There’s something extremely tragic when it comes to looking at licenced games. Just about all of them are bad, there’s little to deny that, but they’re usually that way because the developers have been given a minute budget and ordered to squirt it out in six months. Sometimes the end result will be relatively good, Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters for example, and manage to escape the curse. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct? It almost manages to be one of those good titles. There are so many sparks of brilliance which could have so easily made the game brilliant but were never developed far enough.
The plot to Survival Instinct is one of, well, survival what else do you expect in something with zombies (or walkers as the series calls them). Playing as Daryl Dixon from the TV series, you travel from one town to the next seeking out fuel, resources and general supplies to stay alive directly following the outbreak. With everything from fuel to water in short supply you’re encouraged to sneak past the undead as much as fight them and forced to choose just who is vital to keep with you. That’s about it and in fairness that’s all you need. Everything else is downhill from there.
The problems with the game all originate from developer Terminal Reality’s execution and the sheer lack of polish on the title. Frequently you’re going to encounter visual glitches and bugs such as floating objects but also extremely immersion breaking problems. An already infamous one is the sound effects used for hitting the windows on cars, the sound of striking metal, which don’t so much as dent even when you are striking them with a sledgehammer. There is also the apparent lack of awareness with the walkers, or how inconsistent it can truly be. Half the time the brain hungry walking corpses can spot you from the other side of the map, while others will not notice you even as you are standing next to them. Often paying you no attention even as you take out a swarm in close combat, slamming a hammer against their skulls every time one turns your way like some sort of macabre game of whack-a-mole.
Even when it comes to the actual survival aspect the game’s design has a huge number of problems. The whole idea of choice of locations based upon the amount of fuel you have and how much you spend while travelling, a good concept to be sure, is hamstrung by the routes not reflecting how much petrol following it will consume. As and when you stop is scripted into the game, based upon how long the voice overs on the map screen keep talking for as you run from one locale to the next. As soon as you try one route, you instantly know exactly when and where you’ll stop for another replay. Assuming you’d be insane enough to try going through this again. You might select taking back roads and byways for a greater number of stops for supplies in your journey, but often your choice will barely reflect that.
Another really big issue is that for a survival title the whole thing is extremely linear. While invisible walls are largely kept to a minimum, you’ll constantly find yourself blocked off by vast numbers of parked cars, debris and fallen masonry which is all built towards artificially lengthening gameplay. Forcing you to run around them when there’s no clear reason why you can’t just jump over or bypass them easily. While this might be forgivable at least the first time, many locations are repeated for side missions. Constantly. Often with barely any changes to their layout or even their overall look, which removes any illusions to the freedom you might have or the fact you’re stuck inside an isolated box. At best you’ll find maps flipped and often not even that.
The truly unique and good ideas that the game had are similarly hamstrung by a lack of proper time and development put into them. Every level you have the option to select a number of people travelling with you to depart and hunt for supplies you might need, giving them orders to hunt down specific items. A good idea which freed up many choices in gameplay and left you with the ability to have them handle hunting down one much needed resource while you searched for the other. Or at least it might have been if this were implemented properly.
The choice becomes a source of frustration with characters you send out coming back with minimal resources and, despite what their stats, skills and armaments might be, are nearly always mauled to near death. You can send out a sheriff you find early on armed with a pistol to search for bullets knowing he should be able to avoid walkers but will stagger back blooded to the point of collapse with only two rounds for a gun you don’t have. Also having used all the ammo for the weapon you gave him.
Even some of the resources you might send survivors out for tend to be pointless with guns bringing down hordes of walkers upon you the second you fired them and petrol tanks being plentiful. With “out of gas” missions happening automatically, the moment you run out, and you’ll often get up to half a tank out of them. Plus any food you might tell them to get you’ll frequently be spending upon them to heal them once they return.
Another is the way in which you deal with walkers grappling you. While it would have been easy to just have a button mashing quick-time event present to have the player kick the walker off of them, Terminal Reality tried to go for something far more innovative. As a walker grapples you, going in to take a chunk out of your neck, you enter a mini-game in which you have to target their head and stab them. Focusing your crosshairs upon a single, limited point as your screen is thrown around by the walker attacking you. The only problem is that this was, again, something badly implemented where you can easily abuse it to defeat swarms of a good twenty or so walkers by letting them grab you. Facing them one at a time, insta-killing each one in turn, and as a result not having to face the swarm as a whole.
Believe it or not this is the short-list of problems the game has with others ranging from limited graphical flexibility and options to extremely poor voice acting. Oh and if you’re holding out for a good story despite all this you find better written stuff in the single player campaigns of Modern Warfare games.
The real shame of it is that, as mentioned in the introduction, there was a genuine effort put into Survival Instinct. At least one or two people in Terminal Reality working on it did seem to be trying to make something genuinely good. Introducing decent ideas rather than a run of the mill dishwasher licenced game, but there’s no denying the result is bad. It might be a better zombie survival game than The War Z but you definitely shouldn’t be wasting cash on this one.