Zombies. The word alone conjures images from dozens of films, books, and games. After being heavily exploited by the media for more than a decade, zombies have infested every subgenre. How to Survive, arriving relatively late in this pop culture fad, falls well within the action comedy survivalist category and thematically channels Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. Much like its inspirations, How to Survive is a mishmash of tried-and-tested ideas. It's a peppering of gripping challenges and mechanics that come together into a cohesive whole that elevates the otherwise milquetoast experience to a level that satisfies an itch you may not even know you had.
You can play as one of three young, able-bodied people, lost within a small archipelago packed with way more zombies than there are people in New York. Your goal, of course, is survival against all odds. You need to craft items, and manage hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, all while fending off the limitless hordes of bloody, brain-eating monsters hell-bent on your death. The crux of the experience becomes a careful balance of a dozen or so disparate mechanics, none of which are particularly complex but that total something genuinely interesting.
For the first hour or two of the story mode, you're steadily introduced one by one to the core mechanics: combat, crafting new items, gaining experience, leveling up, and all of the other basics of survival. These strategies are communicated to you by way of cheeky tutorials left behind by a mysterious man named Kovac. He tells you, for example, that if you don't eat, you'll rapidly lose strength and be unable to fight well, dramatically reducing your ability to stay alive. He qualifies that with unique rules that elaborately build up that core idea. If you're hungry, you can kill animals for meat, which will rapidly fill you up. However, all meat must be cooked because the animals of the islands contain deadly parasites. Fresh meat also attracts zombies and places you at additional risk until you can pop it on a fire. It's a balancing act in which satisfying one need can place you at greater risk of death. Much of the combat isn't too interesting, but it doesn't need to be--there are plenty of ways for the island to kill you, and you need to stave them all off at once. It's an interrelated network of play that establishes and maintains tension throughout.
Finding safe houses or triggering alarms that attract several dozen souped-up zombies who then stand between me and sleep are some of the most invigorating moments I've had with a game in recent memory.
Missions begin simply: find a jerry can, fill it with gasoline, and seek out other objects that might help you leave the archipelago. Inevitably, such simple tasks are complicated by swarms of the undead. Generally speaking, with each encounter you can take the stealthy route or go in making a lot of noise and causing just as much damage. Unfortunately, a dearth of sneaking options keeps the quiet approach from being all that satisfying, so unless you prefer to repeatedly hug walls to avoid rotting, walking corpses, you’re better off taking the zombies head on. Some weapons make it easy for you to pick off foes, but the zombies aren't completely stupid and will notice if their fetid friends go missing. When using a melee weapon like an improvised axe, dashing and then swinging wildly is pretty effective. Later, handmade guns become available and change up tactics. While some armored enemies are resistant to bullets, others can be targeted with precise headshots, which takes time to set up, but yields more experience. As you play, other subtleties will also become readily apparent. Explosive zombies resembling boomers in Left 4 Dead can be used against their cohorts. Strategically funneling such zombies into a crowd and sprinting by or shooting them causes massive damage to everyone around.
As all of these mundane pieces fall in line, however, the game rapidly reaches its conclusion. The setup for all this does take time, however. Incendiary and explosive devices, two classic anti-zombie weapons, don't become available until the late game, and their utility at that stage is minimal at best. After such an extensive tutorial, the end comes right when tension should be at its highest, and ultimately the game feels like it's missing another few hours of play. There are challenge modes to help extend the experience a bit, each of which involves starting with an empty inventory and trying to reach an escape plane before you die. They're definitely fun tests, but none of them add up to what the game needs to appropriately demonstrate its strengths: an extra-long story, or a trial to see how long you can survive as each passing day grows exponentially more difficult. Either of these would amount to more time to play around with the full sandbox potential of the game.
Despite the lack of a mode that facilitates experimentation, in my first run I found plenty of excellent moments that kept me thirsting for more. While the game map is static, the appearance of most of the zombies is random, and there were more than a few instances when a routine trip down a known route quickly got me screaming out of absolute terror, particularly in the late game, when even the wildlife joins the ranks of the undead. Piranhas can take turn a careless wanderer into a mess of flesh and bone faster than you can drop an F-bomb. Zombies are also susceptible to these dangers. At one point, I was surrounded by a good three dozen or so brain-hungry monsters and desperate for some way to take them all out. I was running and gunning through a swamp and noticed several go down in a matter of seconds; thanks to a swarm of hungry piranhas, I survived. Later, I was out of healing items and low on ammo. Lost in a new section of the island at night, I managed to wipe out zombified humans by tricking an undead deer into goring them on my behalf. After dispatching the last foe, I set up camp on a cliff and waited out the night until I could safely risk the rest of the journey to a safe haven.
On higher difficulty, the spirit of survival horror finds a home in an unlikely wrapper. Finding safe houses or triggering alarms that attract several dozen souped-up zombies who then stand between me and sleep are some of the most invigorating moments I've had with a game in recent memory. These examples aren't common enough, however, and with the largely random nature of the game, you may not have exciting moments like these at all. While it may be tinged with an insubstantial campaign and a few other minor problems, How to Survive is a worthy game built on a strong foundation of exciting experiences.