The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct never manages to evoke the instinctual need to survive, despite how hard it tries. Yes, there are moments when the undead horde will take you by surprise, but these are easily navigated with a sharp sprint and a swipe of your blade. Likewise, the only resources that you need to manage are health and fuel, neither of which are in particularly short supply.
What Survival Instinct does evoke are memories of cheap videogame adaptations of popular media franchises, games like Superman 64 and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Cosmetically, it looks and sounds like its Television counterpart, with the stirring strings of Bear McCreary’s show theme and the recognisable figures of the redneck Dixon brothers front and centre, but it fails to recreate the core appeal of its franchise in interactive form. And unfortunately for Survival Instinct the franchise in question has already spawned a critically acclaimed and commercially successful videogame adaptation, which inevitably draws unfavourable comparisons.
Telltale Games’ 2012 point and click adventure, The Walking Dead, challenged players with difficult moral quandaries that affected the lives of a well-drawn group of characters against the backdrop of an awful situation. It was affecting because it was relatable, difficult because it made you care; that’s why it won so many Game of the Year awards. By comparison, Terminal Reality’s The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a mechanically flawed stealth-action title in which your protagonist shouts “BAAAYM” after stabbing zombies in the head. There’s nothing relatable or difficult about it.
That protagonist is Daryl Dixon, out on a journey to find supplies, re-unite with his detestable brother, Merle, and reach a military evacuation point. Doing so involves stealthing, shooting and stabbing your way across southern America, with an illusionary modicum of strategic travel planning thrown in for good measure.
Progress in Survival Instinct is broken up into a series of story-progressing levels, travelled between via a map screen. There’s only ever one direction to travel in, but you’re often given a choice between two or three towns to stop at on the way, as well as three methods of getting there – highways, streets or back roads.
Choosing a town is a strategically redundant decision from the outset, but the option of road type initially appears to make a difference. Highway travel consumes less of your fuel reserves, but increases your chances of coming up against a roadblock. Back road travel consumes much more fuel, but reduces the likelihood that your path will be blocked. Streets represent the middle-ground in both of these factors.
Whilst it might sound like there’s a level of strategy involved in choosing your path, there really isn’t. Regardless of your choice, you’re going to be stopping off between story-progressing levels. All that changes is your objective within the level and (only occasionally) the scenery of levels themselves, both of which make nary a difference to gameplay.
Whether collecting gasoline canisters, finding a new car battery or unblocking a path, play is much the same. You run into an area, sneak past/stab/shoot some zombies, press a button on the object that you were looking for and then get back to the car. And whether you’re on a highway or a back road is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. They’re both semi-linear playgrounds littered with undead, and these inter-story pit stop sections are copied and pasted throughout the game without any variation. They’re a lazy, deceptive way of extending Survival Instinct’s five hour length.
Along Daryl’s journey you’ll have the option to pick up fellow survivors. These submissive souls can be sent out (unseen) at the start of the next mission to collect supplies in a system reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s recruit training. But where that system had a genuine sense of investment, here survivor management is another interesting idea that ultimately reveals itself as pointless. You can arm a survivor with one of your weapons to increase their chances of returning alive, but there’s really no point. If they don’t die you can’t take on new survivors because of limited car space. And the supplies they return with are most often insignificant in comparison to what you’ll find. There’s no real impetus to maintain a healthy group of survivors because they are little more than an inconsequential menu choice, hardly providing any gameplay benefit, never mind the kind of emotional connection that the cast of Telltale’s Walking Dead fostered.
Survival Instinct repeatedly presents you with the illusion of choice, not truly meaningful decisions. Similarly the threat posed by the zombies is almost as transparently none existent. Sound and sight are your main giveaways, making most scenarios an exercise in moving silently and staying hidden. This isn’t particularly difficult given that crouched movement is entirely soundless and that these zombies have the peripheral vision of a cataract inflicted Cyclops. There’s not a walking corpse that can’t be outrun, which makes sprinting though levels a viable tactic in many situations, although Daryl does have limited stamina.
In the rare circumstance that you are caught unaware by a biter, the game’s single panic-inducing mechanic begins in the form of a zombie-stabbing mini game, in which you must aim a swaying cursor atop the skulls of the politely queuing undead, boring a hole into each in turn. It’s a race against time as your health slowly drains, and it proves to be Survival Instinct’s singular well-developed idea, responsible for the games’ few fraught, life-threatening encounters.
Outside of this mini-game Terminal Reality’s shambling horde of flesh eaters are too dumb to instill any sense of fear. Intellectual cunning may not be the point of a zombie horde – it’s their mindless desire for your brains and overwhelming numbers that present the danger – but even Survival Instinct’s floaty gunplay can’t rack up a sense of tension when your opponent is programmed with such terrible AI. One scripted sequence in which you’re trapped inside a confined space with a horde of shufflers can be broken simply by putting a knee-high wall between yourself and them, as they can’t navigate such an obstacle.
Tension destroying technical mishaps appear elsewhere in Survival instinct, as invisible walls, game-breaking glitches and other bugs present perhaps the biggest horrors to be found here. It’s fitting that a zombie apocalypse would be a dirty, dilapidated, rusty affair, but Survival Instinct is all of these adjectives based on its technical merits as well as its artistic ones.
This is matched by an equally dire visual presentation. Even on the highest available visual settings, it looks like a cheaply made game – blocky, blurry and lacking in the charm that Telltale’s comic book-style exudes, despite that games’ own technical shortcomings. It’s woefully repetitious – there are about eight zombie skins that make up an entire games’ worth of undead, and environments are reused so often you’d be forgiven for thinking Daryl was driving in a circle. And a screen smearing watery sweat effect, induced if you sprint for more than ten seconds, is particularly ugly and overused.
Where Telltale’s adaptation captured the essence of what makes The Walking Dead an interesting property, regardless of the medium, Survival Instinct feels like a cynical franchise cash-in, made for the sole purpose of milking money from a currently popular cash cow. Any initial promise here is presentational smoke and mirrors, concealing the flawed experience beneath.
If fleshed out, Survival Instinct’s interesting and ambitious mixture of layered systems – travel planning, resource management and tense combat situations – could have supported a thrilling survival game. As they are – occasionally broken, mostly functional and all unpolished – they add up to nothing more than a weak action adventure, lacking in tension and far too ambitious for its meagre production values. After the excellence of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, it’s clear that Survival Instinct is the weaker of this species.