One good thing I will say about Survival Instinct. There are times, when you're creeping around the dimly lit rooms, when you feel the chill of a survival atmosphere. Ammo is scarce, and a tactic of last resort - firing a shotgun - will alert Walkers in a huge radius to your presence. So for much of the time, it's you, a darkened room, an unseen groaning threat, and a hunting knife. Once or twice, that atmosphere works. And... that's the one good thing out of the way.
During the preview rounds of Survival Instinct, Terminal Reality referred to the AMC Bible - a document which details how Walkers look, behave, and what they're called. (It's Walkers, never Zombies.) They told us a disarming story about including Walkers in the game without teeth, and being told sternly by franchise guardians, that all Walkers must have full sets of teeth. Not only that: they must be brought forward in the mouth, because that's how they look in the comic books and the TV show.
This story was designed to reassure us about franchise oversight, even if that involved throwing the observation skills of their art team under the bus.
Having played the game, it's hard to believe that this conversation ever happened - or that there was any oversight of Survival Instinct's content. You can kill Walkers in Survival Instinct with four slashes of a knife. Four slashes, and they fall backwards, dead. This is in a world where severed heads remain alive, chomping aimlessly at the air in front of them, hoping the next bite will somehow have live meat in it. Unbelievably, they've got killing Walkers wrong. That's like writing a biography of George Eliot, and not knowing she was a woman.
Another thing that Terminal Reality mentioned in the pre-release interviews was their system of generating thousands of distinctive Walkers. This, too, is notable by its groaning, shambling absence. It's possible that this was down to a harsh publishing schedule - certainly, this game seems to exist in a cloud of thwarted ambition. But that doesn't help us, the gamers, when four or five faces endlessly snap at your first-person face. And while they're ugly enough, they just don't feel particularly Walking Dead.
Melee is annoying. Even a single Walker can get a crafty swipe in, because the radius at which attacks connect is so unexpectedly large. If you get multiple Walkers on you (and you will), that's several large, invisible circles to worry about. If you were hoping to casually stick a knife through those doughy Walker skulls, forget it. The instakill move, deliverable only from behind, takes so long that it's suicidal in groups. Other valid tactics include:
- running through the crowd, gathering a train of excited Walkers, then ducking under a barrier. (Walkers can't duck, despite what we've all see on the highway at the beginning of Season 2)
- abusing doors, admitting one at a time for a more personal service (watch out for respawns, though. They're cheap and unending)
- using "distraction" objects like bottles and flares (and praying that the Walkers notice. It's not guaranteed)
Gunplay is annoying - the noise of a shot frequently causes more trouble than it's worth. I said, above, that it's a tactic of last resort - but changing weapon is so slow, that it's frequently not even that. That's fair enough, and it's certainly in keeping with accepted zombie rules. But you don't get the payoff of power. The rifle's reload time is suicidal. Same with the shotgun, but at least you get two shots per reload. Even stealth is annoying - because it doesn't feel like the best option. During one side-mission to grab a spare tyre, my attempts to get neatly through were hopeless. In the end, I used a few suicide runs to work out where the tyre was, then ran in, gathering myself a hungry following. Then I grabbed the tyre and ran back, Walkers in tow, to the green square that triggers mission end. Who cares about having twenty Walkers on your tail, when you've got a green safety square?
CTRL-F "is annoying" on this page. It should appear five times, after I've said this: Survival Instinct is annoying. It's also boring, unchanging, and ugly.
There's a kind of strategy game, between the missions. A road trip, where you plan your journey across a map. There's a choice of destination, and method of travel - highways, streets, or backroads. Choosing the backroads increases the chance of finding a stop-off point for food and ammo, and you can find more survivors, too. They'll join you if you do a side-mission. (I collected a food hamper for one lady, and she must have eaten the whole hamper by the time I got back to the car, 'cos I saw none of it. Frankly, I don't think I need someone in my squad who can neck a crate of sports drinks and dried food in five minutes.)
Your squad don't take part in the missions - they can be despatched on their own concurrent and unseen missions to search for fuel (required to move on), ammo, or food. They'll get damaged, and unless you decide to hunt down a bigger car, you'll get used to using survivors until they're nearly dead, then dumping them for a fresh recruit. That reminds me, I must get a mug printed with "What Would Merle Do?" stamped on it in Impact.
I haven't really mentioned the relationship between Merle and Daryl. Don't come here for extra canon. The animation doesn't carry the emotion of the voice actors, and even the authentic actors feel like they're phoning in the weak lines. There's none of the silence, subtlety and power of the source material. It's as heavy footed as the end of Star Wars Episode III, knowing where it has to go, and ponderously getting there.
While Survival Instinct has no problem breaking the rules of the Walking Dead world, it's also hobbled by it: there's none of the crazy, colourful psychopaths of Dead Rising. Hell, there isn't even David Morrissey as Season 3's Governor. Just Walker after Walker. Once you've stabbed one, run past one, and been killed by one, you've played enough. And that two minute process is not worth any amount of money.
It is annoying. There, I've said it six times now.
- Occasional chill of survival
- That's not how you kill Walkers
- Ugly and boring levels
- What's the opposite of fun?
- Empty strategy elements