State of Decay: Breakdown is a tricky piece of DLC to score, for several reasons. For a start, it doesn’t add any new content; instead, it brings a whole new game mode into the equation, one that should please fans of zombie apocalypse sims but won’t actually be of much interest to those who need a decent story to fully enjoy a game. In fact, if you’re after structure and objectives, you’re best off sticking with the original (as it happens, a patch was launched alongside the DLC that makes minor tweaks to the vanilla game, too). Breakdown is very much one for the fans.
Instead of loading us up with new weapons, zombies and locations (as might have been preferable to many fans), Breakdown instead presents a looping open-world sandbox mode that functions like a zombie-infested endurance test. You can play it whether you’ve taken the main game to its narrative conclusion or not, as Breakdown has no real story of its own.
You begin by selecting a nondescript starting character with basic stats, a handful of gear (a melee weapon, a bottle of pain pills, and a Molotov or gun if you’re fortunate) and a randomised spawn point. You’re immediately contacted by Lily, who wants you to head into Trumbull Valley and find a community to join and a new place to live. Breakdown is difficult from the word go, as you begin with such basic equipment and have no place to run to until you find a community, and so the immediate barrage of zombies can be quite taxing.
The objective is simply to stay alive, meeting and recruiting survivors until you build up enough material and resources to get your RV going, at which point you move to a new area of the map and begin all over again – finding communities, gathering resources and preparing to move on, ad infinitum. No matter how many people you’ve recruited or saved, when it comes time to up sticks once again you can only take six companions with you, so you’re forced to choose between them each time. Sometimes it’s an easy choice and you’ll simply take the best fighters, but in later revolutions the growing number of zombies and dwindling resources mean you need people with special skills: chefs to make the food last longer, medics to make the most of your medicinal supplies, mechanics to fix up vehicles and repair melee weapons. As you’re recruiting new people on top of your old people in every level, it gets harder and harder to choose.
Sadly, in Breakdown, Undead Labs missed an opportunity to add new freak zombies into the mix, or new weapons and items – or even new areas. As a result, despite the increased difficulty of each revolution, Breakdown will eventually run out of steam for any but the most determined. Although you’re scored on each level before beginning again, there’s no real sense of accomplishment beyond surviving tougher and tougher versions of the same map. The objectives you’re given amount to nothing but rescue or escort missions, and I was starting to lose interest by my fifth go around. Of course, your mileage may vary, but I’d be surprised if many people bother playing through more than six or seven revolutions.
Completing certain challenges awards you a “hero” character (usually a named NPC from the main game) who comes with their own weaponry and specific skill-sets. You can play any previously beaten difficulty level with any unlocked character as often as you like but, again, there’s no great incentive to do so. The pull here is the challenge itself, to see how long you can survive before you inevitably lose everyone to the horde.
Potentially, State of Decay: Breakdown is the ultimate zombie survival game, but it’s unfortunately let down by one of the most over-worked engines I’ve ever seen. The immersion garnered by forcing you to pick your way through a zombie-infested town with nothing but a crowbar and bottle of codeine is all but shattered when the zombies can appear out of thin air because of a glitch, or when a breakneck, adrenaline-pumping sprint for your life turns out to be pointless because the chasing zeds have gotten stuck on a piece of scenery, or wandered off because their AI routines have had a fit, or have disappeared altogether.
Likewise, you can choose to take an AI companion out with you, but more often than not, if you turn your back on them, they’ll vanish, only to turn up as a “survivor in trouble” mission when you use the radio to locate them – and they’ll often be on the opposite side of the map. In Breakdown, AI partners get killed an awful lot anyway, mainly because they don’t seem to understand that there’s a time to plant your feet and a time to run like hell. I’ve watched no end of companions torn in half because there’s no “Run, you idiot!” command – and there really needs to be.
Technically, Breakdown is in no better condition than the staggering, rotten corpses that populate it, the graphics engine groaning under the weight of such a large world, so many variables and all those zombies. Textures take an age to pop in, and then quite often pop back out again, the animations stutter like Porky Pig in an apple sauce factory and characters, vehicles and weapons dance in and out of existence with gleeful abandon. I once walked down a completely deserted highway, across a bridge spanning a wide, rushing river, marvelling at the lack of putrid undead cannibals and taking in the scenery, only to glance behind and watch the road instantly populate with ten or twenty zombies who immediately charged me and completely ruined an otherwise beautiful afternoon’s walk.
And yet, it’s all immense fun. An all-pervading atmosphere of pregnant dread is ably perpetuated by the setting, above all things: Trumbull Valley oozes the American Midwest menace made famous by movies like Dawn of the Dead, and in Breakdown it’s not diluted by something as mundane as a plot. Instead, you’re dropped directly into the middle of a full-scale zombie invasion and told to “deal with it”. It’s frustrating at times, but always enjoyable.
VERDICT: State of Decay: Breakdown is a difficult game to score. It brings absolutely nothing new to the existing release besides a slightly updated loot system, but adds a genuinely compulsive survival mode for those who want to play out their zombie apocalypse fantasies without constant calls for help and a mountain of busy-work to get through. Judged on gameplay alone, it’s pretty competent and does a wonderful job of immersing you in the desperate horror of a zombie infestation. The incline in difficulty is steady and fair, and the forced choice of who to take and who to leave behind at the end of every revolution is deliciously cruel.
Unfortunately, however, it’s a technical shambles – and there’s nothing in it you haven’t already faced. New zombies and weapons, a new location or two and a better, more powerful engine are needed before State of Decay can fully realise its potential. It’s a shame too, because with the right tools and resources, Undead Labs have the groundwork, in both the vanilla game and Breakdown, to produce the greatest zombie apocalypse simulation ever created. As it stands, however, there’s a long way to go.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.
Review code provided by publisher.