Along with our group-selected 2014 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen another game to commend as one of 2014's best.
Killing zombies isn’t the thrill of Dead State. It’s finding a toothbrush. Or peanut butter. Or seeing your survivor group finish building a well. To Dead State, winning the post-apocalypse doesn’t mean being the best killer, it means being the best manager. Among the hojillion of zombie games, it represents one of the few unsensationalized views of the end of the world. There’s plenty of turn-based zombie fighting, sure, but you measure your success as a player by how well you’re meeting your group’s daily food and fuel consumption, addressing morale, resolving disagreements, or how sturdy your exterior fence is.
Yes, Dead State isn’t without issues. My review outlined the crashes and bugs I experienced, at least some of which were addressed by a December 19 patch. I expect DoubleBear, the developer, to chip away at the game’s problems into 2015. All that considered, I’d throw my grandmother off a roof before I let some technical hiccups deter me from playing something so original in its spirit. I’d take something flawed but fresh any day over a polished version of something I’ve played a dozen times, like Far Cry 4 or Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Some of my praise comes from the fact that Dead State is so uniquely pen-and-paper in its design and storytelling, some of which comes as result of its low budget. It takes some amount of imagination and restraint by the player to invest themselves in the world, considering Dead State doesn’t supply fancy cutscenes, voices, or even much character animation to express its characters. If you play RPGs hastily, zipping through dialogue to scrape the bare-minimum information that allows you to advance the plot, Dead State probably won’t work for you. Some great dialogue (monologue?) comes out of the radio inside your shelter, as Richard wrote about.
Like a lot of our revered roguelikes and survival games, DoubleBear also does a great job of not holding your hand. The decision to recruit or turn away, to engage or not, to help or backstab is purely yours, and Dead State rarely tips its hand mechanically with any kind of “morality points” system. As you enter new locations, you can practically hear a dungeon master say something like, “You approach the truck stop, tasting the scent of dogs and diesel. Underneath a gas pump, you see five men gathered around a fire pit. What do you do?”
It’s a wonderfully, restrainedly unsensationalized apocalypse. There are no zombies with extraordinary abilities or unbelievable super-survivors. Your concerns are fairly grounded in the concerns of reality; the odds are just higher. I had to resolve a conflict between a black ex-con and a white cop who knew his history. I had to decide whether someone in my party getting drunk was just them blowing off steam, or a warning sign. I had to decide whether I wanted to help a party member carry out an abortion, and then find a nearby hospital clinic with the necessary medical gear if I elected to.
Maybe moreso than a lot of my moments in BioWare games, I felt like these decisions said something about me and my character. The way Dead State presents and then lets you navigate these grounded, relatable dilemmas makes it memorable. Rough edges or not, this is the open-world survival sandbox that old-school RPG players deserve.