STAFF REVIEW of How to Survive: Storm Warning Edition (Xbox One)

Friday, November 7, 2014.
by Khari Taylor

How to Survive: Storm Warning Edition Box art How to Survive: Storm Warning Edition may be the first game in some time that I strongly recommend players start off in Easy Mode, unless you want to end up hating it intensely early on. This is not to say that the game is impossibly difficult, but without a doubt the game is intensely is brutal to players who have just begun to learn the its systems, and understanding them is key to surviving in the game beyond the first hour, not to mention uncovering the kernel of fun that’s hidden beneath its unwelcoming exterior. Consider yourself warned.

How to Survive: Storm Warning Edition is essentially a “Game of the Year” edition of last year’s Xbox 360 version of the game, containing all of its predecessor’s DLC as well as adding a new character Nina to its original roster of Kenji, Abby, and Jack. If you haven’t played the original, How to Survive can best be described as an interesting mish-mash of a trio of games, blending the top-down action, looting and fully-rendered equipment of Diablo 3 (though far more restrained given the setting and plot), as well as the crafting, day-night cycles and sleep/eat/drink concerns that players encounter (respectively) in Minecraft and Don’t Starve. The fresh new hook in this game however is that players aren’t completely dropped into the world with almost no clue as to what to do. Kovac, an NPC inhabitant of the game’s zombie infested islands and self-proclaimed survival expert has written a humorously-dark survival guide called “Kovac’s Rules” to help newcomers figure out how to stay alive, and has conspicuously left pages of his book sprinkled about for others to find.

As a shipwreck survivor that finds him/herself stranded on the doomed archipelago, players must forage for food, water and materials, craft weapons and effectively manage limited resources as they work towards finding a way off the islands and back to civilization. But the odds are greatly stacked against them. Brain-thirsty zombies roam the island at all hours of the day, far worse threats join their ranks at night, and even mother nature appears to be on their side, occasionally battering the player with torrential downpours, obscuring their vision with heavy night fog and even electrocuting the player with sadistic lighting strikes (until players can devise a way to redirect the valuable energy). Manual save points, temporary shelter and a place to sleep can only be found in Kovac’s reinforced bunkers that are also scattered across the islands, and while they are seemingly impenetrable, they must first be cleared of zombie hordes before they can be used. Sound like fun yet? Don’t worry, I’m not done.

As mentioned earlier, players must not only manage resources but also their hunger, thirst and need for sleep. When starving, players won’t have the proper strength to fight zombies, meaning that their attack strength will decrease and their melee attacks with weapons will become all but ineffective. If thirsty, the player’s vision as well as the ability to accurately aim a bow, gun or projectile will deteriorate. And when the player does not get enough sleep, his or her character’s stamina will begin to drain more quickly (limiting how often and how long they can sprint to escape attacks) and their health will gradually chip away to nothing, even if the character is standing still. Naturally, when the player runs out of health, their character will die and respawn at the last checkpoint, but with all adverse conditions of that last save retained, so if a player was sleep deprived and starving at the time that they reached the checkpoint, they will still be starving and sleep deprived when they respawn (in Normal Mode).

In this way, How to Survive is shockingly unforgiving as a game, as there is no option to reload an earlier save. This basically means players who end up respawning in a crappy situation (e.g. tired and starving in the middle of a lighting storm while besieged by night zombies – yes, this actually happened to me in Normal Mode) will quickly need to figure out a way to get out of that situation working with whatever resources or opportunities they have by trial and error, or START THE ENTIRE GAME OVER (which I ended up doing, prompting my switch to Easy Mode).

Players will quickly learn that the only way to avoid disasters like the above in How to Survive is by ensuring that they’re never without a solution to a potential problem, which means an intense focus on exploration, resource gathering, crafting and managing their physical condition whenever they’re not in combat, as well as studying the pages of Kovac’s Rules that they find scattered across the islands. Several of Kovac’s writings treat players to entertaining, cartoon cinematics that also explain the rules of the game and share valuable survival tips, but even more of the pages contain invaluable recipes and instructions.

