Valentina, Beta, Alexxis, Jay… they're dead. They're all dead. While we mourn their passing, their permadeaths serve as an example of one of the greatest strengths of State of Decay 2.
As a newcomer to the series, it turns out that the complete breakdown of society can be pretty brutal.
Later, when your community swells and you gain enough influence (the game’s de facto currency), you can claim locations ranging from small, resource gathering outposts, to electricity generating power stations and even makeshift forts constructed from shipping containers. Each new locale has its own advantages and how you manage your growing empire, customising locations further with mods and upgrades, is up to you.
That said, it’s advisable that you take council from your community as morale upkeep is a constant battle in such dire circumstances, as one might expect. Sacrificing a building slot to set up a garden or fashion a lounge (in which you can install an original Xbox) can work wonders in keeping everyone cheery.
As time goes on, your survivors will improve their skills based on what actions they perform. While the game wants you to feel you're developing fleshed out characters in a manner akin to the likes of Skyrim, the reality is that skills are fairly limited, and you'll just want to make sure most of your population go for a run once in a while to boost their stamina, or they'll quickly become overwhelmed in a bout of fisticuffs.
What is unique to SoD2, and arguably the main motivator in investing you in its characters, are a collection of 100+ more mundane traits such as “Car crash survivor”, “Cat lover” and “Flatulent”, all of which have passive effects. When each survivor gains enough standing in the community their individual skill is unlocked, such as “Yoga instructor”, offering an amusing look at their pre-apocalypse lives. While these abilities sadly don't unlock a suite of oddly juxtaposed mini-games, they do offer depth at fairly low effort.
There's another side to this of course, in that not everyone gets on, so they can start fights in your absence or generally become disgruntled. If it comes to it, you might have to take the difficult decision to exile them for the greater good, though generally they do go quietly.
The same is true of the different AI factions, known as enclaves, which can get cheesed off if you repeatedly ignore their requests for help or side with other enclaves over them in disputes, potentially leading them to become hostile and spoil for a fight.
All of these elements comes together in a very compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far (much of which lacked the minor polish brought by the game's hefty 6GB day one patch) being technical.
Zombies can drop in from about 20ft in the air as you approach, using vehicles places your life in the game’s hands as they can randomly flip out or explode, and the AI often behaves unpredictably, to the extent that more than once our fellow community members have perished in relatively mild peril.
Using vehicles was something we hardly dabbled in throughout the game's opening hours, assuming them to be too much of a zombie magnet, but in reality to reap the full rewards when scavenging around the map - in particular valuable resources like food or medicine - their boot/trunk space is quite essential. Casually opening a car door to obliterate a squishy zombie as you pass them at speed also never ceases to be messily fun...
Everything comes together in a compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far being technical.
Another significant drawback is the lack of direction on hand for new players; a handful of prompts keep recurring, but seemingly there's little to lead you into new experiences as you’re drawn deeper into the game. On top of this, plenty of basic options like trading items between you and a follower out in the field are far from a simple button press away, taking us back to pre-Resident Evil 5 levels of AI buddy management.
Same applies in co-op, where up to three guests can venture into the host’s world and loot their own unique supplies to take back home with them, but should you want to swap items amongst one another it’s a cumbersome case of using menus to drop them on the ground before rifling through piles of stuff and picking up the relevant drops. There’s also a limiting tether that stops players from straying too far apart, but if you’re committed to watching each other’s backs that shouldn’t be too big of an issue.
Setting a few more minor bugs aside, the overall experience is stable, no doubt aided by the graphical sacrifices that see SoD2 appear visually underwhelming even with the added oomph of the Xbox One X at its disposal.
Whether SoD2 is for you depends on how you attribute value based on look and feel versus raw gameplay. If you favour the former, it certainly doesn't have many “wow” moments to entice you, or make for a particularly good sizzle reel, but the gameplay over time is undeniably compelling.
This post-apocalyptic world effortlessly encourages you to leave the safety of your home and explore just one more area, run over just one more zombie or pick up just one more follower, without drowning you in endless map symbols. Nor does it penalise you too much if you decide to be really heartless and ignore individuals’ needs (*cough* Sam *cough*), resulting in an unparalleled sense of freedom that allows you to craft your own narrative without completely abandoning you to your own devices in the process.
In all, at its basic price point, the game is well worth picking it up, and if you nab it as part of a Game Pass subscription you'll likely find even better value for money. With different areas to settle, origin stories to experience, and enclaves and survivors to encounter, there's plenty to keep you busy until the previously outlined DLC expansions arrive, but, for the time being, if you'll excuse us, we have a wind power station to claim.