State of Decay 2 is a game that’s perfect to pick up on Xbox Game Pass. It’s not an experience that reinvents the wheel in terms of gameplay or narrative, but it does several things better than a lot of other game series that have been trying a lot longer, at a price that’s easier to pull the trigger on. In my early hours of with game the element that stuck out to me the most was Survey Mode, which is triggered by climbing up to the top of a billboard, cell tower, or similar structure – giving you a good view of the immediate area.
In many, if not most, open world games your character climbs to the top of a landmark and that automatically fills up your maps with all the activities and locations in the area. State of Decay 2 creatively has you aim your weapon at each of the undiscovered locations in a way that makes the player themselves analyze the location and develop their own assumptions about the building before the game tells them anything. It gives the player a brief window before the game tells them what that location is and what assets it might have which gives them a moment to guess for themselves what treasures it might have in store. Then after the location has been surveyed the player character will chime in about that location. Usually they will mention what resources it has, if there is a horde of zombies there, or if other humans inhabit it. Looking down at a hardware store, for example, the resource a player will learn to expect to find will be building supplies. This isn’t immediately clear though when looking at the bland brown building, but the buildings become quickly recognizable. This is a really intelligent way to involve players in the discovery process that the normal ‘climb a tower to automatically fill your map’ will just never capture. I can actively recall several buildings that I have surveyed but haven’t yet explored that I am just itching to find time to check out because State of Decay 2 makes you take the time to focus your attention on them.
Now climbing a tower and using the high-ground to unlock points of interest isn’t a bad way to structure a game’s map progression. The problem is that it’s such a common practice that it has become stale and uninteresting. Players are ready for the next step. In State of Decay 2 we are still climbing up a tall structure to take in our surroundings, but now the player is the one who is actively filling up the map instead of the game doing it for us. I hope we see more small small tweaks like this in the grand evolution of open world games as a genre.