You don't get to watch the apocalypse unfurl. The first you know of the ongoing downfall of mankind is when a grey humanoid lunges for your friend's throat. From that point on, State of Decay reveals itself slowly, but steadily.
After you find the safe area of the Ranger's Office, you're introduced to the idea of scavenging: rummaging through the shiny boxes of the nearby tents and sheds. You're also invited to inspect your surroundings by climbing a tower and looking around. You wouldn't know it yet, but this is an open-world game. You're being taught how to survive.
Once you leave the Ranger's Office and head to the nearby town, the game proper begins. You meet a new camp of people, and quickly (too quickly, really) go from unwelcome outsider to order-dispensing boss. But now, your access to the camp's supplies are limited by your reputation, which is earned by completing missions and bringing back supplies.
Characters you meet can be recruited, befriended or ignored, and this creates some genuinely tingling moments. Driving back from a night mission, we notice some odd zombie activity that doesn't seem related to our own activity. Seeing pan-wielding silhouettes in a house, we realise we've discovered some new people.
Watching the battle and deciding whether or not to help feels like an honest decision - not forced upon us by a button prompt, not even appearing as a mission. In the end, we do help - and gain three new members of our camp. Which is fortunate, because we're just about to kill someone in a stupidly cack-handed mission.
Ex to the Z
The Wilkinsons are a bunch of good-hearted but hostile hillbillies, and your first mission to win their trust involves defending their home from a wave of zombies. It's the game's way of forcing you to try out two things you may have ignored so far: barricading windows and explosive weapons. Unfortunately, we burn ourselves just as the zombies break in.
This allows us to find out how the game deals with death. Lose your health and you'll fall. You can revive yourself, but the longer you're down, the more you'll be wounded, lowering your maximum health and leaving you prone to further knockdowns. Get back to camp, and you can take control of another character and let the damaged character rest. With no ability to revert to a previous save, death is permanent.
If you die, you'll find yourself transported back to the camp, where the death of a camp member will hit morale. This leads to a range of side-missions. Is someone sad? Take them out on a hunting mission and kill some zombies the old-fashioned way. Is someone angry? Take them out on a hunting mission and kill some zombies the old-fashioned way.
Recruit everyone you meet, and you might end up having to evict trouble-causers. Undead Labs' open-world ambition has exceeded its ability to create non-repeating dialogue, but dedicated gamers will have a high tolerance to bad writing, and it's not too far below the average.
State of Decay doesn't look great, and the combat is very simple. But this isn't a game about light-heavy combos, it's about weathering the world, creeping around areas, worrying about your health, and having a home location that's full of wounded and tired people. The hordes have to be tended, like angry biting crops. Ignore them, and they'll grow unruly, damaging morale. Smaller hordes may look unconvincing, but taking one on alone is suicide. Feral zombies are brutal melee fighters, and Screamers attract attention.
Resources are a constant concern: building materials to build extensions and upgrades to your house; food to, erm, eat; morale, which dwindles as people bicker, and rises as missions are progressed. Cars are limited, but it's still really tempting to damage them driving through hordes. Medicine helps you heal those who've been knocked down in battle, and Reputation can be swapped for weapons and painkillers. There's always something to consider, and stand still for too long, and world missions will come in. Doing nothing isn't an option.