The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct – Review
When Activision announced that they were making a game based on AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, everyone was asking the same question: why? After Telltale’s fantastic adaptation of the comic book anything else was just going to pale in comparison, and as more screenshots and zero gameplay videos began to show up, expectations dropped lower and lower. The developers, Terminal Reality – perhaps best known for their wonderful Ghostbusters game a few years back – assured people that this was not just another first-person shooter. However, the real question isn’t what it is, but is it any good?
Survival Instinct is a prequel to the TV series, following Darryl Dixon’s journey through Georgia to find his brother and get out of there, or at least, I think that’s their objective. The story takes a real backseat in this title, which is surprising given it had two writers and eight members on the “story team”, and mostly just sees you travelling south because other people have told you to. There are no twists or turns, and barely any emotional moments that the series is well known for. The only emotional scene occurs within the first five minutes, and after that it’s entirely possible to ignore every other character and their story, none of whom are interesting anyway. It’s a real waste of a license – loved for its human drama rather than its zombie killing – to forgo any real narrative and just focus on the gameplay.
Gameplay, which, like the narrative, is hugely disappointing. The gameplay is split up into two sections: choosing where to go on the map, and then wandering around each location. There’s no driving to do, which is slightly disappointing, but the map screen is possibly the most interesting aspect of this title. You have to choose a location to travel to (you’re usually only given one option, but a split path is thrown your way every now and then to keep things interesting), and then how you’re going to travel there. How you travel determines the likelihood of breaking down, how much fuel is consumed and the chance of stumbling across somewhere new to search for supplies. Going down back-roads takes up more fuel, but gives you more chance of finding a location and less chance of a breakdown, while going along the highway lessens your fuel cost hugely, but increases the chance of breaking down and means you’re unlikely to find a new location.
In theory, at least. As it happens, I found myself using the highway more often than not, so I didn’t have to piss about stocking up on fuel for every journey. Yet, despite the apparent risks/lack of rewards this entailed, I still found myself exploring the random locations on almost every trip, while only ever breaking down twice in the entire game. Breakdowns are easy to deal with anyway, as all you need do is follow your compass to an object, pick it up, and run back to your car. The travel choices are an interesting idea, but they could’ve been implemented better, and actually made a serious difference to your travels.
When you get to where you’re headed – or you’ve pulled up at a random location – then you can manage your inventory and give any survivors you’ve picked up tasks to do while you’re gone. The survivors can go scouting for food, fuel or ammo, or you can just leave them at the car if their chances of survival are low, but they’ll never join you in your mission; this is purely a one-man show. After you’ve sorted them out and chosen your tools for the job, it’s time to set out and scout the area.
If you’ve ever played a first-person shooter, Survival Instinct will be instantly familiar to you control-wise; the only big difference is the use of the inventory, which restricts how much you can carry, and only allows you to use one item at a time. So, for example, you can find a grenade, but you have to choose it as a weapon before you can use it instead of just tapping a shoulder button. This system makes sense, since the game is supposed to be a survival-horror in its own way, but it becomes a nuisance when healing. You pick up soft drinks and rations to bring your health back up (and there’s no health regeneration, so you’d better be well stocked), but to heal you have to select the item, which puts your weapon away and leaves you wide open to attack. It’s only a minor complaint, but if you ever end up surrounded by enemies, you’re instantly screwed, since in the time it takes for you to swap to your healing items, you’re likely to have been torn to shreds by the horde. Unless one of them grabs you.
For some reason, Terminal Reality saw fit to create a system where one zombie grabs you while the rest of the horde stands back, patiently waiting for you to stab the grabber in its brain before the next zombie takes a swing at you. The actual stabbing consists of a little quick-time event where you move your targeting reticule into a circle and pull the trigger, instantly killing the zombie. You then move on to the next, and so on and so forth until the crowd is dead. There is no chance to move away, since the next zombie teleports up to you and grabs you, and the chain doesn’t end until they’re all dead (unless you’re incredibly lucky). As you might have guessed, this is an incredibly stupid system. For one thing, you lose health while in the grapple, so if there’s a big enough crowd you’re likely to die anyway. Secondly, in some areas, zombies are constantly spawning, so it is possible to never escape the chain (though, like I said, you’ll probably die before too long), and the QTE is not fun in the slightest. It may be the most effective method of combat for the large part, but my God is it a dull way to do it.
What about when you’re not being grabbed? There are at least a variety of weapons to take down the undead with – both melee and ranged – although you’ll likely only ever use guns if things are looking seriously dire. Firearms are loud and attract the horde with just one shot, so if you’re going to use it, you’d best be prepared to get swarmed in a matter of seconds. You can use Daryl’s signature crossbow, but, rather irritatingly, you only get your hands on it for the last third of the game, at which point you’ll have been using melee weapons for so long that switching to a ranged weapon feels weird, not to mention the lengthy reload time that leaves you vulnerable in a crowd.
It is possible to charge up your attacks to release a power attack, but there doesn’t seem to be much point. Your basic slash stuns a zombie, giving you ample time to hit them again, so unless you’re in a swarm you can get through most fights without taking a scratch. And if you are in a swarm, why would you use a power attack? They leave you more open and only do as much damage as two standard hits (with the machete, at least), so the amount of time spent versus the amount saved is the same. You can sever the limbs of the undead, but again, why bother? Cutting off legs makes them harder to kill since they’ll crawl on the ground to get you, and I was somehow grabbed by a zombie after removing both its arms. The head really is the place to be, but then you spend all your time tediously hammering away at the skull in one-on-one fights, and you slowly stop having fun.
