A friend recently brought to my attention that my Gamer Card indicates that when you stitch together all the hours I’ve spent playing State of Decay 2, on XBox One, I’ve played for more than five days straight. This does not surprise me. If I include the original, or the newest Heartland expansion game, it’s probably weeks.
This is probably my #1 game of 2019, as it embodies the kind of qualities that hold my rapt attention: A) It’s strategic, with an element of planning and resource management, B) it’s also action-oriented, with learnable hand-to-hand and gun combat that improves with XP, and C), it’s customizable, which is to say you can easily imagine the inner lives of characters and customize them to match it. To play is, in its own way, to tell a story about the creation (and sometimes destruction) of a survivor community. Wrap all this in moments of nail-biting, shout-at-the-TV intensity, and you’ve got a recipe for classic zombie horror, done well.
In this storytelling sense, the game plays on two levels: what’s actually happening, mathematically, and what you imagine would be happening. For example, idiosyncratic character details, that Ed has a background in “roofing” and that makes him more likely to be good at construction for your defensive wall. Karen, on the other hand, has traits that make her disagreeable–understandable, since her husband was killed, but she’s starting fights and damaging morale. On the plus side, Deshawn gives “good backrubs” which turn out to add bonuses to group cohesion, a topic which is of itself a constant worry. I’ve never seen Deshawn give those backrubs, but I have to imagine them, because I know they work and the bonus is nontrivial. Dozens of these types of micro-interactions play in any given moment, and they literally govern the survival of the community. If Karen’s attitude doesn’t change, Karen is going to find herself exiled or euthanized, and Karen is going to die.
There is no saving in this game. When characters die, it’s permanent. It’s routinely unfair. Characters can die when you aren’t actively playing them, they die when you aren’t paying attention, I’m pretty sure I’ve had characters die while I wasn’t even playing. Putting too much energy in one character is a recipe for guaranteed heartbreak. This is a game about the creation of a community, and not all of them are going to make it. In all the instances that I’ve won the game, my communities had completely turned over; none of my original community members survived until the end, and were replaced by people I’d picked up in the course of play. There’s no predicting who makes it.
This game is high-stress.
To say this is combination is addictive is to understate the devastating impact this game has had on my life. I’ve won, multiple times, multiple ways. I’ve also lost entire communities–been wiped out completely–only to restart a new community the same evening. And every time a character has died, every time, I am on my feet, shouting at the television, jamming controller buttons like a lab rat releasing cocaine into the water dispenser.
I would spare you this pain. To that end, I’ve written the guide I wished I had when I started, and ordered the rules according to descending importance. Follow these, and your survival is as assured as it’s possible to be. Indeed, most times a character dies, it will be easy to trace your error back to which rule you broke. With that in mind:
Rule #10: Sell to Win
Money in State of Decay takes the form of Influence, a catch-all metric that describes your relative power in the Valley. Gain Influence by destroying enemies and performing missions. It also provides subtle benefits: a community with good amenities is going to attract more visitors, and have more opportunities to invite in new members. Influence is spent when you create bases, outposts, buy radio support or vehicles, and via trade of items.
Influence is also a relative proxy for experience, since it’s mainly achieved via completing tasks. However, there are certain bases that can build high value trade items, such as beer or whiskey. You should make some of this stuff whenever you can, and keep some in your trunk to sell to any traders or neighbors for influence.
There is no other move in the game that can change your fortunes as quickly as a trunkload of sales. Aside from dying.
Rule #9 An Ally Instead, Avoids the Undead
Characters start out as weaklings. Until your character is at least a little experienced with combat, they need to go in pairs. When possible, enlist an ally from a nearby community. You should always be doing this if you have a ton of Influence. If they die, it doesn’t affect your community as directly. Note that you can also take two from your community and hire a neighbor for up to three, under the right circumstances. This is ideal for clearing out plague hearts or infested zones.
Use allies wisely. There are certain hard-to-find skills one can outsource to other communities, at no cost to your own. The best examples of this are Auto Mechanics and Doctors. They sell repair kits, materials and meds, and as neighbors instead of roommates, won’t subtract from your resources, like food or beds.
If you invite neighbors in and your place gets too crowded, it hurts morale. Sometimes a character will remark on this, saying something like “I’m glad we’ve met all these new people, but do they all have to live here?” No, they don’t.
Should you recruit them to your own community, when the time arises? No, not unless you have an Infirmary or an Auto Repair shop in your base. Otherwise, they are more effective in their own facility. Keep them safe, and they’ll provide bonuses to your community and specialized actions such as vehicle delivery and sniper support. They also make valuable trading partners. And when they call–answer.
