As break-ups go, being ripped limb from limb by the living dead is pretty final.

Belle and Faith had been together on and off for many years. While their relationship survived the zombie apocalypse, it couldn't weather my avarice. Even knowing how exhausted Faith was, I took her on an ill-advised detour to a large house; there were resources to be plundered, after all. What's the worst that could happen? Mere minutes later, I had my answer. Belle, who I'd pegged as my group's future leader, was a broken woman.

Every death tells a story

Admittedly, parts of the above scenario took place entirely within my head; but the beauty of State of Decay 2 is that, without the in-depth dialogue offered by the likes of Telltale's The Walking Dead, you'll often find yourself devising your own narrative. This open-world zombie survival game is, unsurprisingly, a sequel to 2013's State of Decay; a game which, although entertaining it its own right, had a lot of rough edges. State of Decay 2 is a far more polished game than its predecessor. It's undoubtedly best way to experience the series, though it never quite felt like I was playing a fully-fledged sequel.

The game provides you with a cast of survivors who at least have some common sense, as evidenced by their choice to hide out in the less heavily-infested countryside. After acquiring a home base, you're tasked with gathering resources and building up your base to prevent further incursions from the living dead. You can recruit additional survivors and there are other groups to interact with, mostly friendly, who exist mainly to give you side quests. They're a pretty needy lot, though, and it's always obvious that you're at the centre of the world. One group of neighbours left the valley because I declined to give them a free sackful of prescription medicine. At least I didn't try to eat their brains, as the other inhabitants are prone to do.

State of Decay 2

Grand Dead Auto

In a step-up from the original game, State of Decay 2 features strong RPG elements allowing you to mould your survivors into specialists. This also introduces a heavier risk/reward element to the game; it's possible, but not easy, to get your characters killed. Since the game features permadeath, you'll lose all the time you've put into them as well as any headcanon you may have going on. But since they only level up by leaving your base and exploring the valley, you're rewarded by sending them into the fray, on their own or with another fellow survivor.

This, in turn, leads to some wonderfully tense moments where, out of ammo and low on health, you end up frantically fleeing the living dead. I defy you to play State of Decay 2 and not end up screaming at the screen as the zombies nip at your heels. At least, thanks to the game's respectable draw distance, you can see a safe haven horizon, whether that be an elevated billboard or an abandoned car.

Undead Labs, creators of State of Decay 2, deserve major kudos for making vehicles more than mere disposable assets. If you start leaping into cars and ditching in the manner of Grand Theft Auto, you'll be joining the ranks of the undead before you can say "Obligatory George Romero reference."  State of Decay 2 rewards you for actually maintaining your vehicle and makes traversing each of the three maps a great deal less traumatic.

State of Decay 2

Under the Skin

You'll never face anything on the scale of Dead Rising 3's hordes, but you're a great deal more vulnerable than Frank West and the dead are significantly swifter, moving at somewhere between shambling and running pace. Throw in a red zombie strain that has the power to infect survivors and a few lesser-seen super-zombies – including  a near unkillable juggernaut – and you're in real danger. Being infected by the former also throws up an uncomfortable moral issue: should you really risk it all by gathering enough red zombie plague samples to cure your survivor, or do you take the easy way out and end it for them?

State of Decay 2 does sport some semblance of a plot, although it moves at a glacial pace. Generally, it's delivered through snippets of audio heard through the radio. The first State of Decay's story was similarly thin on the ground too, but it didn't really diminish my enjoyment of the game. What does let the game down, however, is how mundane the missions are. Both side and story missions are frequently little more than fetch quests; either you're heading to a particular zombie-filled location to collect an item, or you're taking someone to safety. And when you're not doing that, you're raiding houses for resources to cart them back to your base.

STate of Decay 2

Apocalypse Now

The monotony of these tasks would kill a lesser game stone dead, but State of Decay 2's ability to keep the pressure on means that, more often than not, you don't notice. Often you'll be busy mowing down red zombies for antidote material or gathering food so your survivors' moral doesn't drop. Likewise, the regular zombie assaults on your base help disguise the sheer amount of busywork involved. But when State of Decay 2's gameplay lulls, you'll start to ponder why you're paying to do something which amounts to work – zombies or no zombies.

State of Decay 2 is the best State of Decay has ever been. The addition of a co-op multiplayer mode will appeal to anyone looking for a little shared zombie-survival; and you'll find yourself getting surprisingly attached to your characters, despite the fact they have relatively little backstory. The amount of freedom is genuinely impressive, as is the sheer mayhem that the game can devolve into.  True, its surfeit of busywork does it no favours, but if you can immerse yourself enough in the game to overlook that, you'll find that State of Decay 2 offers more than enough to quench your shambler-smashing, apocalypse-braving thirst.

State of Decay 2 is available on Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the Xbox One version.