The announcement of Terminal Reality’s The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was two-fold: why? And, oh… Activision. The title was basically damned from thereon in, and those who were excited, were only excited by proxy; the “well, I would like a decent survival zombie game” crowd. Unfortunately, not even their excitement was justified, and what we got was around 4 ideas on paper, given around 10% of the time they needed to take it into fruition, and about 10% of the budget required to pull the whole thing off. Of course it’ll sell, it’s based on AMC’s The Walking Dead – and that, in a nutshell, is the problem. The name is far grander than the Activision title tasked with living up to it.
In a way, Survival Instinct is tragic for more reasons than one. Firstly, it features the shows greatest character, Daryl Dixon. It might as well feature Bill Oddie, though, because Survival Instinct utilizes around 2% of what makes Dixon such a beloved character in the show. You hardly ever see him, you hardly ever hear him, and the only thing that reminds you you’re playing as him, is finding a crossbow bolt as bitter realization sinks in: “oh, this is a Walking Dead game… isn’t it…”
The second tragedy is that the ideas within Survival Instinct aren’t bad: we’ve got a dynamic and, in a way, non-linear campaign, the ability to send survivors out to get supplies for you whilst you run missions, a car with a constantly emptying petrol tank, and the ability to unlock cars allowing you to carry more survivors with you. Whilst these ideas probably sounded good around a corporate table, making the project seem at least executable, they’ve translated terribly in practice, leaving Survival Instinct as 2013’s first example of shovel-ware.
The first question on your mind is probably: just how survival is Survival Instinct? The survival aspects of Survival Instinct stretch about as far as the survival aspects for Left 4 Dead do. You have to survive in that not-dying is the best possible out-come when facing a horde of enemies – not just zombies – but there are no mechanics, relating to immersion or otherwise, that make Survival Instinct a survival game. For instance, there’s no need to eat or drink anything, all the locations of quest markers are directed by an arrow, and there is nothing in the name of: the ability to become infected, fatigue (other than slowing after a sprint), sleep cycles, necessary nourishment, or a free roaming open world. There’s also plentiful ammo, and a wide range of one-shot-kill melee weapons. Survival Instinct is about as “survival” as call of duty.
Of course, Activision made sure they’d crossed the T’s and dotted the lower-case J’s. Survival Instinct hints at survival mechanics, but only insofar as the depth of a puddle. For instance, between each of the missions, you can give a job to one of the NPC’s in your party. They serve no active role during missions, but at pivotal moments you can give them one of your weapons, each of them having a preferred weapon, and send them out to look for food (health packs), ammunition, or fuel. The NPC’s can get harmed, and every task has a chance of failing or killing the character. Giving them the better weapon can increase their chance of success. This is all orchestrated in an interactive menu, where you can choose between your inventory, NPC tasks, and starting the next mission. This little lobby is an example of one of the ideas that stood out in Survival Instinct, similarly to the menu screen of Metro 2033. Having said that, it is just a menu, and telling your NPC’s to look for resources, which is actually the games primary survival mechanic, probably, is merely a matter of green-lighting some game script and collecting your spoils at the end of the mission.
The second mechanic hinting at a justification for “survival” is the ability to either run out of fuel or break down on the way to the next mission. Missions are broken up with more interactive menus, as you watch Daryl and his party drive to their next location. Each mission, you can choose whether they take back-streets, main roads, or the highway. The back-streets will use the most fuel, but turn up the most rewards. The high-way is the most direct route, but you’ve a higher chance of breaking down. It’s important to note that you don’t actually watch anything exciting here, you merely pick variable percentages, watching a loading screen just in case you’re met with another one, indicating one of two things: you need to search a generic, recycled map for fuel, or you need to search a generic, recycled map for a part for your car.
This is a running theme in zombie games, it seems: the idea that searching for tins of fuel as seen in Left 4 Dead and, more recently, Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army is survival enough. The purpose of these sequences are to, ostensibly, justify the title “survival”, and to stretch out the measly 4 or so hour length of the game. The dynamic of mission, break-down/resupply, mission, rinse and repeat makes a few good ideas very trite very quickly. Everything about Survival Instinct is incredibly familiar from mission one, but this quickly turns to a sensation of déjà vu, and suddenly Dead Island, Left 4 Dead, and even the mistakes and clumsiness of War Z flash before your eyes.
Whilst the game is most decidedly not packed with high-quality, survival mechanics, there are certain things that rescue it from absolute trash. Firstly, whilst the game isn’t strictly open, you do have the option to pick your next destination on the map. For instance, from point A, I can drive to either point B or C, skipping the one I chose not to visit. Each area, containing a mission, has its own story – and it’ll tell you whether it takes place in the day or at night. You can get an idea of what you’ll be facing from the level brief, before being launched into the tedious map-watching loading screen, waiting for a mission to grab a bunch of fuel cans.
