Here's what you need to know to understand State of Decay 2: this is a game that simulates the moods and desires of a group of post-apocalypse stragglers, the kind of zombie survival sim that requires those survivors to eat and sleep to maintain health and stamina. It's also a game with a button dedicated to to holding a car door open as you drive, so you can slam it into roaming zombies in a shower of blood. The same car you can use to comically drive-by door zombies also requires frequent refueling with scavenged gas cans and repair with tool kits. State of Decay 2 gives you the guns and melee weapons to tear through zombie hordes, but soon enough you'll run out of stamina or ammo or backpack space and remember you're neck deep in a game that's more sim RPG than Left 4 Dead.
I never played the first State of Decay, but jumping headlong into State of Decay 2 with no clue what I was doing, I flashed back to the first time I played Capcom's Dead Rising years ago. That game looked like a simple zombie murder playground, but had a surprisingly complex time-based mission system and level-up progression that unlocked special moves and melee attacks more advanced than hitting zombies with electric guitars. I spent plenty of time in State of Decay 2 hacking heads off with a machete, but this is not the zombie game you boot up just to mess around.
Every time you venture out from home base, it's to work towards some progression goal, which you'll be reminded of constantly. You're carrying a heavy pack loaded down with gear, and a notification pops up that your endurance has increased from the strain. Other survivors call in over the radio asking for help, and saving them earns you a new friendly faction to trade loot with. Spend too long running around and your stamina stops fully regenerating, signaling the character you're controlling needs to get some sleep.
No big deal—you can return to home base and simply take control of another survivor. Like in any RPG, each character has different strengths and weaknesses, affinities for different skills: backpacking, wits, endurance, shooting, fighting, mechanics, craftsmanship, and more. Former car salesman Charlie, for example, doesn't have a single star in resourcefulness, but he can kick all kinds of ass in a hand-to-hand fight with the undead. Also, he loves Ultimate Frisbee. Figures.
Once I'd taken a few survivors out on missions, though, I ran into a problem: no one back home was getting enough sleep. Enter State of Decay 2's basebuilding, which lets you expand your home with important additions like a shooting range, infirmary for curing infected citizens of zombieitis, and extra beds for sleeping. I didn't have enough time to really dig into the depths of basebuilding, but I got a feel for some of the requirements and trade-offs. There are advanced leader projects, for example, that you can only embark on when someone in your community has earned enough renown to be put in charge. When you have a warlord leader, you can build an armory that supplies ammo. A sheriff leader will let you build a field hospital, which not only heals the sick and injured but supplies you with medical items.
I just wanted some more damn beds, but the only empty lot at my already cramped police headquarters hideout was outdoors, and outdoor beds incur a morale penalty. I didn't want my people to be unhappy, so refusing to give them more beds seemed like the right decision.
Across a few hours of play I found new outposts I'd be able to expand my community to, but was surprised I couldn't recruit any of the characters I met to join my faction. I know that new blood was out there, somewhere, but I didn't find it. In that way, State of Decay 2 is a hard game to get a good feel for in three or four hours. So much of it is tied up in the RPG and sim mechanics: slowly leveling up the skills of your citizens, keeping them happy, expanding bases to unlock new weapons and capabilities, meeting new characters with their own personality traits and unique missions. Those pieces all unfold gradually, and the payoff is in incremental increases I didn't have enough time to appreciate.
Four player co-op, which is a new addition in State of Decay 2, had some annoying limitations. This is not a game you'll be able to play from beginning to end with friends: when you join a co-op session, you're bringing a character into someone else's campaign, and draw from your own campaign's stash of weapons/equipment/items. If you collect a rucksack—a big pack full of supplies—while out scavenging, turning it in will bolster your friend's community. You're a temporary guest, in other words, there to help out and then go back to your own campaign. So to be helpful in someone else's campaign, you'll have to play solo to build up a stash of useful weapons and buff up your survivors.
State of Decay 2's open world also didn't really seem built to support four players. Unlike an RPG like Divinity: Original Sin 2, which lets everyone freely roam around a massive map, State of Decay 2 forces you to stick pretty close to the host, which was immediately a pain in the ass in one of my co-op sessions. The host hopped in a vehicle that could only carry two players, then sped off down the road, causing the rest of us to stutteringly respawn near them every time they drove out of co-op range. Communication will obviously be key, but the co-op just isn't integrated as deeply as I would've liked.
It's a shame, too, because the highlight of my time with State of Decay 2 was a two-player co-op session where we actually worked together to accomplish a few missions and take down a giant bruiser of a zombie. I also liked that in this case I was the host, so I knew I needed to put down waypoint markers for the missions I wanted to take on, and I stood to reap the benefits. Sometimes you need to be selfish to survive the zombie apocalypse.
Disappointment with co-op's limitations aside, State of Decay 2 is a rich survival sim that also has surprising chops as a third-person action game. There are tons of guns and melee weapons that feel different to fire and swing. The animations you get for sneaking up behind a zombie and performing an instant kill, with a screwdriver to the brain or a head smash against the pavement, are brutal and satisfying. That zombie killing would hold up even without the base management and everything else that makes the survival stuff tick. Zombie games are almost never this deep, and State of Decay 2 clearly relishes in finding complexity in the same place as any great zombie film: the struggles and relationships of desperate human survivors. The blood and brains are just there to lighten the mood.