The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is flawed, don’t get me wrong. And flawed in some annoying ways.
But it’s also not nearly as bad as you’ve been hearing, or as I was expecting. In fact, in some ways, it’s kind of a weird nostalgia trip to games of a decade ago… mostly because many of this game’s techniques are from the turn of the century. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At its best, the game reminds you of survival horror titles like Resident Evil, a title it was blatantly inspired by in some respects. At its worst… well…
I’d sum up the story but there isn’t one, really. It’s not like we don’t know what happens to Merle and Daryl in the show. None of the survivors you can recruit have any personality. Mostly you’ll want to keep them alive because they unlock “relics” at the end of the game that make a second playthrough much easier, which seems a strange choice at first until you realize the game was built on you wanting to replay it: There’s no multiplayer mode, and thank God for that.
By far the most annoying aspect of the game is that it barfs up the usual cliche of “Somebody gets bitten and nobody within the game world knows he’s going to become a zombie.” Is it really too much to ask that a zombie movie or game takes place in a world where George Romero got to make a movie?
The main problem with the game beyond having a crappy story and being based off a highly regarded TV show, really boils down to time. The game has good ideas, but it had to take shortcuts to implement them, and that gets annoying fast.
For one thing, the level design is sadly pretty repetitive. While you’ll need to poke around, a lot of designs are recycled; I’m pretty sure a few areas are literally mirror images of each level, and some are literally the same map with a different coat of brown paint. For another, the game has infinite enemy respawns, which was a poor decision to say the least; you can sweep an area, clean out the zombies, and then find yourself attacked from the side by a zombie that just respawned. It’s worse if you set off a gun or bomb, because then zombies who have apparently learned to phase through matter will attack you from behind, even if you’ve killed every corpse in the area. Considering how often models are repeated, they might also be packing some Jamie Madrox powers as well.
Finally, there’s invisible wall you can bump into, and apparently the idea of climbing over an obstacle is beyond Daryl’s physical ability, even when the obstacle is a shelf.
Seriously, what is this? 1999? Are there also some JPEG textures you can throw at me? Can I have a bunch of one-liners mapped to a button? Actually, that last I might welcome, Norman Reedus doesn’t do much here but he is pretty funny.
Equally annoying are your party members. They apparently can’t be bothered to do much more than scavenge, and considering you have to choose who can come with you and who you have to leave behind, it’s a bit irksome. One suspects there was intended to be much more to this mechanic, but time meant it was cut, so they’re really just power-ups on two legs.
It grates, because the survival gameplay is actually really, really good, good enough that I kept playing the game even when it got on my nerves.
Essentially the game keeps up constant pressure: You can’t hide for too long, because zombies can smell you; in practice this means if you aren’t decisive they’ll eventually find you and you have to bash your way through the swarm. You can run, but that means you’ll sweat, and draw zombies towards your position, something the game fails to make clear but that you quickly learn the hard way.
You have to scavenge for resources, as well as find items to unlock objectives, but you have to balance poking through the map and its rewards against more zombies shambling in. Each type of weapon has benefits and drawbacks: Gunfire draws zombies to your position, blunt objects knock enemies away and tend to have more power, and bladed weapons tend to have less power but can insta-kill from behind. You have no map and no radar, either: The most you get is a compass that points you towards your objective.
Actual combat, unfortunately, is pretty repetitive; you have to tag zombies in the head, or they’ll just be shoved away, and there’s no strategy to actually killing them. Just mash buttons. Then again, the entire idea is to avoid combat as much as possible.
One smart, smart choice Terminal Reality made was the “shove” button. Remember what we christened the “Gatorade Nut Punch”? That’s the shove command. Pretty much you can push your way through entire swarms of zombies, get some breathing room, and get some health items into you. And you’ll need it. It also makes the “pass the redneck” zombie grappling mechanic a bit more optional as you can shove zombies away.
Rapidly it becomes clear that this game, in the actual playing of it, is very well-balanced. You have to make choices, constantly, and deal with the side effects of those choices. Screw up and you’ll rapidly be out of ammo with a horde on your ass, but in the playing the game rarely feels cheap. It’s dynamic and it can create fun situations. The resource management adds another layer of strategy: If you need to shoot your way out… can you handle the thunder you’re about to bring down on your head?
The main problem here is really, I think, the price. Fifty bucks is a lot to ask from a game stuck in the early 2000s in many, many ways. Too much, really: This game would be a budget title on PC in the shape it’s in if it didn’t have an expensive license.
But the bones of a good game are here. That’s the really sad part: It’s a fun game, when it clicks, but Terminal Reality was given a deadline instead of support. Activision does this a lot: 007 Legends had similar problems although bluntly this is a vastly better game. Hopefully Terminal Reality doesn’t suffer the same fate as Eurocom.