The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct isn’t just a bad Walking Dead game, it’s a bad zombie game
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
- Wii U
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct never stood a chance. Fans were skeptical from the beginning: A first-person shooter set in the Walking Dead universe, published by the same company that pushes out annual Call of Duty releases? From the developer that made Han Solo dance? There was little reason for hope.
We all saw the trailer. You know the one, full of screen-tearing, blurry textures, and plastic doll-haired zombies. Then, we learned that trailer was a fake, composed of early game footage intended to be a background for an IGN story. Then, we were given a real trailer, which consisted entirely of actors Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker – who play Daryl and Merle in AMC's show, respectively – talking unenthusiastically for ten seconds about the game.
“Check out Activision's new game, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct,” Reedus says after glancing off-frame, squinting into the camera like it's going to produce the coffee he desperately needs. “Merle and Daryl. In a game. What can be better than that?” Rooker asks, his monotone voice betraying the fact he knows the answer: anything but this awful, awful game.
I've spent the past day or so playing the game, and can speak to the final product. It looks dreadful, for starters. It's true that things have improved since the fake trailer spread across the Internet, but it hasn't done so by leaps and bounds; more like a limp, undead shuffle. Textures are crisper, and a visual filter helps make everything feel unified, and I didn't experience any screen-tearing or framerate dips in my time with a copy of the game for Xbox 360.
This doesn't mean everything is as it should be, though. Lighting is a very static, unnatural thing in Survival Instinct; if a house's door is facing the sun on one side and all the lights are out inside, it'll look as though it were fully lit on both sides. I crouched down near a semi truck to avoid walkers at one point, and turned to see a skirt of rendered shadow. The truck wasn't actually casting a shadow, it was being disguised to look as though it were.
Music and level design are unremarkable and bland. Bear McCreary crafted an awesome, memorable theme for the AMC show; it's used once. Beyond that, the game is content to throw some sharp and sudden noise bursts your way when a group of walkers ambushes you or takes you by surprise. Zombies moan, gurgle and hiss as they wander around the small levels the game tosses you into, each one less distinct than the last.
The one positive is that all the human characters animate nicely, with a good amount of expressiveness in their faces. Still, the voices don't mesh well. Norman Reedus is a great actor, but it's clear this couldn't have been more than a day's worth of work. Daryl recording lines in a booth is not the same Daryl walking around the post-zombie apocalypse South on TV. Rooker's committal to the Merle character is even worse, probably because he has less than ten minutes of combined screen time.
Falling flat on both faces
Survival Instinct fails to recognize The Walking Dead is a universe where human drama and charismatic individuals who create personal, involving stories take center stage, which would be forgivable if the game play itself was any good. It's not.
You'll spend the game working your way through small maps that feel bland and non-distinct, until you find a survivor or reach a party member, who will then tell you to go find another person, retrieve supplies, or… no, that's pretty much it. There are zombies in your way, and it's up to you to figure out how to get around them.
You could throw a flare or a glass bottle to get their attention, but you won't, because the AI in Survival Instinct is so unpredictable that any semblance of a stealth system or structured progression through a level becomes impossible. Sometimes a zombie will let you stand at its back for minutes, so long as it's chewing on a meal. Other times, it'll spot you from 20 yards away, in the dark, while you're crouching, or a herd will rush you for no discernible reason.
It can be satisfying to execute zombies – the knife twist and crunching sound effects really do sell the impact – but here's the weird part: it's actually a good thing to get caught in a swarm of undead. When zombies get close enough, they'll often try to grapple you, initiating a small mini-game where you have to place a moving reticle over the zombie's face and pull the right trigger to knife it. This takes some time, but don't worry: these zombies are really quite polite and wouldn't dare munch on another zombie's food, because presumably, “Hhhhuuhggh” in zombie roughly translates to “dibs.”
So you'll get caught in a herd of undead, and one will grapple you, you'll stab it, and then turn to face the next zombie in line for the Daryl buffet. Stab, turn, grapple. Stab, turn, grapple. Stab, turn, grapple. It's boring, tedious, and just doesn't make any sense. Why, in a Walking Dead game, is it a valid strategy to just cannonball into a group of zombies?
Once you're finished with each of the story's levels, you'll head out onto the road. You won't drive, but watch as a red dotted line travels along the road to the next destination. Your car has a different chance of finding supplies and breaking down, as well as variable fuel consumption, depending on the path you choose: highway means the least gas, but highest chance of breaking down and least likely chance to scavenge for supplies. It doesn't really matter what you choose though, because the objectives for these even smaller maps are practically the same, and the levels repeat themselves ad nauseum. Here's how one road trip panned out for me:
First, we ran out of gas. We pulled over at a diner, and I ran around, avoiding walkers, collecting fuel cans. Then, the car broke down. We pulled over to the same diner, and I ran around, avoiding walkers, until I could collect an engine hose. Then, we had a chance to scavenge for supplies. I was given the choice to keep driving or pull over. I pulled over to the same diner.
You may have also noticed I said “we” above. That's because, as you progress, you can rescue other survivors. Before each mission, you can equip and send these survivors out to scavenge. I always chose to send them out for food, and by food I mean sports drinks, because sports drinks are nature's miracle cure for zombie wounds in this universe.
Don't get too attached to your survivors – not that the game gives them any kind of personality in the first place – because your car has only three seats, damn it, and there is just no way Billy is gonna squeeze in here with us. So yes, if you pick up a survivor and you're already full, you'll have to choose who gets left behind. There's no ceremony, no heart-wrenching decision, just a dismiss button. I imagine Daryl being all, “see you later, good luck and all that, lol” and then the group is gone, leaving the wounded grandmother to fend for herself, because I really needed those rations.
Undeath before this
This would be more forgivable in a $15 downloadable title, but as a $50 game you can find in your local GameStop, Best Buy, Walmart and other retailers, it's indefensible. I rented the game for two nights, which cost me $5, and I still barely feel as though I got my money's worth.