It's a sad truth that even very good games sound better on paper. Undead Labs' zombie survive 'em up State of Decay sounds incredible on paper, a vast, bubbling pot of variables that surely ranks among Xbox Live Arcade's - or even Xbox 360's - most elaborate releases.
Consider just one of the possible scenarios: a character dies of an infection contracted from a filthy kitchen, paying into a community-wide morale drop that contributes to a disastrous rout during the next "Zed" assault, which then leads to an outbreak of suicides. In theory, that sort of thing is State of Decay's bread and butter. Here are some other eventualities: characters struggling in combat because they hate the sight of blood; trucks running out of gas in the field, obliging the driver to spend all night defending her ride; a crackshot marksman going postal in the fray, wasting ammunition that doubles as currency to spend on food and water.
The ambition is at once impressive and vaguely frightening. State of Decay is a strategy game that's also a stealth game, and a shooter with a grounding in Sims-style social management. There's a fascinating, fascinating assortment of possibilities at play, and that could be to the game's detriment if the developer fails to integrate everything intuitively, without obliging players to spend their entire lives pondering the intricacies.
The campaign is a mix of sandbox and scripting. You'll always begin as lone roughneck Marcus Campbell, and there's a story to follow involving a number of pre-determined personalities, but the lion's share of the cast are generated afresh for each session. The world also has dynamic elements, though it's not clear how deep the implementation delves - the geography may be a constant, to facilitate the story, but the contents of buildings and the distribution of threats will change.
State of Decay's "primary resource" is people. Each of the survivors you'll recruit, house and take control of is a bewildering ball of potential, equipped with a distinct mix of skills, traits and abilities. There are four starting skills to reckon with (not including Leadership, which apparently isn't available to everybody) - fighting, shooting, cardio and wits. Fighting is your melee skill, obviously, and determines how much vitality a character has, while a higher shooting skill results in benefits such as reduced recoil. More points on Cardio means more energy to burn on punching, running and so forth, and a higher Wits skill equals faster progress when searching a resource drop.
Each Skill grants access to a range of active and passive abilities once levelled up (levels are gained by performing actions associated with that Skill). Those who prioritise Fighting unlock the Counterattack skill on level two, for instance. Wittier types nab the Quiet Search ability once they hit level four. Characters also get to choose a Weapon Specialisation once they've put in enough legwork on either Fighting or Shooting, such as Shotguns, Pistols, Bludgeoning and Hack and Slash.
Thus the more mechanical, functional stuff - things get a little stickier and harder to control when it comes to Traits and Leadership. The former include a base Personality type, such as Chatterbox, Selfish Asshole, Braggart, Autocrat and Daydreamer, plus traits I'd class as hobbies, vocations such as Stylist and physical defects like Bum Knee. Successful play isn't just a question of how these traits strengthen or limit the individual concerned - it's about how they affect the psychological make-up of your fledgling society.