So now there are two games out there starting with the words “The Walking Dead.” The first is by a small(ish) studio named Telltale Games who also made the Back to the Future adventure game and put out the Puzzle Agent series. You may know this one as The Game That Won All Those GOTY Awards. It is, unequivocally, a stellar game.
Then there’s the other one. Developed by Terminal Reality, published by Activision, and featuring the voice talents of Norman Reedus, arguably the more successful half of the Boondock Saints. It was the focus of much derision upon a fake trailer release, continued to be a sticking point with fans once the official one dropped, and is now, unsurprisingly, a hot mess of a game. Across the board, vitriol appears to be the soup du jour.
I’ve put about an hour into it and I pray to god I won’t have to put in any more. But seeing as how I have not and will not finish it, I can’t in good conscience call this a review. I can, however, tell you that Survival Instinct is like a bucket. It’s a bucket with a couple of nuggets of goodness at the bottom. These are the good ideas that kind of kept me going past the first 15 minutes, but they are covered with a nice fine blend of mud and offal. Then a grate is put over the top and the bucket is tipped over.
What happens? You are now covered in wet, dirty entrails and all the good stuff is still in the bucket. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
One of the good ideas was the interesting curveball you’re thrown at the beginning. It’s a bit rote in that the-person-you-play-as-dies, Call of Duty sort of way, but I really thought it was interesting. (Mild spoiler) I thought I was in for a treat, being put in the shoes of Merle and Daryl Dixon’s father, fighting a losing battle only to die with a fading image of a heartbroken son in his eyes.
There’s also an interesting mechanic where you get into this grapple mode with walkers and are forced to fumble up close for your life. You basically have one hand fending off your undead foe while the other has a knife. The right stick controls a reticle that represents the knife hand and the goal is to get it over the head before pulling the right trigger to stab it in the noggin. It’s a struggle since the zombie is impeding you with his oddly effective flailing, so you have to fight against a swimming aim. It’s kind of exhilarating the first few times you do it since it feels like it mimics what you would expect the actual experience of fighting off a walker to be like.
The problem is that you do it like a million more times. All right, that’s an exaggeration, but in the scant bit I played, I entered into this grapple state at least 30 times, and most often it was three or four times in a row. Given that guns are loud, ammo is scarce, and the act of shooting zombies is horribly unsatisfying, I found that the most reliable tactic to take out a group of undead was to wade into the middle and start grappling.
The other option is to take out my knife and slash them in the head. If you can stealth up behind one, you can ram jam your blade into its skull, but otherwise you have to stand there and swipe at the head. Not once, not twice, but three times. It’s awkward, boring, and leaves you open to being grappled, which soon becomes similarly awkward and boring and leaves you open to playing more of this game.
Imagine it: you are standing there, face-to-face with a walker. You are holding your knife out ahead of you parallel to the ground as it approaches you with its arms out, looking for a hug. So what do you do? Obviously give it a subpar shave with what looks like the single most impotent knifing motion ever made. And then you have to do it three times in the same right-to-left-and-back-to-reset motion. Swipe, pause, swipe, pause, swipe, die. It is a painfully stilted and choreographed scene clearly constructed so that the timing works out that the walker recovers just as you finishing reeling from your exhausting knifing efforts.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton has it captured in all its GIF glory. You can see it at the top of this article.
That, I feel, is a perfect mirror for what the entirety of Survival Instinct is like. It makes sense that ammunition for firearms is sparse and tactically only make sense for when you’re in a jam due to walker proclivity for LOUD NOISES, just as it is in the show and comic books. It makes sense and drives an interesting point of being stealth- and melee-based whereas most other zombie games are all about shooting things, but they could have made it fun.
You could have a combat system that fits into your weapon priority that’s fun. And you could have a grapple system that’s fleshed out for more variety and less I-want-to-die-ty. And you could have level design where you don’t feel like Wile E. Coyote running into fake tunnels. And you could have a game that people would actually want to play.
But you don’t. You don’t have any of that. You have a $50 game that is the poster child for good ideas and poor execution. You have The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct.