The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct

Hearts and Minds, all over the place…

Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 3 / Price: £29.99 / Time Played: 8 hours

If you were still holding out any hope that Activision’s take on the TV series of The Walking Dead would be halfway close to the fantastic comic-book adaption that Telltale Games gave us last year, then you will be disappointed.

In fact, compare it to anything on the market right now and it’s hard to get that excited about Survival Instinct, a prequel to the wildly successful and popular TV series. It’s clearly been developed on a shoestring and with not a lot of time to spare, and it’s hard to hold that against the developers Terminal Reality (probably a poor choice of wording for a developer of a game of this kind). You get the impression whoever was given this game and the limitations of what they had to work with that the game was never going to be halfway close to many titles doing the rounds on the market right now. Indeed, with BioShock Infinite out right now (next week, my pet, next week… *strokes white cat*), it’s not so much a mountain to climb as trying to scale a rope to the moon.

It’s been a long time since I played any game quite this crude. Even Aliens: Colonial Marines, as vile as it is, felt somewhat tied to the principles that we have this generation. Survival Instinct, on the other hand, reminds me of some of the shock-nasties and lazy licensed tie-ins of the late 90’s, and that’s rarely a good place to begin.

It’s not really a first-person shooter, although there are guns and shooting involved. Technically guns are supposed to attract the “walkers”, a.k.a. zombies, and alert them to your location but I found in certain situations that guns played a vital and interesting role in clearing a path for me to take. Some events spawn lots of zombies, and it’s often at this point – when you’ve silently taken out the majority on the way to an objective – that the guns come into play, clearing your path to the overall goal at the end of an area. You don’t need to go back, so guns allow for an expedient and interesting method of clearing the way, usually when you are on a raised platform where the zombies can’t reach you. Taking the time to pop their heads (one bullet each!) does feel relaxing.

Actually, the game itself lacks any real tension. I found myself silently creeping up behind walkers to one-shot them, or forcing them apart with the clever use of ladders and doors in order to take them one at a time, a gentle shove when they are in near-range dazes them just long enough to get in close with a melee weapon – for me, I liked the hammer – and deliver a few swift and fatal blows to the head. The AI isn’t very good; easily manipulated and abused to make the game easier. The walkers in large numbers don’t make for an impressive threat either; the little grapple quick-time event can deliver a fatal blow with little effort, meaning with a little practice you can chain together a large number of kills without any threat. It’s certainly a long way from the danger posed by walkers in titles like Zombi-U, where direct confrontation is something to shy from and which does require clever use of the environment in order to survive. The zombies here feel toothless in comparison; and that’s rarely the best place to be for a game of this type.

It’s also rather rigid. I like to explore in games like this; especially ones which make it sound like scavenging is important. I found a stack of cardboard boxes under the stairs and thought, “I wonder if there’s anything behind them?”, so naturally I swished on them with my steel pipe. Clunk. It sounded like I was hitting a stone wall. There are some destructible elements in the environment, but nothing that makes it feel any less stiff and lifeless. I see some trailers, and I think, “Ooh! Supplies!” Nope, the doors won’t open. Zombies can come out, but I can’t go in. Everything feels cheap and tacky – probably because the budget was so tiny – but there’s arguably no real excuse for not making the areas you visit feel more alive and expansive than they are, seeing as they are small mission-hubs which really don’t appear to be putting any strain on my PlayStation 3 at all.

There are a myriad of technical bugs too; zombies get stuck in, behind and on so many little things that you have to laugh at it. They can’t climb ladders so you take the time to lure them to one, you climb up. They run all the way around to get to you, you drop to the ground and run off to a checkpoint or goal point and the game literally doesn’t have any penalty for abusing it in this manner. The weapons themselves have some heft, but the zombies really do not – they’re all so skinny and models are repeated so often that it’s hard to feel they have any purpose at all. The game has a little slowdown in some spots; considering how technically unambitious this whole title is, it astounds me that the engine has the sheer audacity to chug when you have a swarm of walkers running towards you. And that’s before you get to the visuals and the motion-blur, so poorly done that I’ve talked to people who have suffered motion-sickness as a result of it.

It’s not that the game doesn’t have ambition in it; there’s a novel inventory management system that isn’t brilliant but serves its purpose. You pick up survivors along the way – usually by doing small sub-quests in areas. But you only have room in your vehicles for so many people, so often you have to leave one or two behind, dooming them presumably to a nasty death. But there’s no sense of guilt or impact; they leave without a word, and your conscience remains clear. They aren’t fleshed out enough as individuals to give a toss about them, and this means that you regularly ditch anyone marked as “weak”. Having robbed their areas of supplies, weapons, ammo and fuel, their chances of survival are clearly non-existent. It would have been interesting to have a little vignette as you leave an area behind, to show what happens to those left to fend for themselves, even if it is certain death.

