State of Decay 2’s open-world battle for survival against a zombie menace is the right kind of post-apocalyptic fun. It creates plenty of high-stakes moments, punctuated by the relative calm of foraging for supplies while always looking over your shoulder. It’s a potent mixture for a while, until the combination of repetitive missions and annoying bugs eventually dulls the joy of squashing heads, even when your co-op entourage rolls deep.

Just like in 2013’s original State of Decay, in State of Decay 2 you can freely switch between randomly generated survivors in your post-apocalyptic community – and you’ll regularly have to, because they can only be pushed so far before their stamina starts to give out. Or worse, you did something stupid and got someone permanently killed, taking their unique traits and whatever leveled-up skills they’ve acquired with them. You’re not able to customize their names or looks at all, which is a shame, because if XCOM has taught us anything it’s that it’s fun to tell your friends and co-workers how you got them killed. But that fear of loss (you can’t reload from an earlier save!) adds some significant weight to the struggle that plays out on one of three open-world rural maps, as you scavenge the region to build a shelter and work to cleanse the land of a disease known as the Blood Plague.

Unlike the original, though, State of Decay 2 can be played in its entirety (after the tutorial) in four-player co-op, which even works cross-platform between PC and Xbox One. The joining parties enter the host’s game and get to bring back all their looted spoils (aside from resources) plus bonus rewards to their own game. It’s a near-universal truth that games like this become more fun when played with friends, and that holds very true in State of Decay 2.

You can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting a zombie.

There’s not much more to the generic post-zombie-apocalypse story than the quest to wipe out the Blood Plague – at least not that I’ve encountered in a single playthrough on one of the three maps, the Plateau – but there’s some background radio chatter that suggests a bigger world of survivors and organizations out there that could someday make an appearance. Everything else is told on a smaller, more personal scale: individual characters will have their own quest lines assigned to them, such as one woman who wanted to track down what happened to a police officer friend of hers in a series of missions, and when you eventually appoint a leader to your group, their randomly determined class appears to influence how your story ends. (Mine was a Warlord, as opposed to Sheriff, Trader, and Builder, which as you can imagine ended with lots of shooting.) But generally it’s a sandbox-style RPG where you’re tackling dynamically appearing quests as people call for help, and you make your own story in the way you deal with them.

While zombies are so omnipresent in the open world that you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting one, they’re spread thin: next to something like Dead Rising 4 or what we’ve seen in those Days Gone trailers, the number of “zeds” you encounter in the open world at any one time is positively quaint. It’s rare to see more than a dozen at once, and the so-called “hordes” that appear on the map are limited to five or six. It’s enough to keep you on your toes, but individual zombies are more a nuisance than a threat.

Fortunately, the moment-to-moment combat against the rank-and-file undead is simple but satisfying. Melee never really evolves beyond button-mashing while keeping an eye on your stamina meter, but you can unlock some specializations that allow you to quickly throw an enemy to the ground and leave it vulnerable to a delightfully gruesome head-popping execution move. And, when you score a critical hit and knock its block off with a single swing of a bat or swipe of a machete (instead of bludgeoning them four or five times first) it’s a tiny moment of power.

When you score a critical hit and knock a zed’s block off with a single swing of a bat it’s a tiny moment of power.

Guns, which include all the expected pistols, shotguns, rifles, SMGs, and grenade launchers, feel good to fire thanks to nice loud sound effects and recoil that make them seem powerful. Ammo is scarce enough that shooting feels like a last resort, but when you skillfully execute headshots (the zombies’ spongy bodies soak up precious bullets) you’re rewarded with a chunky effect and a one-hit kill on anything shy of a hulking Juggernaut.

They’re not quite as fragile as something out of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but weapons do break after use, first turning yellow as a warning and then red for unusable (requiring repair in a workshop), which occasionally left me desperately improvising my way out of bad situations. You’re never entirely defenseless, thanks to an invincible backup knife, but it’s obviously less than ideal for taking on multiple enemies. That unpredictability adds some flavor to the repetitious business of clearing out zombie infestation after zombie infestation.

Driving around is a lot of fun, too, but not because cars handle well. To put it mildly, they do not – but to be fair they’re mostly beat-up vans, trucks, and sedans, with only a few muscle cars and armored vehicles mixed in. But thanks to arcadey physics they’ll always right themselves if you flip them, so you’re free to try some stupid stuff as you’re plowing through zombies and opening your door to whack them as you pass by without damaging the car’s body. It’s unfortunate that your co-op partners can’t lean out the windows and shoot at zombies while you’re at the wheel – their participation is limited to opening their own doors, if they have them.

You don’t want to have the tank run dry just as you spot a horde.

At the same time, you have to be careful: a limited gas supply (and absolutely terrible gas mileage) adds some tension to every excursion – you don’t want to have the tank run dry just as you spot a horde hanging around with a Juggernaut, for instance. Having to keep your cars in good repair adds another layer of tension, and it’s a challenge to have to work your way out of a predicament by scrounging around for a gas can or repair kit. Also, trying to hoof it home when you’re injured and low on stamina is a big pain, especially at night.

As you use your characters, they’ll develop their skills: running a lot will build up their endurance, fighting will unlock stat boosts and upgrades to melee and shooting, and a variety of other skills like gardening, chemistry, and computers will give you access to an upgrade tree of mutually exclusive character development choices that can lead to new crafting or support ability options. These can really add up to make a character into a killing machine when they’re maxed out, so it’s worth…



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