Rule #8 Train, Read, Explore
Characters advance with XP that can only be gained by exploring the valley. Some skills, like agriculture, construction, engineering, or craftsmanship, are incredibly useful but rarely available early in the game. It’s going to take a while to accumulate that experience. Other skills are constantly accumulated (fighting, cardio), but literally stand between your character and certain death, and need practice, quickly.
Cardio is probably the easiest to get. If you push your character to run whenever they can, leveling up this skill is a breeze. At the second tier of XP, I recommend Acrobatics for fighters and Marathon for scouts.
Fighting and shooting are likewise unavoidable, so they will appreciate on their own, but they are also the skills that keep you from being euthanized by your bunkmates. Both can be improved with the right facilities: a fitness gym or a gun range. If you can’t spare the construction plots, build only the fighting gym. When your characters are sufficiently good at fighting, replace the gym with a gun range. Being good at guns is something you as a player can perform on the character’s behalf with controller skills, but a low fighting rating means you haven’t unlocked moves critical to any survivor’s skillset. Even pushing a zombie off is really difficult at the lower levels. Build this facility and run the training constantly.
When you get the option to specialize, choose swordsmanship. Two high-level swordsmen on a mission can make short work of the average horde.
Exploring and opening boxes is what improves your wits, Scouting, Stealth and Resourcefulness all come up here, and this also determines how quiet your Survivor will be while rifling through boxes, and reduces the frequency of search-breakage.
Books will level up any given skill, but there is no reliable way to know which books will work for which characters, it’s usually something tangentially related to their pre-war job: someone with a green thumb might be able to use a gardening book, a bartender might be able to use a cookbook. Accumulate these in your base and wait for someone to join who can benefit from them.
Rule #7 Keep Close to the Car
This is exactly what it sounds like. Repeat after me: the car is your most powerful weapon.
You’ll need it to get yourself and your NPCs out of swarms, to range anywhere beyond your starting point. If you can, build superior, Mad Max-style vehicles like the Vandito at every opportunity and keep them in good repair.
When I think of how my characters have died, it’s often while traveling, but fewer occurred during on-foot missions than you would expect. What often happens is that from one minute to the next, the car we are driving is suddenly rendered useless: we hit a bloater and need to jump, we crash, we are immobilized by a juggernaut, the car catches fire or explodes, or we’re tossed from the vehicle by attackers. So we are very suddenly wounded and battling out of a swarm that was inevitably attracted by all the noise. These are incredibly dangerous situations, often ending in character injury or death.
By contrast, missions that begin on foot usually proceed slowly and carefully, with a lot of close calls but more sneaking than fighting. The key difference is the sudden surprise.
Always keep a gas can and especially a toolbox in the trunk of your car. Seek out cars with big trunks. And then never get more than 150 feet from the car unless you are foraging for more of the aforementioned gas and kit. Conversely, if the car is near-destroyed and you don’t think it’s going to make it, abandon ship and don’t look back.
Take care of your car, because it will keep you alive.
Rule #6 Place Your Base in the Right Place
This one was so important, I needed to make it rhyme.
Outposts offer a few critical strategic benefits. You can access your storage box from any base, so all bases share all items. Items created in your main base go directly into the inventory and are instantly available at any of your outposts. This move will save your life more than any other. Build plague cures at your home base and have them available where you need them! Trade out broken weapons for fresh ones! Get more medicine, more explosives! This is the only reason most of my characters have survived.
The downsides are that bases can’t accept rucksacks, only your home base can do that, and any actions that need to be performed in-person need to be done at the home base, such as repairing equipped weapons or receiving personalized medical attention.
As to placement: look at the map, find the strategic choke-points where you anticipate moving your campaign, and put your bases there or on whatever resource you want that base to supply (fuel, food, etc) closest to there. As you move around the map, add forward outposts. Make sure to upgrade your command center and install radio antennae to increase the number of outposts allowed. I think the maximum is six.
Outposts are also the only place outside your base where you can switch the controlling character. Don’t be shy about this–if someone is injured and needs time to recuperate from a head wound or gas inhalation, bench her, and swap in someone healthier. The non-active character can heal in the background.
