The wonderful zombie film Shaun of the Dead starts out with a running gag where it's clear that a zombie apocalypse is going on, but the heroes don't notice. As they walk down the street, we can see obscured scenes of undead carnage in the background, but Shaun is too wrapped up in his girlfriend-troubles to see.
Sometimes, a bad video game can feel a bit like that. You're playing, preoccupied with tutorials and introductory cinematic sequences, not yet fully aware of the jankiness that lurks in the shadows. Eventually, the game hits its stride and its crappiness gets right up to your face, groaning and snapping its teeth.
Terminal Reality's new game The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct does not indulge in such ambiguity. Both the zombie apocalypse and the game's utter badness are readily apparent within the first five minutes.
I spent last night playing through the first couple of hours of the first-person survival horror game, which came out yesterday for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. Survival Instinct begins with a weird, cordoned-in tutorial that first sends you in pursuit of a false objective, then puts you into an unwinnable fight against a bunch of zombies, or "walkers" in The Walking Dead parlance. You die. Then comes the big reveal—spoiler alert?—that you were in control of the father of well-known characters Daryl and Merle Dixon, and your terrible shooting and running skills got him killed. It's a crap tutorial even among other crap tutorials, and a precursor to all the crap to come.
But first! Comes the credits sequence. Which, if you're a fan of the popular AMC Walking Dead TV show, will feel mighty familiar. Bear McCreary's six-note violin motif and string-section dive-bombs push through an evocative collection of rural imagery accompanied by the names of the actors who appear in the game. It's almost like you're watching a TV show!
And then, back to the game, which is very clearly not a TV show. You take control of Daryl Dixon, the man you'll command for the rest of the game. Side-note on Daryl—it's interesting that the most popular character on the TV show is this guy who has no counterpart in the comics. I like Daryl on the show, too. His low-drama badassery stands in welcome contrast to the whining and carrying on of the majority of the cast, and Norman Reedus manages to inhabit the role with a sharp, morally ambiguous intelligence. And he does seem like the most obvious character on the show to base a video game around, what with his signature crossbow and mysterious backstory.
But even if Daryl deserves to star in his own video game, it shouldn't be this one. I've spent two hours playing Survival Instinct, and those two hours were filled with frustration, boredom, and that peculiar form of bleak hopelessness that accompanies the worst games.
Of course, it's not a huge surprise that Survival Instinct is bad. Its promotional campaign has been festooned with warning signs—in particular the fact that they've been cagey about actually showing the game. The introductory trailers made a far bigger deal about the fact that the game stars Reedus as Daryl and Michael Rooker as his brother, Merle (Wow! Real actors from a TV show! In a video game!) than anything related to the game itself. We were unable to secure an early copy of the game for review, which is never a good sign. And early footage that hit the web was… well, it wasn't promising.
So, yes, the game is a steaming pile and an utter waste of time and money. On the off-chance that this is all new to you, allow me to demonstrate a few of the ways it comes up short.
It's very ugly.
Survival Instinct looks and moves like an Xbox 360 launch title, with inconsistent performance and flat colors and textures. On PC, it offers the following advanced graphical options:
Here's what the game looks like without light shafts:
And here's what it looks like with them:
Combat is a drag.
Combat in the game is a disaster, plain and simple. In the early stages, you'll have a couple of guns and a knife. One of the guns uses a scope and is essentially useless, as the zombies are never far away enough to require you to use it. The shotgun is more useful, but is so loud that it attracts far more zombies than you could ever kill with your limited ammunition. That leaves you with the knife, which lets you get into a kind of hilarious slap-fight with a zombie until you kill it. As seen here:
Or, you could sneak up behind the biter and stab it in the brain. You will do this a lot. In fact, the ol' "Punch the zombie in the face to stun it, then run around it and stab it in the brain" trick was just about the only trick I used. Well, unless I got caught in...
The endless zombie group-hug.
One of the weirdest elements of Survival Instinct is the "grapple" move, which happens when a zombie gets too close to you. Daryl starts to wrestle with the zombie, and you jam the right trigger and, if you can get the cursor over the zombie's head, Daryl will stab it in the brain. It's kind of a neat idea? Except it fails in execution. The levels I've played usually end with me making a run through a pack of walkers. And if I get even remotely close to one of them, I get sucked into an unending zombie scrum, stabbing zombie after zombie after zombie, almost always until I die.
Here's a video:
Survival Instinct also features a lot of sweat. Sweat? Yes, sweat. Normally in games like this, when you "sprint" for a while, you'll run out of breath. Maybe, if you're playing Far Cry 2, your vision will swim a bit. In Survival Instinct, you'll start to see a weird water effect run down the side of the screen. That is, I have to assume, supposed to be Daryl's sweat, pouring down the camera lens. Weird! And kinda gross!
(It's a little hard to see in this video, but it's at the corners. Anyway, it's strange.)
Video Game B.S.
Survival Instinct is loaded with all kinds of shoddy video-game bullshit. The levels are very hemmed in and the world never feels reactive or real, and as a result the whole thing feels cheap and unfair. You'll carry around sports drinks that replenish your health, but equipping and using them is a nuisance. Checkpointing is a bummer and there's no quicksave option, and at least once the game crashed to desktop and forced me to restart an entire level. The heads-up display is laughably fug, a giant oblong compass in the corner of the screen that points, surprisingly unhelpfully, to your next objective.
Level design is awful—I'd run into a room and more often than not would get cornered and die. Doors are inconsistent—some will open, but most are glued shut. And there are invisible walls everywhere.
Check out this doozy from the end of another early mission:
I'm standing on the car, the dude I'm supposed to get to is right there, and yet I have to run into the glowing green area to end the mission. Man.
Slightly interesting ideas, poorly implemented.
When you travel from level to level in the game, you'll have to make some decisions about which route you take. You can take backroads, regular streets, or the highway. Each one uses a certain amount of gas, and each one brings with it a chance of a breakdown. If you run out of gas or break down, you'll have to explore a small side-mission area to find more gas or locate whatever part from your car needs to be replaced.
It's an interesting risk/reward idea that falls flat because no matter what happens, you're going to have to do the same thing: Enter an area, dodge some zombies, grab a thing, and run back to the glowing green square. Basically, these side missions give you more game to play. Because the game is terrible, they feel more like a punishment than a bonus.
You can also manage the survivors in your crew, which is another odd idea that doesn't work but could've maybe been interesting in another game. You can give your companions weapons and even send them out on errands to get gas or food. You can also just tell them to "stay at the car," which, if you follow the TV show, is kind of funny, albeit unintentionally so.
But really, this whole aspect of the game is a mess, and just adds some unclear, unfun micromanaging to deal with in between unfun action missions. I'd love to play a post-apocalyptic resource management/travel game like Oregon Trail, but this ain't it.
There's certainly no opportunity to get attached to your friends, and their deaths are treated about as ignobly as could be. Check out the end of this mission (more spoilers, if you care):
So not only does the cutscene trigger before I touch the green box, it ends with a hilariously anticlimactic death scene. Bang! End-of-mission screen! Ha.
Basically, everything else.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a slipshod, uninspired mess. I have to feel for the developers at Terminal Reality—whatever rushed production schedule or other behind-the-scenes shenanigans must have gone down, no professional game-maker could be happy with this final product.
There are so many superior alternatives: If you've got a hankering to kill some zombies in a southern setting, play Left 4 Dead 2. If you love The Walking Dead and want to spend more time in that world, play Telltale's wonderful adventure game from last year. And if you want to play a tense, terrifying first-person zombie game that relies on smarts and sneaking as much as on firepower (and you own a Wii U), play ZombiU.