Giant Bomb Review

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The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct Review

1
  • PS3

This is not the Walking Dead game you're looking for.

You aren't likely to see a starker, more immediately relevant example of the differences between a thoughtfully produced licensed game, and a cheap, barely thought-out cash-in, than you will between the two games currently bearing the name The Walking Dead. We all know by now (hopefully) about Telltale's rightfully revered episodic adventure game based on Robert Kirkman's zombie apocalyptic comic series. But now we also have The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, a game that takes its story cues from The Walking Dead TV series. While the two aren't quite canonically related, they feature the same overarching notion of perpetually put-upon survivors fighting to continue their meager existence in a terrible, rotting world. But where Telltale's Walking Dead offered up characters, mechanics, and storytelling that all worked in almost entirely harmonious concert, nothing about Survival Instinct feels properly executed, let alone coherent or thoughtful.

The stories of Daryl and Merle are fleshed out a bit in Survival Instinct, but not in a particularly meaningful or entertaining way.

I suppose it's worth noting that the two games are also of entirely different genres. Survival Instinct is a far more action-oriented game than Telltale's traditional adventure, and also is told almost exclusively from the first-person perspective of the show's favorite survivalist, Daryl Dixon. The story is something of a prequel to the events of the TV series, showing the early goings of the outbreak that slaughters the majority of the human race, as well as Daryl and his brother Merle's early misadventures in a now post-apocalyptic society. Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker appear to voice their respective characters with decent enthusiasm (if not particularly authentic acting), and the developers at Terminal Reality did do a pretty good job of capturing both actors' likenesses and expressions for the purposes of the game. Unfortunately, those are probably the last nice things I'm going to say about Survival Instinct.

Where to begin? Pretty much from the opening seconds, Survival Instinct makes minimal effort to immerse you in anything resembling an even moderately living world. Environments are bland, linear, and haggard looking in a way that seems less the fault of the apocalypse than the environment and texture artists tasked with trying to make this thing look halfway decent. And that's before you've even killed zombie one. The second those god awful-looking creatures start shambling up to you, the whole thing just falls the hell apart.

Nearly everything else the matter with Survival Instinct can be traced back to the undead hordes shuffling their way around the game's various areas. They're ugly, though again, not in a way that's so much frightening as it is deeply disappointing. Zombie AI is one of those things I'm always somewhat reluctant to criticize, since trying to program the purely instinctual, largely thoughtless behavior of tattered ghouls can't be an exact science. But in Survival Instinct, the science seems to have been abandoned altogether. Zombies are terrible at finding you in the most bizarre of circumstances. Walk past a certain fence or doorway, and they'll just lose complete track of you, or worse yet, still know where you are, but find themselves unable to traverse the corner of the door they've somehow become hooked upon. In open spaces they'll certainly come at you, often in large groups that can't really be fought, in which case your best bet is often just to flee.

Zombies are inconsistent about how aware they are of your presence. This guy might ignore you as you creep by, or spot you from 20 feet away. You never know.

That is maybe the one germ of a good idea Survival Instinct is infected with. Instead of turning the game into a zombie killing bloodbath, Terminal Reality at least tried something different by making the encounters with the undead more overwhelming than predicated on endless zombie killing. Little details, like the game's focus on silent, hand-to-hand weaponry, and the fact that you actually sweat when running for too long (which looks awful, but apparently alerts zombies to your presence via their sense of smell), are nifty concepts that just don't play out very well in execution. In reality, the game focuses so much on non-shooting weapons that guns border on useless. They're incredibly noisy, for one, and also aren't really any fun to shoot. Even Daryl's trademark crossbow, which the game goes out of its way to fuss over when you first get it, is downright awful to use.

So instead of running around like a zombie killing machine, you'll find yourself creeping around quite a lot, sneaking up on hapless walkers when they're by themselves, and creeping past groups whenever you can. Of course, you can't always avoid a conflict, in which case you must run to the blazes, lest the horde catch up to you. However, any real sense of fear one might feel from having an active football roster's worth of cannibalistic corpses pursuing you is largely negated when you actually find yourself up close and personal with a group. This scenario enacts a "grapple" mechanic where, one at a time, zombies will get all up in your face while you try to steer your knife in the direction of said zombie's face to pull off an initially brutal-looking kill move. Then you do it again. And again. And again. And again and again and again until you either screw up enough to die, or have actually killed an entire horde of zombies with only a knife and a severely broken game mechanic to thank for your life. I think I maybe killed off at least five or six major groupings of zombies this way. The rest of the time, I either managed to escape to the random green box I had to find to end the current mission objective, or died.

