Yeah, this is way late. I only got my hands on the game in mid-April, and I was distracted by much better things for a while. Then I beat it probably a week or two ago, and started playing Far Cry 3 instead of reviewing it. My bad. Then again, with the absolutely terrible reviews this game has gotten, I’m sure most people have heard to avoid this game. I figure I might reach someone who will find the game drastically reduced in price and wonder if it might just be worth it.
The bottom line is this: This game is not very good, but it’s not quite as bad as you’ve heard. The fact that you’ve heard so much bad about it can stem from the fact that a lot of people regard the other Walking Dead game so highly.
Survival Instinct tells the tale of Darryl Dixon. Actually, scratch that. It doesn’t really tell a tale at all. There’s a bit at the beginning of how Darryl first comes across zombies while on a hunting trip with his father, and then a small bit about him looking for Merle. Beyond that, the game is basically just Darryl driving from random location to random location, stopping to murder zombies and help folks that can help him. The characters you meet have one or two interesting things to say, but then disappear from the story altogether, despite many of them joining your group. Merle shows up, does a few stupid things, and then disappears until the ending, with no hint as to where he went. There’s also no real end to this game. It just kind of stops. I heard this story was supposed to cover up until the brothers joined the Atlanta group from the show, but it doesn’t go quite that far. I can’t really call the story bad either. What few moments exist are kind of interesting. There’s an old blind lady who’s resigned herself to her fate, and elderly man holding off the inevitable death of his wife, one man who’s locked himself in a jail cell without the key, and others. It just doesn’t go anywhere.
Visually, the game is beyond dated. The zombies look pathetic, with hair that wouldn’t have passed as acceptable even ten years ago. They look like cheap dolls. The humans fare better, and look all right in cut scenes. However, the overall game is just cheap looking. It’s not a stylized look or anything. The textures are poor, assets are reused in obvious ways, and there’s not much variety to boot. It’s also interesting how many of the levels are outdoors, yet constrict the player to tight corridors. There are also numerous visual hiccups, from silly looking sweat that drips from the screen, to clipping issues, framerate drops, etc.
The audio fares much better, thanks to authentic appearances from Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker. It isn’t their best work, but it is still true to the characters and does well enough. Most of the remaining cast is acceptable as well, apart from a section or two where NPCs say lines over and over until you perform the correct action. Musically, the game is extremely light. Most of the game is quiet, leaving you to sneak around in peace. However, when shit hits the fan, music from the show pops in to help ratchet up the tension. The show’s theme is also prominently featured at the main menu. Sound effects in the game are acceptable. The guns have impact, and sticking a knife in a walker’s head produces a sickening crunch that will make you queasy until you get used to it.
One of the biggest misconceptions you can make about this game is that it is a shooter. While you may get guns, and can rely on them in times of need, playing this game like CoD is a recipe for disaster. This game is actually a survival horror game. You have to manage your resources while moving through levels, and the goal is usually to avoid combat whenever possible. This is not a rip off of Left 4 Dead, which is what many people probably assumed when they heard of it.
Let’s start with what the game does right. Zombies are stupid, easily fooled, and easy to take down. They aren’t great about following you around corners, you can run around them for an instant kill, casually kill them from the other side of a fence, knock them back to line up a shot, etc. However, they become extremely dangerous in numbers. Two walkers are much harder to deal with than one. You may knock one back, but his buddy is right there to take a swing at you. If you’ve got a group on your hands, chances are you’re in deep trouble. I can’t believe people complained about the zombie AI. They’re right in line with the zombies you see in the show.
Resources are limited, and so is your inventory. While you don’t have a strict limit to the number of weapons your can carry, you’ll need inventory space for fuel, ammo, restorative items, and things like bottles and flares that can be used tactically. Each item takes up a slot, so you’re going to run out. Ammo is pretty rare to find as well, so it’s best to conserve whenever possible. Take you time, line up shots, and make each bullet count. That’s another thing the game does well. The crossbow, which you get about two thirds of the way through the game, is a fun weapon as well. It’s a silent ranged weapon, and you can reclaim bolts from zombies. Heck, if you miss the head, you can even pull the bolt out of the still moving walker and shoot them again!
