Those who know me know how much I adore State of Decay. I’ve covered it a fair bit in the past for Developers Accomplice and by now enough of you will know that it’s an uncut diamond; flawed and kind of ugly, but of huge value to those who work at it.
Lifeline, State of Decay’s second major expansion, is out now on Steam and XBLA and it brings both the best and worst parts of State of Decay into sharp contrast.
Lifeline is ambitious; it aims to give fans what they wanted (a new map to explore and more State of Decay gameplay) but bring something new to the table as well. Whats new? Well, Lifeline puts you in the shoes of a well trained and initially well equipped group of soldiers tasked with searching for “High Value Assets” within the city of Danforth, which is incidentally Ground Zero for the Zombie Apocalypse.
After spending much of my time alone, under-fed, under trained and severely under-equipped, Lifeline already feels like a new experience. My soldiers are all well trained in various combat disciplines and my base of operations begins bursting with guns, ammunition and rations.
The military theme is well used as well; the people in your unit are well characterized initially (this characterization does tend to fade from the game later on however) and your home base can be upgraded in various ways that will allow you to call in a variety of substantial supply drops and organize the soldiers not currently under your direct control (you can dispatch them to search for supplies, survivors and put them on horde-thinning duty).
Right now you’re thinking “so you’re well supplied, well trained and you’ve got some great support options…where’s the challenge?” Well, let me tell you right now that Lifeline is incredibly difficult. It will punish you hard and fast and won’t let up.
You’re given all these weapons and resources, but you’re going to burn through them very quickly in order to stay alive. Missions come at you thick and fast and all of them, even story-critical ones, have a timed availability and can all be failed very easily. Not only that, but your base will come under siege from insane numbers of Zombies at regular intervals, and you’ll be forced to scurry back and fortify where possible before the hordes arrive.
These sieges happen independently of the missions timelines, and you’ll be put under an incredible amount of pressure to get back to base in time, complete your mission, gather supplies and make sure you’re prepared before the wave of walking corpses breaks through your chicken-wire fence.
You’ll run out of weapons, ammunition and able bodies really, really quickly. The city of Danforth is also very light on scavenge-able supplies. Many of the locations you’ll explore will be ’empty’ of any kind of supplies, and you’ll find yourself having to rely on the supply air drops much more than scavenging runs and outposts. Any supply runs you do make yourself will have to cover multiple locations at once, and while you can now store resource backpacks in your vehicle’s boot, you’ll be pushing your stamina and health to the very limit when you do go out scavenging.
In Lifeline, I watched multiple mission critical survivors get torn in half and lost three soldiers due to being pushed to the very limit of their endurance. My base got overrun multiple times; my guns would break from trying to hold back the hordes and more than once I’d watch survivors get torn to shreds on the landing pad itself. Resources would run dry and I’d be forced to consolidate my missions and supply runs into one expedition while waiting for a supply drop from HQ, and even then what I’d recover would often not be enough to keep me in a fit, fighting state.
Lifeline is aptly named because after about fifteen minuets with the game you’ll desperately trying to search for one yourself. As Sanya from Undead Labs put it to me, “unlike the original, we don’t really care if you live through the campaign or die gloriously”. This attitude is a great one to have and actually fits really well with how Lifeline plays out it’s campaign. It’s incredibly intense and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, so far so good, but I did say that Lifeline brings State of Decay’s flaws into even sharper contrast, so lets dig into that.
Firstly I’ll be blunt; State of Decay is not graphically advanced or that well optimized. Object and Texture pop-in, severe frame rate drops, glitchy movement and AI are all prevalent, and the game also has some of the worst driving mechanics I’ve seen in years.
However, they’re all easily overlooked because all the things the game does do right serve to create an endearing and involving experience overall. Even the Original Xbox-era graphics level serves to give the game character rather than detract from it, but in Lifeline it’s much harder to ignore these and the other flaws.
Firstly, what’s immediately apparent is how much Lifeline forces you to rely on vehicles. The map is littered with dozens of vehicles and the aforementioned ability to use boots of cars to ferry resources combined with the map layout, which we’ll come to shortly, forces you to spend more time in your vehicles struggling against the combined issues of horrible vehicle physics, frame rate drops and object pop in, all of which make traveling a nightmare.
The new map is not really what many would be expecting either; people expecting an expansive, huge open map are going to be disappointed. The city of Danforth you get to explore is just a series of themed mini-locations that you’ll access from the large ring-road. The actual city center is blocked off at all points and described as a ‘Danger Zone’, where the zombies endlessly pour out of all the cracks in the barricades. Thematically, it works well but most people will feel a sharp pang of disappointment when they realize the potential for exploitation is minimal.
Then again, Lifeline actually discourages exploration via the amount of pressure it puts on you. The need to complete missions, rescue people and protect your base all at the same time means that you’ll rarely find the time to explore your surroundings, and this means you’ll not notice the restricted map design as much the longer you play, which is a weird thing to say.
However, because the game has fenced you out of the city itself, you’ll end up staring longingly at the ruined skyscrapers, interesting inner-city buildings and glimpses of unreachable terrain and streets. Lifeline keeps you out of the city center while using story and character dialogue to generate a huge amount of mystery surrounding what’s going on at ground zero.
You’ll find yourself trying to peak past blockades and over the highway walls just to try and spot something within city, and you’ll be continually disappointed by the poor view distance, lack of texture detail and general low graphical quality. Even when exploring the accessible parts of the city, while there was a good mix of new and recycled assets, there was very little detail in the locations.
In the main game, this wasn’t much of an issue; survival was the main reason you were exploring. All the story was given to you via clear mission progression and personal missions related to survivors. Lifeline aims to develop on the mysteries of why the Zombie Apocalypse occurred and what can be done to save the world, and in that sense it really does lay some good groundwork. However it really does need to capitalize on the potential for environmental storytelling if it ever hopes to realize this potential. Unique environments that tell a story through object placement and unique aesthetic choices are much need and much neglected by Lifeline, and as such the blandness of many locations really does become harder to ignore.
In the end however, Lifeline provides an intense and supremely enjoyable twist on the State Of Decay gameplay we’ve come to know and love over the last year. While the game’s flaws are brought into sharper focus with this latest DLC, this shouldn’t put off fans of the game because Lifeline provides a lot of new content and an extremely difficult new gameplay experience for the players to sink their teeth into. Despite it’s downfalls, this DLC proves that Undead Labs are more than capable of keeping this unique brand of Zombie Survival interesting and engaging. 8/10!