Review: The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
By now, there probably aren’t too many people in America left who don’t know Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, at least by name, which seems to be eating its way from medium to medium without stopping. With the recent success of TellTale’s phenomenal The Walking Dead game, Activision and Terminal Reality (BloodRayne… and Star Wars Kinect) have gotten together to deliver The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, an FPS zombie shoot-em-up and survival game. There was every chance it could work; the story of The Walking Dead is compelling, the inclusion of series stars Norman Reedus and Mike Rooker is awesome, both reprising their roles as Daryl and Merle, and Terminal Reality has proven they can do excellent horror and action before.
One of the things TWDSI was supposed to do was tell the story of how Daryl and Merle Dixon got to the point we meet them at in the television series, official canon and everything. Apparently they forgot to mention that this journey sucked. Very little happens for much of TWDSI’s story, most of it centered on Daryl’s desperate need to go south for… some reason? It’s never really clear what Daryl’s motivations are at any time, as he just sort of wanders around southern-looking locations in search of… something. Most of the time the only real reason you get out of your car is because you need something. Fuel is the thing that keeps the game’s ball rolling, and your journey will be abruptly interrupted upon your tank turning up empty. This mechanic could have been really fun, if driving was actually a gaming mechanic rather than a cleverly hidden loading screen, and if running out of fuel didn’t simply dump you out into an alley way full of… fuel.
Almost as if the developers knew their game was going to meet the bad end of the review stick, much of the game is skippable. While on the road, you are often given the option to get out of your car and check out a nearby town for supplies or survivors, but there’s almost no reason and practically zero reward for doing any of the game’s side-quests. The survivor mechanic was an interesting idea, working more-or less like gathering Assassins in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Revelations. As you acquire survivors, you have the option to send them out on their own to gather supplies for you. You can equip them with weapons they’re proficient with, and read through their skill-set to see what they would be best at- getting food, fuel or ammo. This would be really handy if the game didn’t simply pour these items into your lap just for walking through a single mission, or if the survivors were even good at surviving. Even when I had equipped them with weapons the game told me they were good with, and fully maxed out their health, they rarely returned.
At first, I felt that the game was doing a pretty good job of setting up a very Resident Evil–esque item management system- one in which going in guns blazing might not be the best of ideas. I stealthed it out with the knife most of the time, rarely using my precious ammunition, and picked most of the zombies off with the simple and easy execution attack. There’s a lot of videos on the net showing people slashing at zombies over and over again with the knife – and this is true, it takes between four and five incredibly slow knife strikes to down one of the unresponsive ghouls – but simply using a melee attack on them (which stuns them for some reason) and circling around behind them results in a quick (if messy) kill. Then I realized that I didn’t need the knife to actually be equipped to perform this task. So then I just kept my pistol or bow out (which you get about an hour before the game’s ending) , meleed, circled, executed. Then I realized that my precious ammo… was actually quite plentiful. I had well over 30 shots for pretty much all of my guns, and lots of health drinks (Gatorade) and food (which you are forced to pick up in the form of Military rations, despite the fact that the developers put cans of food literally all over the game, in great heaping stacks). I figured that I shouldn’t use my guns because it would cause a swarm to attack – the zombies are quite dangerous all in a bunch.
Finally, I decided to just try out using my guns. Turns out the unresponsive AI barley notices gunfire, and headshots can actually be chained (most of the weapons can fire through the zombies, and if they’re all in a row you’ll get a multi-headshot. And since their AI has them walking in a single-file pattern most of the time, this is incredibly easy to pull off), and I found myself happily mowing down the under-powered zombies almost effortlessly. The best part is that the game is so short, you’ll find better versions of your favorite guns in less than twenty minutes of discovering its your favorite gun. For a game hell-bent on “survival,” you end up wondering how Daryl moves being weighed down with what seems to be a full arsenal of shotguns, rifles and sledgehammers.
So, the “survival instinct” was pretty much out the window, what was there left to take note of for this review? A gaudy UI and HUD make the game feel like a low rate game of the Original Xbox era. It actually conjures up memories of the low-rated Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green. I have fond memories of the game, but checking up on review scores seems to be telling me that my fond memories are wrong, and that this game is a lot closer to it than I would have originally guessed. It’s honestly a little difficult to give much of a damn about reviewing the game when so little of a damn was given to make the game in the first place. It’s what my favorite reviewer Seanbaby (from EGM) calls a “no-second idea” game. Pretty much everything about the game feels like the very first knee-jerk idea that came to the development team’s head, and there wasn’t a single person there saying “what if we tweaked it, just a little bit?” It’s a shame, because there are a few good ideas here, but no one bothered to say no to the bad ones.
So I was left wanting for the story to be good. In all honesty, the story is the only thing about Telltale’s game that is actually remarkable, the gameplay and presentation aren’t much different than the other choose-your-own-adventure games that Telltale is known for, glitches and all. As much of an afterthought that Survival Instinct’s gameplay was, nothing touches the level of non-committal that went into the game’s script and story. Learn how Daryl excitingly escaped some zombies from a town in the south while talking to only a handful of people who are never seen in a cut scene ever again, only to find himself in a desperate situation where he is forced to escape from a town in the south while talking to only a handful of people who are never seen in a cut scene ever again! And again! And again! The forward momentum of this game is as compelling as a domino left in the box under your bed. Meet up with Daryl’s half-crazy brother Merle, who waltzes in… and back out of the game without making much of an impact! Shudder in horror as you go on disturbing side quests to go grab random things for people including killing boat loads of zombies to clear an area, batteries, and Satchmo, the dead-silent cat carrier. Seriously, cat sounds aren’t un-documented. So, overall the story is pretty much the single most forgettable thing about this symphony of mediocrity. And the side-quests I mentioned all but stop after the 2nd chapter. There’s one good one near the very end of the game where you have to find medicine for an old married couple, but for the most part a lot of the side-quests (that aren’t directly story related) end up boiling down to finding an NPC, and talking to them for a few seconds.
Overall, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is an example of exactly what not to do with a licensed product. I can admit I did have a little fun with it, however most of it was a result of rigging the game’s built-in survival mechanics to my own benefit. Not to mention it is pretty hard to make shooting things not-fun. It’s hardly the worst game I’ve ever played, and the handful of good ideas it has work enough so that if you’re able to find the game on the cheap, it has a good chance of entertaining you for it’s 4 hour long campaign. Although a rental or 10$ used purchase is all I can really recommend. Paying even the lower $50 price is a bit much (although I will admit I appreciate that they knew enough not to charge full price for it).
If Survival Instinct had been a Vita or download exclusive, it might have actually had a chance at making good marks, but as a full-console retail release, it falls so far from the mark that other, much better zombie shooters have established years ago, it was hardly worth the effort to make the game.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct had already decided it wouldn’t win anyway, so it never played to. In giving up so easily, the developers have doomed it to a level of mediocrity that it can share with all the other rushed cash in games at the bottom of the 5 and below discount bin.