Survival games seem to break down into two broad categories. On the one hand, you have the survivalist games, where the focus is on an endless battle against the elements, a hostile environment, and resource scarcity so severe that even basic needs like food and shelter are hard to satisfy.
Then there are survival games like EKO Software’s How to Survive 2, where some survival elements have been added to a rather conventional game design in order to make progress a little more meaningful, play a little harder, and your rewards a little less secure. In a word, you’re still an almost unstoppable badass able to impose your will on the world around you… but sometimes you need to stop for snacks and juice.
How to Survive 2 feels a lot like Diablo, except slower-paced and with greater emphasis on crowd-control. In this one, you’ve come to New Orleans to learn how to survive the zombie apocalypse from series-star Kovac (a kind of Virgil to your zombie-whacking Dante), who has set up a bunker compound in the middle of some wooded swamps. With fun, cartoon videos of basic game concepts and a (painfully?) long series of introductory tutorial missions, Kovac teaches your character the basics of building a successful survivor’s compound of your very own.
I’d only played the first game a little bit and was left a bit cold by the experience, but How to Survive 2 aims to fix some of the first game’s lack of depth and variety with a deeper crafting and leveling system, as well as co-op multiplayer. Fundamentally, however, it’s a game about smashing zombies in the face with homemade cudgels and shooting them with crude, homemade firearms and ammunition. You go into hostile territory, slaughter a bunch of things while Hoovering-up every last scrap of metal, rope, or fabric, and then go home to your camp to build better gear and crafting stations.
How to Survive 2’s gleeful, cartoonish survival mechanics are a double-edged sword. Survival is so trivialized that it doesn’t provide the strategic depth that it could. It doesn’t provide much pressure, and it’s something I’d mostly forget about during missions. I wasn’t really thinking about how to save on resources, or whether I could keep progressing or if I should turn for home. Instead, How to Survive 2 let me you take one headlong plunge into the zombie hordes after another, trusting that my character’s combat prowess and the resource-rich environments would be my safety net. Go ahead, use those bandages. There are plenty more to choose from and, besides, it’s not like any of these dozens of zombies are actually going to hit you.
On the other hand… it’s kind of refreshing to play a zombie survival game that’s less interested in having you gathering sticks and berries and instead lets you actually enjoy the things you’ve gathered and constructed. Where a lot of games make me feel like my equipment so precious that I should be afraid to use it, How to Survive 2 has me wondering what I’ll get next.
Between missions, you’ll build up your camp, which is part of How to Survive 2’s somewhat over-complicated progression system. Both your character and your camp have a level, and the camp level serves as a gate for your character’s progress.
Before you can unlock your next set of skills, you need to upgrade your character. But before you can upgrade your character, you need to upgrade your base. In effect, How to Survive 2 requires a lot of XP grinding in order to do anything, which can make it feel like it’s unfolding painfully slowly. Especially because once you level your camp, enemies apparently get harder (though I didn’t notice much difference from level-to-level). So there’s potential for a weird difficulty spike with each round of leveling. I’ll admit, though, I don’t fully get what the system is doing nor did I completely detect its impact on the gameworld. Eventually tougher enemies showed-up, but I wasn’t sure if that was down to my level or the missions that I was doing.
Understandably for a game at this stage of development, difficulty seems spiky throughout much of How to Survive 2. The missions themselves don’t feel challenging enough. A bit like in the new Doom, combat falls into a pattern of stunning enemies, then launching execution attacks that give you a momentary break and insta-kill an enemy. If you run into a group of zombies in the open, even a large one, there’s rarely any sense of peril to the entire encounter. But then a horde attack comes and How to Survive 2 feels like it’s stacked against you. Redistributing that danger and difficulty across the regular missions would go a long way to reducing the faint tedium that afflicts much of this game at present. It’s not that it’s boring… but it’s also rarely quite gripping.
In its defense, How to Survive 2 does the zombie fiction thing of making it seem like everything is going swimmingly until, without a hint of warning, it is all going horribly awry. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking into an abandoned store, engaging a zombie, realizing there’s a few too many in there, and running back into the street… only to realize there are even more of them out there. The dynamic soundtrack instantly recognizes when you’ve bit off more than you comfortably chew and starts ramping up the musical tension during these encounters, which was a great touch.
My other main issue with How to Survive 2 is kind of… drab. Endless forests, swamps, and small towns all blur together after a while, and there’s no real sense of place. Right now, it feels less like a new game and more like a new tile-set. A few more setting-specific levels or enemies would go a long way to making it feel like How to Survive 2 is more than an action RPG loot-harvesting game.
How to Survive 2 isn’t really a bold new direction for the series. Those who were happy with How to Survive will probably find a lot to like about How to Survive 2 in it early form. But those who are looking for a little bit more sophistication, and perhaps a little more challenge, will probably need to wait to see how this shapes up. Right now How to Survive 2 feels like just about all the pieces are in place… but its character and game balance haven’t quite arrived.
How to Survive 2 is available on Steam for a rugged and reasonable £10.99 / $14.99. My impressions are based on build 1109822 on 16 May 2016.