I died a lot in Survival Instinct, which maybe makes it all the sadder that it only took me five, maybe six hours to finish the whole damn thing. The storytelling is spartan to the point of very nearly not existing, which means that much of the time you're spending in the game revolves around annoying resource gathering and errand missions that are not only not fun, but incredibly frustrating as the game's difficulty progressively climbs higher. Which is to say nothing of the completely pointless, and utterly unpleasant side ventures the game saddles you with between story sections. In between these sections, you are asked what route you would like to take to the next area. Taking the highway, for instance, is a faster route that also provides few scavenging opportunities for supplies, like gas and food. You need those things, because without gas, you can't get to the next destination. Whatever route you take, you'll eventually have to make a stop between missions, and these all take place in the same handful of recycled environments, with the same recycled objectives again and again. They are awful, pointless padding that offer nothing beyond a way to extend what would otherwise be a mercifully brief playtime.

As awful as Survival Instinct is mechanically, the really depressing thing about it is that it offers no meaningful information or commentary on the characters it revolves around. Yes, Daryl and Merle's lives are a bit more fleshed out, but nothing you learn is anything you couldn't have gone the rest of your life not knowing. Even worse are the various side characters you'll pick up along the way, who you can actually chose to bring with you, or leave behind, depending on your affinity for them, and the kind of room you might have in your current vehicle. These characters exist, but that's about all they do. They're given few, if any opportunities to endear themselves to the player, and not a single one of their various death scenes elicited more than a casual shrug from me. It's hard to feel much for people who you never make any meaningful connection with, you know?

Actually, this represents the final visual quality of Survival Instinct quite nicely. So shut up, screenshot disclaimer.

This is perhaps why this Walking Dead was always going to suffer in comparison to Telltale's. Telltale found a way to make you care about even the most minimally present characters in your group. It crafted relationships that became increasingly complex as the episodes went along. Survival Instinct's limp attempt at similar survivor relationships doesn't even compare.

I realize comparing what are obviously two very different games, mechanically speaking, isn't entirely fair. I also realize that Terminal Reality was likely saddled with a thankless, under-resourced task in making this game, one that has been quoted as coming together from conception to release in less than a year's time. The thing is, you can see the basic framework of a completely competent zombie game in Survival Instinct. With a stronger budget, more time, and a bit more care and craft, I could almost see this game being good. Sadly, what's ended up on shelves benefited from no such factors, leaving players with an abysmally rushed game of barely connected ideas that brings the player little more than frustration and disappointment.

Alex Navarro on Google+
220 Comments
Posted by milsco

I'm gonna buy this game!

Posted by Spitznock

Didn't see that one coming.

Posted by Ley_Lines

I think this will surprise few people

Posted by Atwa

SURPRISE!

or not?

Posted by fargofallout

Shocking!

Posted by DeathbyYeti

Matches the show in terms of quality I assume then

Edited by Butler

We should buy copies of this game and just keep sending them to Alex.

Edited by Droop

Delicious Activision fueled cashgrab

Edited by zenmastah

Rather generous review imo.

Edited by RazielCuts

The QL should be goooood.

Edited by Winsord

GotY 2013, calling it.

Posted by tourgen

I must play this. I must know what a 1 star first person zombie game plays like.

Posted by Winternet

Finally, a 1-star review from Mr. Navarro. I was getting worried that he would start to review ok games now.

Posted by Mesoian

I expected as much.

Edited by wsowen02

I bet this game sells disproportionately well.

Edited by huser

We need an annual worst Game of the Year category - as dictated by Alex Navarro.

EDIT - Still I am bummed out about some of the ideas here. Smelling bad being tied into excessive running (probably away or past a zombie horde) also being tied to that same zombie horde being able to better track you could have been incredibly interesting tension. Having a vehicle limit the number of people you can bring along...and the opportunity to make some HARD decisions (just imagine wanting to save Clementine at the expense of leaving the hard core survivalist, National Guardsman, or cop on the side of the road) not be used at all...

Reminds me of the QL with Battleship where an interesting idea was languishing in a mediocre (or here terrible) licensed game.

Edited by Pr1mus

Just like the TV show.

Posted by Mucklefluga

Awww man, i really wanted this to be good :(

Edited by Sgtpierceface

The opening sequence seemed cool so it sucks that the rest of the game was disappointing.