This idea might sound appealing in a modern FPS, but you lose enthusiasm when you realize that Survival Instinct‘s main story missions hold very little surprises. Each mission is far too similar to the one before it, and the entire game features painstakingly creeping around slow, inattentive zombies. Killing them grows tedious after the first mission, and the use of guns is tantamount to broken. Here’s why:
Being a first person zombie combat game, you’d be right to expect some melee combat. Zombie U, Dead Island, War Z – that’s the combat of Survival Instinct in a nutshell. My point isn’t that it’s iterative, and not innovative, it’s that Survival Instinct is a combat game before it’s a stealth game, but most of the game features the same lackluster weapons. It is, as I said, for the first mission, quite satisfying to smash zombies in the face with a hammer, and the way they react makes combat feel quite gritty and meaty – but as it sinks in that 4 kills with the hammer, two with the baseball bat, and one with the sledgehammer is the way forward, and that there’s a lack of directional aiming (which is a missed chance for sub-genre innovation), the 4th hit of the 4000th zombie secures the sense of tedium that surrounds the title after the third or fourth mission.
Stealth might be an attractive prospect, but each of the levels are designed with a path for the player in mind. This means that it’s obvious when you can’t be seen, and where to go for stealth, and it’s obvious when there’s a trap, or when something will jump out at you. In fact, at some points I could see a zombie standing right outside a door, facing me, as though it’s written to jump out and grab me as soon as I walk out the door. The levels are designed like a cheap fairground theme-park, where ugly card-board ghouls will obviously pop-out, since you can see them pinned to the walls, and those “corpses” laying on the floor in a position different to the ones who are actually dead become cheap tricks, very quickly. Whilst the levels are fairly open, the compass tells you exactly where to go. There is opportunity for some exploration, but the collectibles aren’t an attractive enough prospect to really invoke that.
Once you’ve realised that stealth and survival are only an unfulfilled pretext, you might want to try some of the firepower. Tip: don’t. Whilst there are plenty of guns and ammunition littered around the world of The Walking Dead, using anything other than the crossbow (found much later in the game) calls upon the entire map of zombies. This means two things: if you kill them, the rest of the level loses any edge or immersion it might have had, and that doing so is a long and tedious duck-hunt with ducks that barely move. It’s almost game breaking. Whilst it’s actually quite fun to blow their faces off at a distance, the invariable shimmy up a car whilst you look down, shooting them in the face one by one completely ruins what could have been an intense mistake. It’s only a mistake in that it makes the rest of the level so painfully easy that it’s not worth your time.
So whilst melee is tedious and repetitive, and all too familiar, and the firearms are tantamount to broken, what else is there? Looking back at some of the T’s Activision have asked to be crossed, there are instant kill scenarios wherein a zombie with exceptionally low spacial awareness can be marched up to, allowing you to shove your knife through it’s face in a scripted attack. This is cool: once. The problem is, they only bothered to animate these attacks with one weapon – the knife. This means that regardless of the weapon you’re holding, the stealth – or prescripted – attacks, will always be with the knife. There’s only so many times you can watch the four or so knife attacks, chosen depending on where the zombie is in relation to you, before it, like everything else, becomes incredibly old, incredibly fast.
It sounds like I’ve written an incredibly damning report here, and in some ways I have. Referring to my original comment about a few good ideas at 10% fruition – that’s exactly what Terminal Reality have here. Every time I saw something in Survival Instinct for the first time, I thought: “hey, that was cool.” Each time thereafter it became more and more tedious. The dynamic is formulaic – despite being able to choose your next ‘mission’ (level), and the combat is either broken, janky, or boring, depending on your perspective, and what you were looking for. Those looking for a story for Daryl, too, are going to be incredibly disappointed – because Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead featured rich, three-dimensional characters. Survival Instinct, however, is a game about a faceless hero collecting cans of fuel, punching zombies in the right side of the face 4 times until they die, in order to pick up a canister. You don’t meet any real characters along the way, and Terminal Reality haven’t even made the slightest effort to capitalize on the characters of the graphic novel.
The ability to pick up crossbow bolts, break down during loading screens, and drink Gateraide to replenish health are not survival mechanics. And any semblance of survival the title had was completely negated by all things plentiful. Graphically, it feels as though half way through development the team decided to just accept the game looks like a cartoon, but I suspect that wasn’t the design choice they were going for. Whilst Walking Dead: Survival Instinct isn’t really an ugly game, it has the graphical polish of an indie development, and the content of something you’d see on Steam Greenlight with a prospective price of £14.99. There are certain things about Survival Instinct that gives the title some flair and character, but the ideas only seem good on paper.
Survival Instinct feels like a game that nobody is proud of. It’s a chore to play, and despite attempting to be relatively non-linear, there’s nothing new and exciting to change the pace what-so-ever. Every mission consists of the same thing: go here, do that, collect this, so any sense of selection is negated by knowing it’s merely a different suburb in which to perform the same task. Moments like approaching a building at the saw-mill without being caught in the spotlight reminded me that there were at least some ideas-people working on this project, but everything else simply oozed shameless cash in on a sub-genre that is consistently being abused. This is nothing other than one such abuse, and I wouldn’t be so annoyed if they weren’t trying to charge a AAA price for it. Survival Instinct is not a AAA title, and if anything it feels like a homework project for a developer that has yet to prove itself. It isn’t fan service, because it doesn’t give anything back to The Walking Dead – it simply steals from it, and pretends to be a lot of things it clearly isn’t.