The inevitable horde of zombie games in recent years could have some people running for the hills, but those willing to stand their ground and face the onslaught could find some fun to be had in 505 Games latest title. How to Survive from EKO Software is an isometric survival Action-RPG with more than a few nods to its peers and a good deal of amalgamated ideas from other titles.
Coming into an already saturated market, where having a hook is necessary to succeed, HTS selectively chooses tried and tested mechanics and attempts to bring them all together in the one title.
HTS does not shy away from the time worn zombie video game tropes, but rather embraces it by featuring the standard fare of enemies you have faced a thousand times before. You have your run of the mill cannon fodder zombies, Soldier zombies which require multiple head shots to de-helmet and kill, your “fatboy” proximity explosive zombies, your mutant Goliath zombie which make a habit of charging head first at you, or flinging any nearby cannon fodder in your direction, and finally you have zombie animals. Yes, you read correctly. In HTS, you will face down such fearsome enemies as Zombie Ostriches, Zombie Deer and even Zombie crabs.
Starting out you get to choose one of three slightly varied characters, each of which has a specific strength. Kenji has the greatest precision with average overall stats making him an average character, Abby has greater stamina and precision but low health and strength making her ideal for ranged attacks and Jack with his elevated strength and health with low precision and stamina is a perfect melee character. Regrettably, you are not given the option to modify these characters or possibly craft your own, so to get a feel for the entirety of the game I plumped for our everyman Kenji.
Once selected you are given a brief introduction to explain how you ended up on the archipelago and are set almost immediately to breaking open zombie skulls by Andrew, the first NPC you encounter. He has been bitten, and afraid for the safety of his friend, issues you with a tree branch and sends you to wander the island to find his compatriot. Getting to grips with the combat is made all that much easier through your introduction shortly thereafter to the ultimate survival guide, Kovac’s rules, but more on that later.
Graphically, the game has a high degree of polish, with visceral zombie explosions punctuating the lush and verdant environment around you and the way you approach and deal with the enemies does give it a Diablo-esque feel to proceedings, although in a somewhat limited capacity. Call it “Diablo-lite” if you will. The shadows and lighting is accomplished and functional, also being a key component of the game when the night rolls round.
Early in the game, the world is plunged into darkness, and as you unlock the ability to light fires, it soon becomes evident how key the scattered bonfires can be. At night, something else is stalking the island, but thankfully with a handy torch or flaming branch you can beat back these enemies. The small, thin creeping creatures that come out at night are paralysed or rebuffed by light, and shining your torch in their direction will disperse them. Having to constantly watch your back to ensure you are not attacked whilst still fighting off the zombie inhabitants throws in a nice little change to the flow of combat.
Dispatching the zombie fodder between you are your objective is relatively easy, and soon you are taking on groups of three or more with no more than a pointy stick and a lot of balls. During the brief combat tutorial, you are introduced to one of the biggest annoyance of the game; the camera. The core gameplay can best be described as twin stick combat, with movement mapped to the left stick and aiming to the right, leaving no facility to move the camera, and on a set of islands covered in trees it is easy to get lost behind the scenery or even get ambushed easily. This brings us on to the second major frustration that appears frequently. The zombies in the game will spawn randomly, even from areas you had previously cleared and some spawn sections are so ludicrous it’s distracting. (Such as the dozen of zombies spawning from within a room that when checked was the size of a toilet cubicle.) These minor gripes aside, the combat typically works as intended, and is sufficiently competent to stop it becoming a case of the controller going through the screen following one too many cheap deaths.
The story itself is your generic zombie plot. You have arrived on these islands by unfortunate happenstance, and must battle your way throughout the four islands in order to collect the materials required to escape this nightmare. Sadly, some of the voice work and dialogue is as lacklustre as the plot and at around 8 hours long, it never really gripped me completely, unless it involved Kovac. Kovac stands out as both the comic relief through his Kovac’s Rules sections, and the few times you encounter him he feels more fleshed out than any of the one dimensional and rather boring story npcs and mute player characters. This is in my eyes, one of the first nods to another series, with the cartoon styling of each Kovac’s Rules and the superior dialogue for Kovac himself showing off some genuinely entertaining dark humour , which brought to mind the occasional rantings of Marcus from the Borderlands series. This influence also seems to permeate in the crafting and customization system somewhat, with weird and wacky firearm creations being available with which to maul zombies.
The crafting system itself also seems influenced heavily by other games, and although its sources were more accomplished, HTS manages to make its system integrate smoothly without feeling overbearing or cumbersome. Items discovered around the island and dropped by enemies can be combined together once you discover a recipe card. Materials you find can be used for multiple recipes, initially giving the feeling that your decision whether to use your materials for defence or offence would have a fine balance, but this is not the case. Where other titles created tension by rationing the materials required, forcing you to choose, I never once found myself short of required ingredients to craft my necessary items. Weapon crafting is interesting at first as well, but once I had crafted a suitable damage dealing rifle that would kill most enemies in one shot, the need to upgrade or experiment fell to the wayside. Scarcity of ammo was originally another concern, but sadly this falls in the same category as the crafting materials, and I never once, during the entire time playing, found myself short of ammo for any length of time.
As you progress you are slowly introduced to more and more mechanics that you need to learn, revealing progressively your Hunger meter, Thirst Meter and Tiredness Meter. With these, survival becomes more than just fending off the lumbering horde, but also making sure your character is fully maintained to give you the best chance to escape.
Hunger is directly linked to your strength skill, so in order to proficiently beat zombies about the head, you have to keep this topped up. Plants, herbs and roots can be eaten to restore your hunger, but to truly beat back starvation you will need to start hunting or fishing, so grabbing your bow and tracking that deer you spotted earlier in the game is a necessary skill early on in the game.
Thirst is directly linked to your precision and drains the fastest, so failing to ensure you are hydrated causes your aim to wobble and locking in on that necessary headshot takes far longer than normal.
Finally Tiredness directly affects your stamina. Stamina is only used for burst running, which during combat can be a blessing as you burst away from the groping hands of the lingering dead to give you enough room to thin out the herd with a well placed shotgun blast before running in axe-a-swinging to finish off the stragglers. Tiredness can be removed with sleep, which you can only do at one of numerous safe houses spread about the island, but first you will have to clear the zone before you put your head down. Once you activate the door to the safe room, a mini horde mode is activated and a set amount of zombies will both emerge from the safehouse and be attracted from outside. Clear these out and you have the opportunity to put your head down and get 40 winks.
Sadly, the design decision was taken to have skills associated to these traits, and within an hour or so of play, I was no longer concerned about these stats as the skills selected had effectively negated these urgencies to an after-thought.
How to Survive is not a bad game. It just feels incomplete, rushed or a game that lost its way. With most survival games there is usually limitations imposed which create a feeling of isolation and struggling to survive, but the frequency of materials and ammo dropped, and the skill system inherently breaks each of its attributed mechanics removing any challenge managing these may have produced.
If you want a brainless isometric action game, that poses little problem, but can entertain for several hours this is a decent game to pick up. If you are looking for a hardcore survival challenge, look elsewhere.
MLG Rating: 6/10 Format: Xbox 360 / PC /Wii U/ PS3 Release Date: 23/10/2013
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of How to Survive for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 7 days on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.