Review by horror_spooky
AMC has struck gold with their television show adaptation of the popular Walking Dead comic book series, amassing huge numbers for a cable network while creating a nationwide zombie craze. It comes as no surprise that the game industry wants to take advantage of The Walking Dead's rampant popularity, especially after the success of Telltale's The Walking Dead adventure game series. Activision is behind this latest game set in The Walking Dead universe, and while it has quite a few good ideas, the execution is sloppy at best.
Not only that, but the best ideas Survival Instinct has were stolen from the much better ZombiU game that launched with Nintendo's eighth generation console. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct could've been a nice alternative to that piece of survival horror gold, but instead it is an obviously rushed licensed game that serves only to function as a quick cash-in. It's a shame, because with the surprising direction taken by the game and the overall feel of the title, I could tell the developers really tried to make this good, and if they were given more time, it could've been something very fun, especially for survival horror fans.
The game itself takes place before the events of the show, focusing on the Dixon brothers. The game can be considered a prequel of sorts to the TV show, but the events in this game have next to nothing to do with the TV show, besides one minor detail that I will not spoil. The game starts in a very clever way that I also won't spoil, but let's just say that it introduces the story in a way that only a video game could really pull off, which has to be appreciated.
Anyway, zombies start attacking everyone, as can be expected, and the player is thrust into the role as the popular Daryl Dixon as he drives through zombie-infested Georgia looking for his brother Merle. The tutorial mission that precedes this trip is actually the best mission in the game, as it seems to be the only level in which the stealth mechanics really work and it's before you'll discover that the survival elements in the game are ultimately pointless and without much weight or meaning.
The game is in the first-person perspective, but it'd be tough to call it a first-person shooter. The game is definitely survival horror, with ammunition being very scarce, and dying very easy. The tutorial mission suggests that the rest of the game will be a thrilling stealth experience, but all of the levels after the tutorial mission deteriorate into mindless action, which is in stark contrast to the game's actual mechanics, creating a lot of frustrating moments and forcing players to exploit the combat system.
Combat in the game boils down to getting behind a zombie and executing it, backing away from the next one, rinsing, and repeating. Daryl is able to shove zombies, which allows you to very easily get behind them and execute them. Constantly executing zombies gets old, but Daryl's trademark crossbow proves to be an effective and satisfying weapon against the undead. Silently killing zombies from afar with the crossbow, collecting the bolts, and then continuing through the streets, taking one zombie out at a time. The problem is the crossbow isn't introduced until very late in the game, so it's pretty much a non-factor during your first playthrough.
A nice array of melee weapons are available, but like ZombiU, bashing a zombie's brain in is rather ineffective. Firearms are plentiful, but like I said, there's hardly any ammo around. These are elements that I appreciate in a video game. Older survival horror games used to have this kind of stuff all the time, and it helps to add tension. These elements show me the potential of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, and it makes me sad that these features that I love in gaming are being wasted in a game that simply did not have enough time in the oven.
Another aspect of Survival Instinct that makes me sad is the fact that this is one of the only games that actually understands zombies. Almost every other video game that features zombies fails to get them right. As a fan of the undead as video game enemies, I want a game that gives me zombies that are weak by themselves, but dangerous in groups. I want zombies that can only be killed by destroying their brain, and will pursue you relentlessly otherwise. For all its faults, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct gets zombies, as the zombies in this game are just what I want from these enemies in games.
Seriously, I pelted one zombie with a ton of arrows all over his torso and it did absolutely nothing. The only way to put the zombies down is to attack to their heads. By themselves, the zombies in the game are pathetically easy, but in groups, they can easily overwhelm Daryl. But instead of just killing him, which I would've preferred, the zombies constantly grab at Daryl, which initiates an annoying QTE in which an ever-moving cursor must be lined up on their heads, and then the player has to hit RT at the right time to stab them and break free of their grasp. If this only happened every once in a while, it'd be a fine and fairly intense QTE segment. But it happens in almost every zombie encounter in which you don't kill the zombie first. If there is a group of zombies after you, say 20 or so, it will just be one QTE after another, with Daryl rarely even taking damage, which totally kills the difficulty and makes the zombie threat seem much less threatening.
