It took a fair while for State of Decay to make it over to the PC, but the slight benefit of this delay is that players haven’t had to wait especially long for Breakdown’s addition of a proper sandbox mode. The open world survival-fest has only been in Steam’s ‘official release’ catalogue since early November. Over in console world, it’s been almost half a year since the original game came out.

Were it a full price title, charging an extra $7.00 USD for a sandbox DLC that uses most of the same game mechanics on the very same map might seem gauche. But since the main game will be $13.50 (and maybe lower) on Steam until 3 December, that means the whole lot can be picked up on PC for a shade over $20.00. In that context, it’s not at all bad.

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Humans are apparently unwelcome at the zombie bonfire party.

Of course it was always possible to play State of Decay in a semi-endless manner by simply ignoring the game’s final mission (or by finishing it, then reloading,) but this came with a couple of problems. Eventually, the local towns would run out of resources, and your community would be so geared up with stuff as to make the zombie threat trivial. Plus, it just seemed a bit weird to either leave the narrative hanging or carry on again after your apparent escape.

Breakdown solves both of those issues, and adds a few more tweaks and features to keep things interesting.

To a certain extent the add-on relies on players having made it through the campaign story. You’d probably be able to muddle through without having done so, but the challenge-based system of unlocking various characters from the original wouldn’t hold quite so much interest (because you’d have no idea who they were); and it’s also handy to have a reasonable idea of the map layout. After the grains have settled from each shake of the sandbox you have to find a new, suitable location to live. So it helps to already know where those (and other handy landmarks) might be.

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Look, fire just seems to follow me around, okay?

Breakdown is mostly a change in form rather than function. You begin as a random survivor, spawned in one of a few pre-determined locations on the game’s map, with the instruction to find a community to join. Once at the home-site of your choice (these seem to be the same as in the main game, so the former Mexican restaurant is still by far the most entertaining,) the familiar process of locating and gathering resources begins. All of the mission types from the base State of Decay game are present, except for those relating to the campaign (so there’s no figuring out what the army are playing at and suchlike.)

Once radio-operator Lily (yep, she’s back again) has grown tired of berating you for not being able to do all of the tasks on the map at once like you’re some kind of Bruce Campbell-esque undead-slaying superbeing, she’ll point you in the direction of an RV. That’s a camper van for those of you watching in British.

The van usually needs fixing up a bit, which will cost you time and supplies, but once in working order it can be used to flee the area with up to five fellow survivors and start you afresh in a new town. Except it’s actually the old town, because it’s the same map. Like some nightmarish episode of The Twilight Zone, your group just keep on returning to Trumbull County.

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Here’s the RV, thankfully not on fire at present.

Each time you return though, things are slightly different. In short, they’re harder. The resources will run sparse (though never disappear entirely) and the precious, precious cars will become increasingly scarce too. When you combine that with more ruthless, damaging zombies and an increase in the ‘speciality’ kind like Ferals and Big ‘Uns, you might find that the much underused sneak control comes back in style. Hopefully you’ve been able to keep your tools specialist safe too, because that workshop will be needed to keep the limited engines running.

A pre-release bug (since fixed) kept me from getting quite as far into the rolling difficulty levels as I’d have liked, but even by stage three and four it’s apparent that you can no longer just wade into an Infestation event and spam the attack button. The point of the add-on is to get as far as you can, so failure will be inevitable at some point, be it at stage five or stage 55. Glorious last-stands against the zombie menace are the only option in Breakdown.

On your way to staring death in the face, there are challenges to be completed and heroes to be recruited. Performing certain tasks at certain difficulty levels (say, killing 100 zombies with heavy weapons on stage 3) will net you a task to escort a familiar face from the original game, or a brand new specialist character, to your enclave. Once unlocked, you might run into these unique survivors again on subsequent attempts.

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You might think “psychopath” is a concerning trait to exhibit, but this IS a zombie apocalypse. And yes, she has a firebomb.

When you do perish, it’s possible to restart at the furthest difficulty stage reached and as any of the unlocked characters (or a random survivor again.) However, you’ll be beginning afresh without any of the gathered supplies or community members. When making the transition between levels as part of a play-through, you do get to keep a few bulk supplies (around ten of each, if you have them) and the items stashed in your magical locker of holding. You’ll also be given a leaderboard-tracked score, complete with modifier for the difficulty level you’re at.

Breakdown has brought a couple of updates to the base game with it too, no matter whether the DLC itself is owned. Scavenging is a little more context-relevant now, so you’re more likely to find food in fridges, guns in gun lockers and building materials on pallets. The latest PC patch added key-bindings (hurrah,) and the Breakdown update appears to have made frame-rates slightly more consistent. I was still getting stutters, but fewer of the obvious “game is loading something now, please stand by!” moments while driving around.

There are a scattering of new weapons, too. Usually belonging to the special characters you can unlock. The Preacher fellow, for example, can now batter zombies with a priestly candle stick.

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Early days on the challenges page. Not pictured: the one for setting 100 zombies on fire.

Effectively, then, Breakdown is more State of Decay but within a new, oft-requested structure. For everybody who wanted an endless sandbox type mode, you now have one. Those who wanted increased difficulty have been well catered for too.

The quirks and bugs from the base game are all here again as well, like zombies clipping through floors and the continued inability to tell a companion who’s standing right next to you to help out with carrying some resources home. I also ran into an invisible survivor who couldn’t be escorted to safety because she didn’t actually exist in the physical realm. Oh, and it’s surely time to add a “tutorial tips off, please” option somewhere. I know the B button is crouch now, State of Decay, thank you.

But while Breakdown hasn’t really smoothed out any of the original game’s rough edges, it has cleverly carried over the strong sense of character attachment. In fact, it’s gone further, giving players even more people to settle on as favourites, and forcing a moral dilemma about which six survivors should continue to fight the futile fight on the next stage. That’s an impressive achievement for an open world title, where, all too often, interest in the world starts to ebb once the main narrative is completed. By maintaining that link to individual characters and gradually upping the challenge, Breakdown’s endless loop of sandbox scavenging remains as fraught as ever.

Professional Farmer 2014 demo harvested from the fields

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