Despite what its name may imply, How to Survive is not a survival game. While it does seem to think it is based around survival, what it presents through its mechanics is a more straightforward action RPG than it may initially seem, though it does have some elements of the genre it covets.
You find yourself washed up on the shore of one of four islands that make up a tropical archipelago and are left to fend for yourself against the population of zombies. Well, almost – you are not the only survivor and are quickly tasked by another with finding some petrol for a boat to progress to the next island. Herein lies the first problem: How to Survive is constructed almost entirely of fetch quests. Nearly every quest you are given involves wandering off through a convoluted map filled with arbitrary barriers to pick up an item, the exact location of which the NPC somehow knows but is incapable of doing it themselves.
As you work your way to your objective, you will be killing a legion of zombies and collecting supplies. You have both melee and ranged weaponry, you aim with the right analogue stick and attack/shoot with the right bumper (on the Xbox 360 version), which seems like an odd choice as it doesn’t seem well suited to that particular use. With a melee weapon, you can either tap the button for a quicker attack or hold it down for a charged attack that deals more damage, and while this system isn’t exactly inspired it’s just fine, if a little clunky.
Ranged is more finicky however. When aiming at a zombie a circle will appear around its head and shrink until it becomes a red crosshair, indicating a headshot that deals a lot more damage. This works fine when fighting small groups of zombies, but due to the way it locks onto enemies pinpointing a specific zombie in a crowd is next to impossible if they are not right at the front of the group. Combine this with some zombies wearing helmets that need to be knocked off before dealing damage, enemies absorbing many shots to the body and your character’s one second sprint time, and you have frustrating, awkward ranged combat when battling large groups with less powerful weaponry.
The equipment and crafting system is probably the best part of the game. Weapons and armour are made by putting together various bits and pieces you find lying around the world. Guns are particularly well implemented. Using a long pipe for a barrel, for example, will make the final weapon a rifle, while a flared tube will be a shotgun. If I use a manual compressor with that long pipe, it will be a semi-automatic rifle, but if I use an tank of compressed air it will be an assault rifle.
Crafted items actually look like they are made from the items used in construction, and it’s that attention to detail that adds to the survival aesthetic, but what cripples it is the availability of consumable resources, which are far too common for it to ever feel like a survival game. Zombies drop ammunition so often that it is never something that you need to worry about finding. It also stacks up to 500, so for one inventory slot you can carry 500 shots around with you and if you are picking up ammunition as you go you will rarely ever drop below 400 anyway.
The same is true regarding food and drink, at least after you have chosen the relevant upgrades when levelling up. As you might expect, you earn experience for killing zombies and completing quests and upon levelling up, you can choose one of a selection of upgrades for your character. These range from enable the crafting of incendiary arrows to showing nearby plants on the map, but some of the most useful are reducing the rate at which your hunger, thirst and tiredness bars deteriorate.
Once you have purchased these three upgrades you will find that it is very easy to stay on top of your character’s needs, as food is easily acquired from respawning animals and water can be transported around in bottles. Tiredness is the only really difficult thing to stay on top of because you can only sleep in designated safe rooms. Once you come upon a previously undiscovered safe room, you open the door and are treated to a horde scenario, where a ridiculous amount of zombies stream out of this tiny room and from the surrounding area for a long drawn-out fight.
Once you are further into the game it really begins to suffer, as small groups of enemies are barely a threat, with bigger groups being the only thing resembling a challenge. The occasional boss, usually a very large zombie with three different attacks, does nothing to present much interest after the first encounter because it’s always the same one – you have beaten it once already and now you have more powerful weaponry. The constant fetch quests really begin to grate, and the game doesn’t ever move away from them.
There isn’t really any winning here. Early you are marred by constant tutorials, which are fine when in the form of the books that are left around the islands by Kovac, an eccentric survivor, which are animated cutscenes that are actually quite well done. But then you meet Kovac himself and he takes you to another island for more tutorials. The problem being that on this island, he both tells you what to do, and then there is a book to view that tells you that same thing. It is just redundant to show the same information twice and, worse, it makes for genuinely tedious gameplay. The opening hour or two is essentially just one long tutorial.
The storyline tries to be interesting but you can see anything that matters coming from miles away if you pay even a little bit of attention, and graphically the game is average at best. The player character has bad aliasing on his model, shadows are low quality and textures are just flat. And on top of all of this the game is just lacking overall polish. Battle music cuts out suddenly after killing the final zombie, only some items in the inventory can be rearranged, saving is unpredictable sometimes leading to you losing progress after you turn the game off because for some reason it hasn’t bothered to save for half an hour and there is no way to do it manually.
How to Survive is not a bad game, but it isn’t a good one either. While it sets its sights on a survival experience and has plenty of good ideas, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. If the controls were a little tighter, the graphics a little nicer, the zombies a little more interesting and quests a lot less repetitive it could have really gone somewhere special. As it is, it is an average game and a missed opportunity. The crafting system routinely perked my interest, but the rest of the game pulled it down after the novelty wore off. It is a real shame.