State of Decay: Breakdown Review

State of Decay: Breakdown raises an important question: does downloadable content still count as content when it takes out more content than it adds? After all, this is still Trumbull Valley as we left it back in June, but here there are no squabbles with military hard-asses or heroic attempts to overcome blocked mountain passages. This, rather, is a bleak scramble for survival, and one in which the zombies are all but guaranteed to win.

In short, it’s the sandbox so many of us wanted back in the early days of summer. Though bootable as a separate experience from the main narrative, it’s meant to address the perception that there was little left to do once the trajectory of the story cut off progression, and thus the potential for replay, aside from milking the last save file. But this addition, priced at almost half the cost of the full game, adds no new enemies or locations; instead, it guts the story completely aside from side missions.

This, rather, is a bleak scramble for survival, and one in which the zombies are all but guaranteed to win.

A zombie can never be too dead.

Breakdown is an apt title. The core experience involves the usual business of fortifying communities and scrounging for supplies, but it also throws in the need to repair a busted RV and to select five survivors to take along on the most awkward road trip of all time. Alas, it’s a road trip to nowhere, because “escape” leads you back to the same town, but the circumstances grow direr upon each visit. You may start in a random location at a higher level than in the previous playthrough and with the buddies you brought along, but cars become more scarce, zombies become stronger and more numerous, and resources don’t respawn. It’s a Sisyphean vision of hell, and one where success is rewarded with misery. Repeat it long enough, and survival seems less and less likely.

The goal, simply, is to survive as long as possible. I’m currently sitting at the seventh difficulty level out of 10, and already I’ve reached the point where I’m about ready to take up the undead on their pushy invitations to join their numbers. It has taken many hours to reach this point, and in the process, the brutal difficulty has forced a welcome adoption of different tactics that were only toyed with in the core narrative. Firecrackers, mines, and Molotov cocktails become more valuable than standard weapons, for instance, and firing a gun has such horrifying consequences that I tried to avoid firing one altogether. By the fourth difficulty tier, even cars are weak, which means no more joyrides where you mow zombies down like grass.

It’s a Sisyphean vision of hell, and one where success is rewarded with misery.

Admittedly, it could have been harder. The repetition involved with each new cycle turns you into a Trumbull Valley native rather than a tourist, and as a result, you start new playthroughs knowing the locations of essential sites such as grocery stores, police stations, and pharmacies. The locations of survivors and safe houses may change with each playthrough, but the familiarity with the rest of State of Decay’s elements allows some room for hope. And if you die? Breakdown at least has the decency to start you back at the same level rather than forcing you to relive the experience again.

So what’s new here? Not much, aside from the hefty batch of new “heroes” you find scattered among the existing cast of characters, although their specialized professions, such as paramedic and soldier, make them ideal for the privileged seats in your RV. If there’s a problem, it’s that most of the requisites to unlock them lead to hours of mindless grinding. Take the dealer: if you want him and his godly ability to send you a car whenever you need one (at the cost of influence), you have to slaughter 400 zombies with nothing more than your car door.

There’s a time and a place for tailgating.

But beyond that, this is the same State of Decay I already knew and largely love. It’s a shame, then, that this means it’s also susceptible to many of the same bugs and glitches. Zombies still tend to walk through walls with all the nonchalance of Casper, storage containers claim to be full even when they’re empty, and companions sometimes insist on taking leisurely strolls even when the zombie hordes are charging in plain sight.

Breakdown is thus the kind of DLC that probably should have been in the game in the first place. Seven bucks is a steep price to pay for what amounts to a shake-up of the original adventure, although to its credit, it delivers a satisfyingly harrowing experience for players who didn’t find sufficient challenges the first time around. Indeed, in its best moments, it achieves a commendable expression of what an open-world survival experience should be. Every scrap of building material becomes precious, and items such as morphine assume the veneration once accorded to religious relics. And with around 10 hours needed to pick each cycle clean, there’s plenty to do. Life in Breakdown may be nasty and brutish as a matter of course, but play your cards right, and it doesn’t need to be short.

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