You could try sneaking around everywhere using the insta-kill sneak attack, but the zombies are likely to catch sight of you doing this and attack, so it only works for the first couple you stumble across in a given area. That said, you can shove them with a quick tap of the shoulder button, and as they stumble, run around behind them and one hit kill them with the execute button. That is a legitimate tactic. Zombies are slow and stupid, so circle strafing is quite honestly one of the best ways to fight a small group, provided one of them hasn’t grabbed you yet. Or, if you really want to save time, don’t bother attacking them. You only need to kill any zombies that grab you, so if you’re sick of fighting, you can just run past the enemies and half the time they won’t even notice.
Bringing me neatly to one of the weakest points: the zombies. Even for the undead, the AI is stupid; the back of the box proudly claims that the zombies can see and smell you, yet neglects to mention that they don’t notice you stood behind them shining a torch at the back of their heads if they’re eating a corpse, or even just staring off into the distance. You’re told to crouch all the time to sneak by, but unless they actually see you, you can just walk by at normal pace and not come under any serious threat. Most annoyingly of all, zombies spawn constantly and randomly. You can clear an area out, walk away, go back thirty seconds later and there’ll be a whole new bunch there. Sometimes they spawn behind you, in places where they physically could not reach because of closed doors or walls. The zombies can smash doors down, but I’ve experienced them simply teleport through the door and attack me. It’s just ridiculous.
Yet, after all this sneaking around, trying to quietly take out zombies, conserving ammo (despite the fact it’s in abundance and you’ll rarely fire a gun) and using melee weapons all the time, for the final chapter you’re given an assault rifle, 150 bullets and sent on your way. The assault rifle is perfectly accurate when using iron sights, and is a one-hit kill if you hit a zombie in the head. After all the times you’ve worried about getting destroyed by hordes of the undead, you’re just given a gun and told not to worry anymore. It’s totally jarring and completely goes against the feel of the rest of the title. Hell, the final scenario takes place on the heavy machine gun turret of a Humvee. Why? What was the point in all the sneaking if you’re just going to throw it out the window in the closing ten minutes?
At least Survival Instinct is passable graphically; the environments are well put together and do a good job of making it look like an apocalypse has just rolled through. The zombies are well-detailed, although there are about seven different models used throughout the entire thing, and I noticed that you see a maximum of about four of those models used in each area, so get used to killing the same four guys over and over again. The blood is probably the best part; zombie heads explode in a satisfying manner when blown open with a shotgun, and you can smack their bodies about for a bit after they’re dead to splatter more blood around. Beyond that though, the graphics are nothing to write home about. This doesn’t push any boundaries, but it’s not ugly either.
Sound wise, you’re treated to Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker taking on their roles as Darryl and Merle Dixon respectively, and they do a good job of bringing their characters to life, as do the rest of the cast. The problem is the limp script, which ranges from lame back-stories to weirdly sexual grunts from Darryl (stabbing a zombie in the head as he moans “that’s the spot” was a unique experience to say the least), so it’s frankly surprising that the cast didn’t phone it in. The sound-effects are all present and correct, and the only downside is the soundtrack, which just acts as a warning that you’ve been spotted since it gets louder when you’re in danger. I wasn’t expecting Mozart, but it would’ve been nice to have more than just a standard orchestral score backing up the proceedings. Overall though, the audio is good across the board, and is probably the most consistently strong element of Survival Instinct.
However, consistency needn’t have been an issue due to the game’s length. Walking Dead: Survival Instinct takes about four hours to complete, and at least an hour of that will be spent on the map and loading screens. There are collectibles in the form of squirrel statues – for some reason – and posters, but there’s no reward for collecting them beyond the typical achievements that are linked with them. You can play through the story again to see what the other levels are like, since you can only follow one path in each playthrough, but at the end of the day, all the roads lead to the same destination. There are no choices of any kind, no alternate storylines to find, just different levels to tackle. Unless you’re into achievements, there really is no point going back and playing through again.
Overall, Survival Instinct is just plain boring. The gameplay has been done before, the combat is dull, the AI is stupid, the story is weak and it’s almost disappointingly short. Meanwhile, the graphics and sound are good, but they’re not spectacular. It’s basically the definition of mediocre. At least it works; I never encountered any bugs, and the teleporting zombies during a grab attack aren’t exactly enough to completely write off the game. It’s just another TV tie-in game, just as we all suspected, and that’s a real shame. There are a couple of good ideas here, but The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct just falls flat.Pros
- Travel options are an interesting idea
- Voiceover cast are consistently good
- Limp story and script
- Combat is dull
- Terrible AI
- Ridiculously short
If you were trying to be nice about it, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct did at least live up to its expectations; everyone suspected from the beginning that it would be a mediocre first-person shooter, and if that’s what you’re looking for then look no further. But, with the lame story, painfully dull combat system and abject lack of actual content, it’s hard to recommend anyone play this. It does save itself with a good voice cast, a couple of interesting ideas, and the fact that it isn’t a buggy mess, but that’s not really the greatest reason to play it. A decidedly mediocre effort that will soon be forgotten, it’s maybe worth a rental if you’re still interested.
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