The endless zombie horde strikes again in “How to Survive,” a top-down action game made by EKO Software and published by 505 Games. Available for XBox Live, the game has already been confirmed for upcoming release on the Playstation Network, Steam, and even for the Wii U. With AMC’s “The Walking Dead” shambling on stronger than ever, and Telltale’s “Walking Dead” game winning game of the year, zombies have chomped, grabbed, and moaned their way into every corner of pop culture. For video games in particular, one could argue that the zombie game is practically its own genre, and has been for ages. Can “How to Survive” break through the well-defended perimeter fence of zombie-fatigue and nosh on wary gamers juicy, squirming wallets?
GameplayA combination of Diablo and X-Men Legends, “How to Survive” plays a lot like the recent zombie apocalypse game “State of Decay,” just from a top-down perspective. It also doesn’t boast “State of Decay’s” playtime or fully-realized sandbox perspective, but instead trades on a more hectic “bash-em-up” style gameplay and more streamlined RPG elements.
“How to Survive” has two major game modes – Story, and Challenge. Story plays out over 6 to 8 hours depending on your style and difficulty level, and follows the young strapping protagonists as they try to escape a deadlocked island by piecing a plane back together and fueling it up for a getaway. Story mode can be played alone or with a friend for offline co-op (couch mode), while Challenge mode can played with a buddy online or in the room. Challenge mode doesn’t bother with the story, and just drops you into the game with a straightforward goal and a truckload of the undead.
The concept of the game is simple – survive on an island overrun with the dead, and get enough resources to escape. Supply collection is priority numero uno. The crafting system in “How to Survive” is robust enough to be enjoyable, but not so complicated that it’ll scare anyone away. You see, in “How to Survive,” putting weapons together out of junk you found around the island isn’t your only job – you have to stay fed, stay hydrated, repair vehicles, AND battle ravening ghouls.
Each character has a meter for their hunger, thirst, and tirednesslevels. As the hunger meter increases, the character’s strength goes into the toilet, making melee combat an unteneable option. Considering how often the game ambushes the player with enormous throngs of gap-jawed corpses, being too weak to fight is a non-starter. Hunger can be maintained through fishing, hunting, and scavenging, like our ancestors of old. Hunting is the most effective option – taking down a deer will brush away that pesky hunger meter, but can create a brand new exciting danger. Fresh meat (like, say, a big ‘ole bloody deer) draws zombie attention, and may get you in more trouble than a peckish stomach might. Plus, the characters can’t eat raw meat, so you’ll have to take it back to a campfire to cook it. However, there arises another wrinkle to add to the risk/reward matrix – fresh meat can be turned into zombie distraction bombs, like the pipebomb in Left 4 Dead. Zombies run for the yummy morsel and then . . . boom.
Being thirsty drops your health directly, making it paramount to survival. However, if you don’t have anything to carry potable water in, you could break your chainsaw down and use the gas reservoir to carry more water . . . but there goes your chainsaw. The little interactions between the game’s systems, the push and pull, is when the game gets the most interesting. Sacrificing one advantage to gain another, hoping things work out the way you want them to – it does a good job of capturing the “scavenger-punk” sensibilities of the apocalypse.
You get three characters to choose from, and they amount to character classes. Kenji has heightened precision, making him the group’s most solid marksman. Abby gets stamina, meaning she’ll get tired slower, and can keep on truckin’ for longer. Jack is the classic “tank,” a beast of health and strength who’s great for the smashy-smashy but not much else.
The combat is engaging, frequent, and satisfying for the most part. Melee has a “charge” mechanic that pays off patience with big hits. Running a gaggle of zeds down with a chainsaw is as fun as it ought to be. The ranged combat has a circular targeting reticle that shrinks the longer you aim, and will grant a sweet, xp-gifting headshot if you time it right. Sometimes the biters will explode from a standard arrow, which I’m not complaining about. The game mentions trying to use stealth, but it’s nearly impossible to pull off.
Though none of the game systems are particularly deep, the interaction between them all often creates that nervous sense of second-guessing-your-decisions that’s vital to the zombie tale.
StoryThe story in story-mode is serviceable but not memorable – a series of fetch quests interspersed with shaky dialogue and character motivation guide players toward the repair and refuel of a vehicle that can get you off the island. The framing device of the story (and really, the game itself) is a “How to Survive” manual penned by a wildly entertaining scotsman named Kovacs. The entire plot and device is a reference to Max Brooks’ popular “Zombie Survival Guide” that spawned the “World War Z” book that spawned a Brad Pitt movie that spawned bad reviews. The voice of Kovacs guides you through the brand new terrifying world, offering helpful events and tutorials along the way.
The story also features zombified deers and fish and other wildlife, which does at least make a stab at being original. None of that in Walking Dead or World War Z, be assured. The gutwrenching horror of being devoured by zombie pirahna is an exciting new variation on a well-worn fear. The story plays pretty fast and light, keeping a fairly (black) comedic tone throughout.
The top-down perspective is a good choice for the action/RPG style of the game, and the textures and lighting effects are pretty for a downloadable game. The palette is actually colorful at times, a nice departure from the “smeared in gray” look that is so often used for horror-based subject matter. The island setting is packed with plantlife swaying in the wind, gamboling zombies, and frollicking animals both alive and dead. And yes, the zombies explode and come apart in satisfying ways.
One of the few complaints about the graphics rests in the walking animation of the player characters. There’s a slightly robotic cast to all of their movements, like they’re particularly mobile GI Joe action figures instead of breathing, living people. It doesn’t always pop up, but sometimes the characters turn or change directions, and there’s a definite “wooden” feeling. It isn’t terrible, but it can distract from an otherwise pleasing visual presentation.
The menus and loading screens are particularly well done, displaying cool art, immersive animations (ie, turning pages), and sometimes even quizzes-while-you-wait that toss free XP for correct answers.
Good multiplayer can polish over a lot of problems, and this is definitely true in the case of “How to Survive.” Online co-op can be fine, but toss a controller to a buddy on the couch and you’re golden. The game is fairly pick-up-and-play, so even the most novice gamer who’s just in it for the zombies won’t have much of a problem. Because the players have to choose two different characters, they’re forced to play to each other’s strengths and cover for their weaknesses. Jack and Kenji might make for an epic zombie-killing team, but their lack of stamina is going to lead to trouble down the line. Abby and Jack are going to have to get pretty close and personal to be effective, and Kenji and Abby are probably going to be doing a lot of hardscrabble running and guerilla tactics.
While the maps don’t change appreciably with multiple play-throughs, the placement of the zombies israndomized, for the most part. The scares and desperate, out-of-supply moments caused by a sudden horde of the living dead can make for some great gamer “remember that time” moments.
How to Survive is a sometimes thrilling trip into the zombie apocalypse that, when firing on all cylinders, can be pretty memorable. The addition of offline multiplayer was a smart move – like Left 4 Dead, a game can go a lot further and last much longer in the gamer consciousness when it lets buddies tag along. “How to Survive” is highly recommended for zombie enthusiasts and Action RPG fans, lightly recommended for action fans, and a non-necessity for everyone else.