Rule #5 Distract, Delay, Destroy
Combat tactics in State of Decay 2 are probably lengthy enough topic to merit a separate post, but the game makes use of fireworks as tactical devices called distractors. What distractors do, is to instantly command the attention of any zombie within earshot by way of loud noises. That means unless they are involved in direct combat with you, they’ll wander over to the distractor, e.g. a cluster of fireworks popping away on the ground. (Alas, Ferals and Juggernauts are immune to these charms.)
This is generally very effective, but overwhelming if poorly planned. The trick, of course, is to use the distraction to flee. This is the single best way to escape a horde attack, or at least buy yourself a moment’s time. Hit them with a molotov while they are clustered around the distractor. I find this to be about 80% effective.
Distractors, especially paired with timed explosives, make for some interesting possibilities. Some are extremely loud, some are extremely visible, some are silent and just emit a lot of light, which makes them useful on stealth missions. But all of them work to get you out of a jam, or set up enemies to be knocked down.
That makes distractors an absolutely essential part of your arsenal.
Rule #4 A Sample a Day, Keeps the Plague Away
I had been playing for almost a year when I finally noticed the option in the (Heartland) infirmary to “eliminate infection.” This isn’t a cure, mind you, and won’t work if the character has a full-blown, red infection. If the infection meter is still white, however, the meter clears completely.
Now, curing a red infection costs 1 Plague Cure vial, which itself needs 3 plague samples and 1 Med to be created. Eliminating all signs of early infection, however, only costs 1 plague sample. This is an incredible value as samples are commonly found, but meds are rare.
Given that almost every instance of combat increases the character’s infection meter, this is an essential move, and should be done every time you return to base as basic hygiene. Use your meds to heal from actual injuries, instead.
Rule #3 Have No Fear with The Right Gear.
There are things that you need to carry on your person, and items that should be kept in the car. These vary based on the mission. For an assault on a plague heart, for example, I might do something like:
On your person:
- 3 Distractors
- 3 Painkillers
- 3 Light explosives
- 1 Bladed weapon
- 1 Ranged weapon, suppressed
- 1 Pistol, suppressed
In the car:
- Plague cure
For silent, 1-man missions or hunting trips, you can switch the rifle for a crossbow, for a foraging trip, switch to a larger backpack.
Rule #2: All Jobs Are Two-Person Jobs
As I wrote in my Tactical guide to X-Com 2, “two is one, one is none.” You need two players for any dangerous mission the same way you need two divers in case of sharks. Can the other diver help you? Not really, but they do offer an alternative for your enemies to eat, giving you the option to run away. Often, you need this time to reload. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of fighting off one of Heartland’s Blood Ferals or Juggernauts with a revolver or even a crossbow, your chances of survival are extremely low without a partner. Partners also let you to carry more.
Rule #:1 Live By Day, Die By Night
In the world of airline safety, the safety measures in place are so effective, that for something to go wrong with the plane, it takes more than just one system failure for a crash. At least two things need to simultaneously go wrong, a so called “error cascade” needs to take place in order to create the conditions for an emergency. This game (Heartland in particular) works very much the same way: once you become competent at understanding its basic beats, a lot of time can pass with no real danger. You can become calm, complacent. Suddenly, an enormous horde overruns your base, a Juggernaut comes barreling in, a Feral joins him, and in your haste to escape you run into a Bloater, detonating its poison cloud. In that scenario, without swift, decisive action, 1 or more characters will certainly die. An error has cascaded into a series of other errors, and has become a crisis.
Going out at night is your first error. The game does a lot of good work creating a sense of dread, manipulating camera angles and deploying lonely groans from the dark. Bloaters lie in wait on porches, in roadways, just in the bushes. Screamers stumble into headlights on the road, shrieking skyward. Glowing red eyes pour out of the black, and the swarm is upon you.
Anyone who plays State of Decay knows that as the classic “dread” situation, but by night it’s a lot harder to know how many enemies there are, where and how far away they are, what lies around the next corner or where safety is. Everything becomes much more immediate and unplanned, chopping at enemy after enemy with no clear sense of where to go.
It’s often necessary to go out at night to complete some mission or another; here’s work that has to get done. But, try to run out the clock as best you can until daylight. This should be the part of the game where you do most of your construction work and base management, leaving assaults to happen by the light of day. Make sure to enable your base with power, one of the worst things that can happen is a siege attack by night, where you don’t know where the enemy is coming from and can’t see what you’re shooting at, and end up wasting ammunition shooting at your own people. In Heartland you will be besieged several times by very strong groups of enemies. You will lose people at these times unless you can get to the rooftops and make an escape, or have prepared with traps and fire. Best to have this happen by day.