Being able to choose your path through the game is also an interesting addition, but it’s ultimately meaningless. Occasionally, your vehicle breaks down and you have to hunt around a small area for more fuel or supplies to fix ‘er up, but it doesn’t come across as anything more than padding, and with some thought, it’s an eventuality that is often very easily avoided. Or you can reload, I hear people have found that can abuse the stopovers. Either way, they aren’t very welcome and whilst the intention is clearly there, it’s hard to welcome them with open arms.

I could go on about this games faults for a while – shoddy animation, cliché voice work, predictable events, lazy area design. However, I don’t want to linger on its flaws any longer than I have to because we all knew this game was going to be terrible. It is terrible. In the pantheon of first-person games this year, it’s hard to be excited about a game that feels so rushed and haphazardly put together. You might even now be considering buying BioShock Infinite. I wouldn’t blame you.

But I have a confession to make, and it’s one that I never expected to have for this game. For the majority of playing it, I did so with a smile on my face.

Sure, it’s rubbish. We’ve established that. But for all its foibles, I found myself inexplicably chuckling along with it, or perhaps at it. I’m not sure which, but even though I KNOW this game is terrible, I have to admit that in some strange way I also found it rather fun. It’s a kind of B-Movie vibe; something rubbish. Considering the time it took to get this game on the market, the early footage and the advertising that doesn’t show any in-game footage at all, you walk in knowing it is going to be rubbish. And then it blind-sides you; it’s so slapstick, so crude and so silly that it’s gone through that bubble and come out on the other side, and becomes enjoyable because it’s so bad. There’s a certain amount of fun to be had toying with the Walkers. There’s a certain charm to the survivors and the quests and the characters, no matter how shallow and cliché they are. The areas are small enough that you don’t linger very long, and you kind of keep the pace up. It’s about five or six hours long, so it doesn’t completely outstay its welcome. You take the time to distract zombies with glass bottles; I did, I even took the time to try aiming for the head of one furthest away. I found it quite funny. It’s truly awful, but I knew it was going to be awful. I didn’t know that I’d come out the other end beaming like a Cheshire Cat, because it’s so silly and so bad and so dumb and so crude that you can’t take it seriously. And at that point, because I couldn’t take it seriously, I found myself mucking about and finding new bugs and ways to make the game freak out on me.

It’s not something I expected. It’s probably not something to be proud of, either. But, I liked it. It’s not as artistic as BioShock Infinite, but such a comparison is kind of silly anyway. So far, I’m inclined to give BioShock Infinite a ten because it’s so awesome. But that’s one for next week, and I need more time with it. Separating the two games, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is crude and trashy and stupid. Made on a tight budget in a few months, no. It was never going to be the height of sophistication, compared to titles which have been in development for three years or more with frankly mammoth budgets.

What we have here, then, is a stupid game. But it’s not a hateful game; it’s not a game you can stay mad at. You can be disappointed, or shrug and say it was obvious it was going to come to this, and we’d all agree. But compared to another terrible game this year, namely Aliens: Colonial Marines, this isn’t as bad. It’s playable and yes, taken in the right context and in the right frame of mind, it’s even amusing and entertaining. It’s also brighter, a little nicer looking and does at least have a heart, something that A:CM sorely lacked in spades. It’s bad; but, surprisingly, not as bad as I was expecting it to be. Perhaps it’s not meant to be funny or leave you laughing at it for hours after you’ve hit the off-switch. I get that. I get this is defending something that might, to some, be indefensible. It’s not a game likely to win anything but Worst Game of the Year (although frankly I would give that to Aliens: Colonial Marines right now).

However, given half a chance, there’s a risk that for all its failings and all its noticeable shortcomings, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is just daft enough to win over your heart.

And no. I didn’t see it coming.

SUMMARY;

YAY!;

  • Daft in every way.
  • Easy and unchallenging.
  • I like hammers! Hammers are awesome! MORE HAMMERS!
  • Better than Aliens: Colonial Marines. There. I said it.

NAY!;

  • Crudely made on a tight budget.
  • Could initiate motion sickness in some people.
  • Nothing feels very solid, even though most stuff can’t even be moved.
  • Lots of ideas, not very well executed.

Ey?;

  • That this is just daft enough to be fun.
  • Hilariously awry AI.
  • Feels like a blast from the past, more than a modern game.
  • Doesn’t hold a candle to Telltale’s games. But then, we never expected it to…

 

OVERALL CONCLUSION – Hearts in the right place but… well… (4 out of 10)

It’s easy to come down hard on The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. And many will, it’s Activision publishing it after all. However, take your time and wallow in it a little and there is something rather charming about the game. It’s not a good game – no. But as a rental, or on the cheap, this game might surprise you. But yes, at full price, I wouldn’t bother. Get BioShock Infinite instead.

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