Zombies used to be so underground, man. Years ago the very mention of these rotted ghouls would have people scratching their heads in blissful ignorance, but now they’re shuffling, walking and running around like they own the place. The genre has been utterly exhausted to the point where now their inclusion in media ends up feeling like a joke, rather than the creeping death they once were. Arriving on the Wii U eShop almost a year after its original console and PC release, How To Survive tries to avoid the trappings of its zombie shooter bed-follows by adding in a core element of survival gameplay; unfortunately that's done with all the grace of a shambling corpse.
Dumped unceremoniously on a cluster of isolated islands after a nasty shipwreck, the player's character is forced into a hostile environment where they’ll need to hunt for food, scavenge for supplies and find shelter to wait out the long, dangerous nights. There’s an element of exploration to it all, with story progress doled out by interacting with other survivors and regularly teaming up to plan your escape. This all might sound great on paper, but in practice How To Survive makes frustratingly little use of its stock of good ideas.
Things play out similarly to a pretty competent Diablo clone, or a twin stick arcade shooter with some RPG elements. You’ll have a choice of three characters to select from upon starting — the nimble archer, the chunky brawler and the plain all-rounder, who boast just one unique skill each and a few minor stat changes to help differentiate between them. Enemy designs are similarly lacking in originality, with the usual selection — fat zombies that explode when you get close, thin zombies that run fast, bigger zombies that charge at you — all marched out as fodder for both melee and ranged combat. In small doses it's fun, and overall the combat manages to provide that satisfying bubblewrap-style catharsis when smashing skulls.
The major focus here is clearly on survival elements, however, framed by a series of guides found scattered around the islands by a Russian eccentric named Kovac. These are essentially mini-tutorials that explain the basic mechanics that will keep you alive, conveniently categorized into four self-explanatory meters – Health, Hunger, Tiredness, and Thirst. When you aren't moving from mission to mission and clearing out zombie hordes, these meters will need to be kept under control by gathering resources and finding safe places to spend the night, in order to (all-together now) survive your time on the island.
The hunt for water or food rarely lasts more than a minute however, as you'll be tripping over sources of both more often than you'll ever need to collect them. Freshwater wells and patches of edible plants all replenish, and there's no time limit on anything; this removes any sense of urgency from your daily routine. Levelling up your character grants access to a new skill each time, and many of these actually lower your need to consume food and drink, further rendering what should be a constant concern into an occasional nuisance. Pikmin 3 this ain't.
The crafting system is fairly robust, allowing for experimentation that can have some genuinely interesting results, but there's almost no incentive to try out new combinations of scrap and scavenged material once you've crafted just one weapon that works. A shotgun will smash through zombie ranks just as efficiently as anything else, and there is so much ammo lying around that managing resources becomes even more of a non-issue. Sure, it's fun to try out a chainsaw or something more non-traditional for a while, but before long you'll simply switch back to what works best. In ZombiU, sorting through your items was a frantic experience in and of itself, making great use of the GamePad to show enemies creep up from behind. In How To Survive, time freezes whenever you enter the menu, and you'll almost always have enough supplies to heal your way through any encounter. Displaying menus on the GamePad screen seems like a natural choice, but when the game pauses itself anyway, it removes any sense of that tension 505 Games seems to crave.
One of Kovak's guides focuses entirely on the dangers of travelling at night, hinting at a sub-species of zombie that thrives in the dark and poses much more of a threat. Like all the other tutorials it sets this up as a major factor to keep in mind, but when the time comes and these creatures make their first appearance, the torch you picked up earlier free of charge has already turned itself on to cast a beam of protective light straight at them. They cower, retreating backwards as you go about your business with unlimited battery life. These beasts end up evenless troublesome than standard zombies, turning what could have been a fearsome threat into a glorified Boo from Super Mario. This is no minor complaint, it's a prime example of the problem at large here — for a game about staying alive, everything is far too easy.
Checkpoints are frequent, to the point where even death itself is hardly punished at all. You keep all your items and spawn a few minutes away from where you were, making for an easy transition back into the latest fetch-quest. Other islanders will give you missions that usually boil down to collecting certain items or moving from one place to another, made all the more monotonous once the veil of survival gameplay has long since slipped away. What's left is essentially a shooter in which every mission feels like padding and misplaced humour comes out of nowhere in an attempt to inject some personality into an increasingly lifeless experience.
The main campaign lasts about 4 - 5 hours, but this brief experience is supplemented by some dedicated challenge scenarios to complete. These condense gameplay into bite-sized chunks, whether you're tasked with reaching a boat as quickly as possible or taking out a large horde. Sadly, co-op can only be played offline in the Wii U version, and your partner will need a pro controller to join. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of compensation for this removal of online, but there are a host of smaller technical problems that will kick the remaining sense of atmosphere while it's down. Aesthetically the four islands look very similar, and music seems to cut in and out without context. On one occasion we even managed to find a completely white area of negative space, where the island's boundary had been reached but our view continued on too far. It's a shame to see these problems persist so long after the initial release on other consoles, especially when the Wii U version is already lacking an online element. With a friend, local multiplayer may help to justify the asking price, assuming that you're both prepared for an unfortunately shallow campaign.
How To Survive could be applauded for attempting to revitalize a tired genre with an island full of new ideas, but the end result is a disappointing mess that quickly dissolves into just another shooter. It's a functional experience, but combines so many different elements that none of them feel fleshed out enough to justify their inclusion. It's not a tense, open-world survival game and it's not a zany, action-packed zombie kill-a-thon. How To Survive falls somewhere in between the two, and will likely appeal only to die-hard fans of the genre, or anyone willing to spend cash on a cheap thrill or two.