Recipes can be used to make concoctions that temporarily enhance player abilities, heal and stave off adverse conditions (e.g. an energy drink that allows players to stay awake and alert longer without having to sleep), and instructions show players on how to construct better weapons, armor and tools. But even Kovac does not have all the answers; some discoveries can only be found by investigating, so it’s in the best interest of players not to rush to complete mission objectives but instead begin exploring, gathering and experimenting right away with the resources that they come across. By attempting to “combine” these items, players will quickly begin to understand the logic of crafting and will already have a number of tricks up their sleeve once the first day or so on the island has passed and the Eat, Drink and Sleep factors begin to take effect.

While this hint may be a slight spoiler for some, it will greatly enhance the enjoyment of the game and make the difficulty more bearable. In addition, for players who are observant, suffering often leads to enlightenment. For example, with a rainstorm often comes lighting and thus immediate danger and torment for players who are caught outside of the safety of a bunker, but should they survive, they’ll find every well they come across filled with fresh rain water, which they can then use to fill their stash of empty bottles and keep their thirst at bay while on the go, and much of the flora required for precious mixtures will have already grown back. It’s at this point when players will realize that the game isn't simply out just to frustrate them (at least, not entirely).

The game also features some light RPG elements, such as a character progression system that allows players to level up and unlock additional skills and latent abilities, such as the crafting of more durable and/or complex weapons, or slowing the degradation of the player’s hunger/thirst/sleep conditions, allowing them to go longer without eating, drinking or resting. As for the gameplay, fans of twin-stick, isometric action games like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light/Temple of Osiris as well as Diablo 3 fanatics will find How to Survive to be very much within their wheelhouse, with solid control mechanics and gruesomely satisfying impacts when zombies are dispatched with the player’s weapon of choice, be it a bow and arrow, a machete, a custom fast-made shotgun, a makeshift chainsaw or a host of other contraptions.

In the audiovisual department, How to Survive’s port to Xbox One is surprisingly solid. To be fair, as a port the game doesn’t really do more than it has to in terms of presentation; so don’t expect any fancy CG intros or cutscenes (the Kovac’s Rules lessons more than make up for that, though). It’s not hard to tell that the game was made on a budget; the sounds of wildlife on the island and the growls of many of the zombies sound canned, and the animal sounds in particular sound like intentionally-poor, tongue-in-cheek human imitations, but in a sense they add to the humour of the game, so they get a pass this time (except for the terribly-voiced talking monkeys).

Everything else though sounds spot on, from the distant thunder of an oncoming storm to the satisfying squish that exploding zombie parts make when they make contact with the grassy floor of a clearing. The animations, while not as action-packed or FX-laden as Diablo 3, are smooth and fun to watch, particularly the fluid zombie-execution moves (not since State of Decay has body-slamming a zombie looked more fun). It’s a pretty impressive looking and sounding game for just 20 bucks.

And then there’s the value. Just like the Xbox 360 original, the game can be played solo or with a friend, online or off, and in addition to the original Campaign Mode and Challenge Mode, new modes One-Shot Escape (a no respawn, perma-death escape mission mode) and Barricade (a horde mode) have been added, so there’s still hours and hours of potential replayability on offer even after you’ve finished the story. And good luck beating the campaign in Iron Man mode (hardest difficulty). With all the other options available on Xbox One this Fall, it might seem unrealistic for the average Xbox One owner to pull his or her attention away from the marquee heavy hitters long enough to discover or revisit a game such as this, but if you’re looking for something different with a bit more teeth, and more importantly, a deep experience you can enjoy locally with a friend on the same couch as well as online, you can’t really go wrong with How to Survive, especially for the price.

1) Better sound FX for the animals and better voice actors for the talking monkeys, PLEASE!

2) The ability to revert to an earlier save just in case your save file is corrupted or the respawn scenario is completely effed...asking the player to start the whole game over after investing several hours is a bit much.

Overall: 7.7 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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