Edited by Will_M

The worst bad games are the ones that just make you feel sad. I'm sorry Alex. Seems like you're gonna need one hell of a palate cleanser.

Posted by Jayzilla

@tourgen: If you do, go full hog and buy it! Only then can you experience how truly terrible it is when your wallet is that much lighter.

Online
Edited by NMC2008

GB 2013 GOTY Award for Biggest Surprise. right here.

Edited by ReCkLeSs_X

I'm actually surprised that it got even 1 star.

Posted by ucankurbaga

At the end of the game

Daryl and Merle gets on vehicle and drive off ( I am not kidding )

Edited by nail1080

I'll get it anyway, in my own ways. LOL Activision

Edited by Draxyle

I hate that this game exists. Way to set back the industry again after we've had some actually good licensed games coming out these last few years.

Comeon, Activision. There's no reason you can't do this even half as good as a company that's a fraction the size of you.

Edited by Bistromath

Clem, no!

Posted by AuthenticM

I already knew before coming here that Alex was the reviewer.

Alex, why are you always stuck with the shitty games ? I know your eloquance results in a very satisfying read when applied to such games, but still.

Edited by ArbitraryWater

@draxyle said:

I hate that this game exists. Way to set back the industry again after we've had some actually good licensed games coming out these last few years.

I'm glad that this game exists, if only because Alex got to write a vitriolic review of it.

Edited by jayjonesjunior

Matches the show in terms of quality I assume then

This.

Posted by The_Interrupter

I think there is a small error. The ESRB rating is listed as T, while the image shows an M rating.

Posted by Fobwashed

@branthog said:

I really hope there is going to be a quicklook and maybe some live stuff with this. If anything is ripe for entertainment, it's coverage of t his.

Endurance Run!? I'd maybe watch other people play this for a bit but from what I've read and seen already, someone would have to pay me a good amount of money to get me to play it myself. It's really weird that a game can be this bad.

Edited by ArkOfTurus

It seems like a modern day LJN game.

Edited by Jay_Ray

@winternet: Or worse, start giving bad games good scores

Online
Edited by fox01313

Looks as bad as the Land of the Dead game on how lackluster fun it is, thanks for the informative review Alex as there's been really nothing out on it in terms of marketing. If I want a fun game based off a movie, better just go with the Manos Hand of Fate game.

Posted by ElixirBronze

Yeah! Looking forward to the Quick Look even more now.

Edited by TheHT

@draxyle said:

Way to set back the industry again after we've had some actually good licensed games coming out these last few years.

I think you're giving this game too much credit.

Posted by ScrambledGregs

Is this some kind of Monkey Paw wish/ironic twist thing where Alex can live forever only so long as he reviews awful games a few times a year?

Posted by civid

"Mr. 1-star Navarro" always brings a smile to my face!

Posted by jimmyfenix

goty

Edited by Pixeldemon

One star!? Think of the Metacritic based developer bonus you heartless bastard!

Posted by kerse

I expected it to be bad, but I wasn't expecting it to be that bad lol. I wasn't gonna buy it either way though.

Posted by chilipeppersman

Kinda what I was expecting. I mean if a game shows no more than a trailer or two before its release, thats a pretty big indicator its gonna suck, because they dont want anyone to know. Kinda like when shitty movies come out they dont screen it for the critics, cause they know it well get bad ratings and no one will see it. No surprise here, keep on moving..........

Posted by Milkman

I have a reoccurring nightmare where this game outsells Telltale's Walking Dead.

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Posted by Undeadpool

Best part of this? The weird, apologist positive reviews on Metacritic. Great games get review bombed by screeching fanboys, this piece of trash gets hardcore defenders.

Posted by vegetashonor

You know what? WHY DON'T YOU JUST GIVE THIS GAME A CHANCE??? I mean shit!!! I'm sure its not that baaaaaaHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA...oh man...I can't keep that shit up!!! HAHAHAHA! What crap!!!

Edited by Draxyle

@milkman said:

I have a reoccurring nightmare where this game outsells Telltale's Walking Dead.

If it's any consolidation, It only hit the Steam top sellers list on the day it was released (and not the very top), and then it quickly fell. As of right now it sits a few pages down, directly below Recettear.

On the flip side, Telltale's Walking dead topped the charts a great number of times and probably will continue to do so every time it goes on sale.

So in all likely-hood, that nightmare probably won't become true.

Edited by Landon

I would like a quick look of this game.

Edited by squidraid

You make me so happy, Activision. Living the dream.

edit: Was there some poor soul here on GB who actually bought this game?