Stealth is key. While you could probably fight that group of walkers up ahead, doing so will likely cost you ammo and health recovery items. Why do that when you throw a glass bottle to distract them while you sneak away unmolested? Guns are great, but they’re also loud, and will draw nearby undead right to you. Melee kills are better, at least if you can keep the numbers on your side. These aspects of the game are what make them different from the usual shooter. It’s generally easier to avoid shooting at all costs.
When you’ve beaten a level, you’re taken to a road map and usually given one or two choices of where to go next. The choices allow for some replay value, but don’t affect the plot in any way. Once you’ve chosen a destination, you have to choose what path to take. Back roads consume more fuel, but you’ll have a better chance of finding a place to scavenge goods. Highways are faster and more efficient, but you’ll have a greater chance to break down. It doesn’t help that the cars you drive are all hunks of junk. Some stops can be skipped. You don’t have to search for supplies in every town you come across. However, other times you’ll be forced to search for a car part or find some gas. These can’t be skipped, but are short affairs that don’t take up too much time.
You’ll be able to create a party, and this party will be able to go out and search for supplies while you run missions. You can heal them, equip them with weapons, and send them out to search for specific things. Each venture has a risk percentage, with them taking more damage the higher the number. You can lower that number by sending multiple people, properly equipping them, and choosing cautious teammates rather than reckless ones. However, you can’t send these guys out except for story missions, and who you choose to accompany you has zero impact on anything story-related. Your car can only fit so many people, so you’ll have to dismiss some. This should be an important decision, but there’s no acknowledgment from the game at all. If they die, you just get informed of it afterward. There’s no death scene, no tearful remembrance. Nothing. The mechanic just isn’t fleshed out enough.
Okay, I’ve been kind to this game so far, and now it’s time to start listing all of the problems. For starters, the controls are sluggish and choppy. You can sprint for about five seconds before Darryl becomes winded. Even I can do better than that. Melee combat is silly. Zombies casually try to slap you instead of grabbing or or biting. Darryl slashes with a knife, as if a zombie will stop attacking if you slash its face. There’s silly mechanic where a zombie grabs you can you have to move the right stick to the right spot so you can stab the in the head. When a group surrounds you, the next zombie will warp into place to replace a zombie you’ve killed, while the others wait their turn. The mechanic is so unbalanced that you can kill something like a dozen zombies while barely taking a scratch. The level design is boring, and there’s only so many times you can duck into a stripped grocery store or hide behind an abandoned vehicle. Most of the objectives involve running from point A to point B, grabbing an item, and bringing it back.
Honestly though, the game is not that bad at times. It plays well enough, and has some interesting ideas to be worthwhile to a fan of the source material. Where it ends up failing is in its execution. Every mechanic, strategy, and enemy type is introduced right at the beginning. You’ve only got regular zombies to worry about, and new weapons you find are just slightly upgraded versions of older ones. The only time something new shows up is when you get the crossbow. Trust me, it was a breath of fresh air. The game never mixes things up, and sticks to the same basic formula throughout the whole game. You show up, sneak around, grab supplies, kill a few zombies, head out, maybe stop along the way to the next location, and repeat. It reminds of everything that was wrong with the original Assassin’s Creed. There are some interesting ideas, but the game itself is just boring to play. Like AC, I highly recommend you avoid long play sessions.
In the end, Survival Instinct is not a bad game. It’s just boring. The story is bland, the production values are sub par on every level, and gameplay is a mindless rehash of the game’s few admittedly decent ideas. This game could have been very good. There’s aren’t a lot of games out there that do anything with zombies beyond making them shooting targets. This game does a good job of showing how to survive in a zombie infested environment. With more polish, and more creativity, this could have been fantastic. The only reason it’s gotten so much bad press is that people really loved the game that Telltale put out. I think they’re silly, but that’s a different conversation. When this shows up in the bargain bin, you might just want to consider picking it up.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a story about wasted potential. It’s an interesting survival horror game that portrays zombies exactly how they should be; easily beaten one on one, but deadly in a group. It focuses on stealth and planning more than mindless shooting, and for that it should be commended. However, the story is barely there, the graphics are vastly outdated, and the structure of the game is incredibly repetitive. It runs of of steam quite quickly. When this game is down to ten bucks, I’m sure it will start to earn a following. Until it goes down, however, it remains an overpriced disappointment.