EKO Software's zombie ARPG with survival bits, How To Survive, comes out rather soon. I got my hands on it for a bit of a rummage, and – genre cliché be damned - I was fairly impressed.
The state of Jim Being Impressed took a while to materialise, I have to admit. Initially the game seems to make quite a weak offering: you wash up on a beach, hit functionally animated zombies with a stick, follow some instructions. Not looking all that promising. But then the game begins to escalate.
First, combat starts to offer a little more as you begin to use a secondary, stronger attack, and then receive limited attacks of opportunity when enemies are off guard, or off balance, which finish them off. Simplistic, yes, definitely. But it works. Then night falls, and you start to have to use your flashlight to chase away even nastier horrors than the shambling undead. Things which fear the light. As the game goes on you meet a chap who appears to be the salesman/narrator from the Borderlands game, an overly cheery Russian caricature, who guides you through the deep nuances of the game. (He's a bit annoying, but stick with it.)
There's a talent/skill tree you can fill in as you progress up through levels, and there's a fairly wide-open crafting mechanic, where junk can be taped together into guns and so on. I've not played enough to really be sure about the scope of this, but the start of the game seems to imply quite a lot of crafting potential. This is all held within predefined in blueprints, of course, so there's not much scope for invention, but it does provide a wide canvas for activity as the game goes on. Scavenging is relentless and turns up an astonishing array of items, not all of which are clear in the purpose. Some of them probably end up going into contraptions, but for others it's less clear. For you, it's about making priorities (as well as makeshift shotguns).
Then there's the survival layer itself. The most obvious of these is not being killed by the zombies – you are fairly vulnerable, and can reduce incoming damage with various bit of armour – which requires a fair amount of skill when dealing with lots of enemies, and can be patched up with medicinal plants, or medkits. Then there's the problems of hunger and thirst – you'll need to eat and drink, and find both fresh water and foodstuffs – and finally the issue of sleep. Finding secure shacks gives you a place to sleep, and admittedly a rather contrived one, but it does mean you'll find yourself pinging between night and day as you fight off the all-pervading snooze.
Once you've learned all this, it's down to you to get through the game's story mode (there are a bunch of challenge-based fluff scenarios, but the story mode is the main event) and to survive the island dangers, while trying to find a way to get out from this zombie hell. Small rowboats allow you to get between the various islands, but you need a more permanent and long-distance solution if you're to escape entirely. Quite early on, that becomes the goal. I've not played enough to tell how satisfying this is, and I can't see the game being all that big, but so far it's held my attention.
The challenge that all these vectors for peril set out for you is a pretty serious one, and I found myself quite engaged once the initial worries of the tutorial were over. The game contains an uneven tone, still, and Kovacs – our Russian tutorial narrator, and island resident – makes for a peculiarly jolly gloss on a game which is otherwise fairly moody. The marketing has made a big deal out of the game having “a sense of humour”, but I am just not sure it works. Nor does it really matter, because the game offers enough in terms of monster-thwacking and person-management survival challenge to keep you interested.
While I am in the gripe stage of my write up, I should mention that the visuals too are odd, in that they seem both aged and yet highly appropriate. The game would not have looked much different in 2007, I am sure, but the lighting and so on mean that it doesn't antagonise the aesthetic judge in me too much. I mean, it's not exactly pretty, but it does work, and the shift between night and day, and the reliance of dynamic light sources, makes for some atmosphere.
What also works, and works well, is local co-op. And I can't remember the last time I played locally on a PC, with me on keyboard and chum on gamepad. Here it works wonderfully, with the pad support being well developed, thanks to the cross-format nature of this release. I almost want to recommend the game just for this, although there are clearly a few better such titles if you want pure co-op (Lego, etc.)
In zonclusion, then, I think it's clear that the horde of gamers who would put zombies into their brains are probably still waiting for Dead State. How To Survive, however, is nothing to be sniffed at, and if you are hungry for both a survival game and an ARPG, then this is a rare banquet from the hotpot of both genres. It has some problems, but damn, from what I have played so far it seems to fill a hole.
How To Survive is released on the 23rd of October. That's tomorrow!