Michael Johnson learns How to Survive in How to Survive!
If there's one thing that dulls my enthusiasm on starting up a new game, it's an extended cumbersome tutorial. Obviously for many titles, particularly those with original or complex systems, they're a necessary evil - we need them to ease us in, or hand-hold us through an explanation of a game's features. How to Survive's tutorial has two whole islands (out of the four in the game) and around a dozen 'humorous' videos to endure.
Every tutorial video (which are skippable but kind of necessary) begins with an enthusiastically accented cry of 'Kovac's Rules!' followed by zany illustrations of how to kill, survive and die in How to Survive's bland island world. I quickly came to despise the tutorial and the Russian mentor Kovac who not only leaves his survival tips lying around for you to collect, but turns up to walk you through some of the more advanced survival techniques.
It's not a zombie game these days without a fat one that explodes
Once you're shot of him, you can then take side-quests from his monkey friends and their parrot translators – no I'm not making this up. How to Survive tonally, is a mess. It's a Zombie survival game, that decides juvenile humour fits right in with a feature where during the night-time 'crawler zombies' who are adverse to light, stalk you down. While that's not particularly scary, not of the attempts at humour are particularly funny either, it just feels like the writers and the designers were working on two different projects.
To be fair to How to Survive it tries to be a fairly original take on a classic game setting – an island chain full of zombies, with an Action RPG interface and a focus on survival and crafting. The systems of the game don't quite feel like anything else out there and if you have a friend to play with in co-op mode you'll certainly be able to wring some entertainment out of How to Survive.
Combat is fairly simple but requires reflexes and a bit of forethought when taking down large groups of zombies, else you're likely to get munched on. The left mouse button is a basic attack, while you use the right mouse button to aim more precisely with both melee and ranged weapons. Holding down the left button allows you to wind-up a power attack in melee mode, while for ranged you'll want to wait until the targeting reticule turns red to take down zombies with a swift headshot. It's simple but it works well enough.
Disappointingly though, while most ARPGs tend to get more and more complex as you level up and assign points to a skill tree, for How to Survive complexity only really arrives in the form of different types of ammo and from crafting more weapons. There is a skill tree on offer (one for each of the three characters), but they're pretty basic affairs.
The blue tank-top and hotpants evoke a far better game
Crafting is the game's strongest point, with many combinations of herbs and various bits of tat being used to create weapons, potions and armour that'll allow you to take down the zombie hordes with minimal fuss. For instance, when killing a wild animal, you can take their hide. Combining the hide with your machete gives you leather strips which are used in several recipes, You might wonder what the use for a car tire is, until you take your machete to it, carve it up and combine the result with your leather strips, the result: some flimsy shinpads!
Testing out which items can be combined often yields unexpected but strangely logical results and turning your home-made pistol into a shotgun or machine-gun with a quick modification is the most satisfying part of the game. As is crafting a silly hat for yourself, by gluing some animal bones onto a soldiers helmet.
You might be wondering by this point why I've barely mentioned the survival aspects of a game called 'How to Survive'. The answer to that is because they're easily forgotten or ignored. Thirst is quenched by visiting the liberally dotted water holes and making sure you fill up a few empty bottles. Hunger is sated by the variety of meats, fruits and herbs you find all over the island. Sleep requires you to find one of Kovac's alarmed bunkers - if you're tired head to one of those, fight off the zombie horde that shows up when the alarm goes off and then have a little snooze.
None of the survival aspects feel particularly urgent or exciting. It does however ensure that you can't just pick everything up at once, which can be a little frustrating when your primary motivation to keep going is to mess around with the crafting system. Instead you'll find yourself chucking away bits and pieces of crap, hoping that you're not tossing away vital components for another silly hat or offensive contraption – I myself had to hunt down some discarded animal bones when I found a crafting recipe for a boomerang.
Each of the four islands is equally bland
The fourth and largest island of the game is where things start to open up a bit and you can get into a fun rhythm, of combat, crafting and meeting your survivors needs. But sadly, just when the game starts to get going, it ends rather abruptly, with the main story taking around 5-6 hours to complete. You can take part in challenge mode too, where you're randomly deposited onto a part of the island and tasked with getting off, using all the survival techniques taught to you in story mode. But it still feels a little shallow, like there was perhaps a much larger game planned, that failed to materialise.
HOW TO SURVIVE VERDICT
What we’re left with is a quirky combination of tones and systems that never really mesh together to create an engaging whole. The game feels like with a bit more depth, length and ambition it could’ve given us a pretty unique experience. Instead we get monkey/parrot taskmasters and their trivial pursuits, Kovac with his abominable tutorials and a fun little crafting system that belongs in a better game.
TOP GAME MOMENT
A tie between turning my weak starter pistol into a lead-spewing machine-gun, or the bait and switch escort mission set-up that sees a small child falling into the sea, perfectly showcasing the game’s misguided attempts at humour.