overrun the world, and the various characters controlled by me, the human player, are the only ones pulling their damn weight.
The main villain in State Of Decay 2 is Ivan, a jerk with a bad attitude who hangs around my base camp with his hoodie on, bumming everybody out by reminding whomever I happen to be controlling at any given time that it would be easier to survive if we didn’t always drop what we were doing and answer every distress call from an idiot who has apparently been living in an empty shed since the zombies took over. What Ivan doesn’t get is that the game is all about establishing communities of survivors, utilizing their different skills to maintain necessities like medical equipment, food, and defense. To do that, you need to complete sidequests and frequently switch between all of your survivors in order to improve their skills, let others rest, or take on unique missions that are suited to their backstory.
For example, if you’ve teamed with a former nurse who knows how to cure the “Blood Plague” that is turning zombies into scarier zombies, she’ll suggest building better medical facilities. If you have a gung-ho ex-soldier living at your camp, he’ll advocate for the importance of guard towers and recommend rescuing more gung-ho ex-soldiers to defend the base. (Nice try, fascist.) Then there’s Ivan, whose main purpose at the camp is to try and see how long he can push me before I abandon my high-minded ideals and embrace my destiny as the real monster of this story. I’m not going to kill Ivan, because that’s not how things work in a civilized society. Instead, I’ll bring him on missions to deliver food to other communities in hopes of him realizing how important it is, I’ll politely listen to his concerns so he feels respected, and then, once we get swarmed by the undead on a failed journey to one of my outposts, I’ll drop a firecracker at his feet to get the zombies’ attention and watch as they devour him, much like the unblinking darkness that is devouring my very soul.
Of course, one of the fun things about State Of Decay 2 is that you might not find an Ivan. Your experience with the game is entirely dependent on how you choose to survive, from which characters you pick in the tutorial to which sidequests you decide to take on once you begin establishing your outpost. Relationships between characters will even change depending on which of their unique missions you choose to do, since you might run out of time to complete one while working on another. This gives you a sense of ownership over your group, which is part of the reason why it’s so hard to cut the guys like Ivan loose. They may be actively making your community worse by starting fights or constantly complaining, but they’re only in your community because you rescued them.
The feeling of being responsible for the poor saps in my community made me a little nicer to them than I should be, but it also made any trips outside my outpost more intense for the survivors I actually liked. A big reason for that is if your people will die, they’ll stay dead for good—until they come back as a zombie, which you’ll then have to kill if you want to recover any supplies they were carrying. The main hook State Of Decay 2 adds to the first game is online cooperative multiplayer, which allows you to bring your favorite survivor into another player’s world, and while that may seem like a straightforward system, it also requires you to pick a favorite. That can be impossible when you love all of your survivors equally (I do not), but at least playing online helps mask the simplicity of the game’s basic combat.
Managing your survivors and paying attention to their needs keeps being interesting, but actually fighting off the zombies gets dull. For all its issues, Metal Gear Survive—one of this year’s other big games about killing monsters and staying fed—excelled when it came to combat. State Of Decay 2 would be significantly more entertaining if it took a page out of that book and allowed you to do anything as satisfying as stabbing zombies with a spear through a chainlink fence. Cars are the best thing it has going on, since they give you some breathing room for inventory management (which you’ll spend a lot of time worrying about), and they have the uncanny ability to turn almost any kind of zombie into a wet piñata that explodes with the smallest impact.
State Of Decay 2 occasionally feels like the perfect “podcast game,” the sort of experience best served by shutting your brain off and checking off items on a to-do list while gradually improving your little community. But its best moments don’t click when playing that way. Your actions are more meaningful when you invest enough time to care about your people, and you’ll miss out on that connection if you’re sleepwalking through the loop of looting houses and dragging handfuls of screws back to your base. But pay too much attention, and the dulling repetition of that survival grind sets in, making distractions like a podcast or an online session with friends more appealing even though they make the game less interesting. It’s a vicious circle, like how I need Ivan to scavenge for supplies so my group can survive, but he’s such a dick about literally everything that I sometimes wish all of them would get eaten so I could just start over.
Oh, wait. Maybe I have been the real monster this whole time?