AI in the game is all over the map. Zombies are sometimes incredibly stupid, just standing there while Daryl beats them to death with a baseball bat. Other times, the zombies are aggressive and downright scary, bursting through doors and swarming him. They respond to sound, making it scary to use any ammo, as scarce as it may be. Except sometimes they don't. Also, sometimes they get stuck on invisible walls, trying to walk under strange pieces of broken door that are floating in mid-air.
The stealth mechanics introduced in the tutorial mission at the beginning of the game that use sound to influence the actions of the zombies don't seem to work after the first mission. You can chuck glass bottles to try to draw their attention or throw flares, much like ZombiU, but the difference between ZombiU and this game is that the zombies never seem to care about the distraction items. I think the problem is how scripted the actions of the zombies are, with many zombies programmed just to do the same crap every time you go through the game. Your first time through, this does result in pretty scary jump scare moments, but it just becomes a predictable bore in subsequent playthroughs of the game.
Other survival mechanics added to the game could've resulted in a very intriguing and different experience, but they are all botched. Really good ideas, but just botched to hell. For example, vehicle maintenance and survivor management are two key pillars of these survival elements. With vehicle maintenance, fuel is a resource that must constantly be found, and new vehicles can be discovered and used with different stats and such.
The problem with this is that vehicles are introduced one at a time in each mission, and there's rarely a reason not to switch to the other vehicle. Furthermore, you can collect the maximum amount of fuel in the game and you will still run out of gas no matter what, which makes it really kind of pointless to bother stressing about it, especially since you are just thrust into a side-level where you can walk around and find enough gas to fill the car back up and continue. It just becomes an annoyance. You can die if you run out of fuel after that, but the game will just start you back right before you set out on the road, so it's all sort of a pointless merry-go-round in the grand scheme of things.
Vehicles can also break down depending on what type of road you decide to take. Different roads have different stats. Some roads will result in the car breaking down easier, but with less fuel used and a higher chance for scavenging, for example. If the car breaks down, a boring side mission is then introduced in which a new part must be found to continue. These happen way too much and become annoying, like Zubats constantly interrupting the action in Mt. Moon. Scavenging for supplies is also very rarely a good idea, as it is incredibly likely that in the attempt to search for supplies, you'll return to the car with much less than you started with.
Survivors can be found along the way, either added as story characters or found by completing side missions or exploring the sides of the road. These survivors are given personalities and stats, but all of this is just as pointless. No matter what weapon you equip them with or who you send out to scavenge for supplies, they will always take about the same amount of damage. It's ultimately pointless to send them out scavenging for supplies as they never bring back anything making the hassle of managing their health worth while. At first, it's interesting having to choose the survivors to bring along with you and which to abandon when there aren't enough seats in the vehicles, but without any emotional attachment to these characters, most without more than a couple of lines of spoken dialogue, it all feels shallow and cheap.
The game does offer a surprising amount of choice. There are the typical A or B choices in the story, but there are branching paths in the game in which you can choose to go to one level or another. Hilariously, this game has more choices with bigger implications on the actual story and gameplay than Telltale's take on The Walking Dead universe, and that game was built entirely around the concept of players making decisions. Granted, you can experience all the game has to offer by simply replaying it for a second time, but that's neither here nor there.
You can tell that Activision basically gave these guys six months or less to throw this game together. The graphics are just awful for a game released this late in the generation. Character models are particularly pathetic, and overall, the game aesthetically reminds me of the generic hunting games I used to play on my PC a decade ago. Environments are interesting, but they repeat endlessly. Objects and visuals are recycled over and over again. The buildings all feel the same visually, and the game just becomes an incredible bore to look at, not to mention a graphical mess.
One of the best parts of the game is that the actors from the show reprise their roles; oh, and that the show's theme song is used to great effect. Indeed, I loved hearing the voice of Norman Reedus in a video game, and you can tell he's passionate about putting this character over. It's just a shame his talents are being wasted on a game with a paper thin, rushed plot and hardly any meaningful dialogue for him to speak.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct had a lot of great ideas, but it failed to capitalize on any of them. I honestly feel that if this game was given more time in the oven, just by another six months or so, then it could've been an acceptable survival horror experience. Considering the popularity of the show and the Walking Dead IP in general, hopefully we can see another, similar experience set in the same universe that is given enough time to truly make something of itself.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 03/28/13
Game Release: The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (US, 03/19/13)
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