With Halloween imminent, it shouldn't be surprising to see some horror-themed videogames popping up, tying in with one of the year's most memorable holidays. How to Survive is such a game! It features plenty of zombie killing and you will be doing anything within your power to... survive. Sounds decent enough but unfortunately, How to Survive has too many major problems relating to the core gameplay to be recommended.
How to Survive almost doesn't have a story at all. You are thrust into the game, waking up on a beach and it doesn't take long for you to realise that the zombie apocalypse has finally hit us. From there, you will be taking quests from various people in order for you to escape from the area.
The complete lack of story actually doesn't bother me too much. We have played so many zombie games at this point, I appreciate that the developers saw that it isn't necessary to bombard the player with cutscenes, detailing what would be a dull and clichéd tale. What is a problem though, are the characters. There are three playable characters but they are completely mute so don't expect anything there. The quest-givers are fully voiced but the voice acting is poor and almost most all of those characters are forgettable.
The only exception is a guy called Kovac. He's a welding mask wearing guy with a Eastern-European accent, who seems to know how to deal with the zombie threat. Not only will you meet this character, you will also find pages from his survival guide, which are used as tutorial videos that teach you how to play. The only problem here is that survival guide videos are presented in a weirdly humorous tone. There's retro funky music playing in the background and the sketches used to illustrate the tutorial are reminiscent of the Pipboy stuff from the Fallout games. For a game that's so serious most of the time, it is bizarre to come across these goofy tutorial videos. There are also strange side-quests but I will get to those later...
The core gameplay also looks like those games. You will be swinging or shooting away at many different zombies foes. The difference here, though is that isn't of just wailing or blasting away mindlessly, How to Survive rewards the player for being more rhythmical in their approach. Melee attacks do much more damage when they are charged up and gunshots are more effective when going for headshots, which mean you have to aim at the target for a while before firing.
Despite these mechanics, the combat here gets dull quickly. Whacking off a zombie's head with a wooden stick is fun the first time you to do it but repetition stumbles in after doing the simple manoeuvre over and over. When you get your first gun, it is a welcome change of pace but the same problem occurs again, as you are blowing off so many zombie heads.
The guns are actually a strange part of How to Survive. After I starting using a pistol, I never used a melee weapon in combat ever again. Why bother getting in close, when I can just stand back and get an easy headshot? You would think that a horror game like this would make ammunition scarce but that is not the case at all. In fact, I always had hundreds of shots left. For a game that is supposed to be all about surviving, this is just ridiculous.
Repetition is a massive problem throughout much of How to Survive. All of the quests are the same in that they are boring fetch quests. Even the side missions aren't any different. You will encounter silly talking monkeys (yes, you read that correctly) who all demand a very specific item. I couldn't be bothered doing most of these as the main story is already brimming with laborious fetch quests. The ones I did finish did yield decent rewards but I would rather continue playing the game rather than falling asleep in front of the TV...
Another problem is that the environment all looks exactly the same. The game takes place on four tropical islands and while they all have their own unique layout, but the fact it all looks the same really doesn't help matters.
The only aspect of the gameplay that does have some variety are the enemies. In addition to your standard zombie, there are fat zombies that explode, armoured zombies, creepy crawly zombies that only appear at night, and big bastards that serve as mini-bosses. But even with some enemy variety, it unfortunately doesn't save How to Survive's tedious combat.
However, How to Survive might be saved thanks to its engrossing RPG mechanics? Sadly, this is not the case. While killing enemies and gaining experience, you earn skill points, which can be used to purchase upgrades for your character. Each of the three playable characters does have a slightly different skill tree and there are abilities that are unique to each of them. You also have basic core stats that each character has and depending on who you pick, your starting stats will differ slightly. These stats are Health, Stamina, Precision, and Strength.
I played as Jack, who is the big guy who starts off with the most health and strength. Strangely though, a large section of his tree to devoted to firearms, which wasn't what I was expecting. The rest of his skill tree is even worse, giving you poor upgrades like being able to find ammo more readily from falling ammo, which is hilarious given how plentiful ammo is already, and being able to create better explosives but explosives are a late game item that are rare and are primarily used to open late game areas, so you will probably not use those on enemies anyway. How to Survive is one of those games where you could spend skill points willy nilly and it probably wouldn't make much of a difference.
The crafting system is more interesting. Throughout the game, you will be collecting random pieces of junk but you will be using these to craft weapons, armour and other items. The system does work well and there are plenty of things to create. The problem is that a lot of the item combinations are a bit bizarre. For instance, combining a leather belt with ripped pieces of a car tire somehow makes leg armour. Yeah, your guess is as good as mine. So the crafting system is competent but once I made some decent firearms, I hardly ever bothered with it.
The game also has some survival mechanics but these don't add much to the experience. Your character has three needs that you need to look after; hunger, thirst and sleep. All of these are actually quite easy to maintain so you shouldn't have too much trouble looking after them. Food and water is plentiful and any shelters that you can use to sleep in are marked on your map. Having these survival elements do add a smidge more depth but considering how easy it is to look after your needs, they are just as shallow as the rest of the game.
How to Survive is a decently sized adventure that took me at least 8 hours to slog through. Not a bad value on its own, but for those wanting more, How to Survive does offer a few options. You can play through the main story mode in co-op but only locally, which is disappointing. Thankfully though, you can indulge in one off challenge levels, which can be played alone or in co-op, offline or online.
These challenge levels are very similar to the single-player. They are smaller in scale, all you have to do is escape from that one island but aside from that, the gameplay is identical and the level geometry is the same from the single-player. I have no idea why would bother playing these missions by yourself. The story mode is terribly tedious and by the time it is over, you will be happy for it.
However, there is definitely some appeal to playing the game in co-op. The fending off zombies together, while exploring and picking up items is entertaining for a while. But like the rest of the game you are bound to get tired of it. Oh, and don't play this game online with someone you don't know. Co-op works in such a way that players need to share items with each other and as a result, team work is vital. Unless you are able to find a saint online, I would only recommend co-op play with a friend.
The graphics in How to Survive are well done throughout. The game gets a lot of mileage out of its overhead perspective, meaning that the game doesn't need to be very detailed for it to look nice. The models look good, the environments are well put together and the lighting is very nice. How to Survive is not an amazing looking game, but the graphics are as good as you would expect.
The sound effects aren't nearly as impressive though. A lot of typical sounds used for enemies and weapon impacts and the music is quite poor. A lot of the music is screechy, drone-type music which is grating after a while. When the action picks up, so does the music but then once all of the enemieshave been killed, the music track suddenly ends, which is very sloppy.
In the end, How to Survive is not worthy of your time or money. The game is competently made but the shallow gameplay mechanics and overall lack of variety stop How to Survive from being entertaining, past the first hour or so. I am sad to say that 2013 has not been a good year for zombie games with the likes of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army and State of Decay coming out. It pains me even more to say that How to Survive fits in alongside them. High hopes for Dead Rising 3 then...
TWO OUT OF FIVE
(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects. )