What Survival Instinct Got Right
+ Glimmers of good ideas pop up here and there
+ At least makes some attempts at being a competent survival horror
What Survival Instinct Got Wrong
– Combat is a shambles
– It looks like a lazy PS2 port
– Unreliable systems abound
– Numerous awful design choices
We’ve suspected for a while that The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct would be bad. The very concept – a first person shooter based on the television show – tasted pretty sour to mouths still savouring the flavours of Telltale’s wonderful episodic offerings, and the first footage we saw was legendarily horrendous. We expected a bit of a glorious train wreck; the sort of game that we could laugh through the tears on, like Night Trap or Big Rigs Racing. Instead, Survival Instinct is a bit of a sad failure, one that was obviously rushed out the door as fast as humanly possible.
You’re placed in the redneck boots of Daryl Dixon (who is, apparently, a fan favourite: I’ve largely stuck to the comics myself), whose quest to find his brother Merle makes up what little story the game possesses.
If you’re using a melee weapon against a single zombie, it will simply stand still while you stab it in the face.
Structurally, Survival Instinct has some smart ideas – instead of progressing straight from level to level, you’re faced with a map in-between sorties and given options as to which destinations you’re going to set, and how you’re going to get to them. Travelling between waypoints, and can choose to either take main roads, highways or back alleys, which vary your chances of running out of fuel, finding resources or suffering from a breakdown.
The problems start the moment any of these things occur and you’re forced out of your car. When you’re out in the field, hunting and stabbing away at zombies, Survival Instinct is shockingly inadequate on every level. Whenever a zombie gets all up in your face it feels like a morose riff on ZombiU.
If you’re using a melee weapon against a single zombie, it will simply stand still while you stab it in the face – if you’re facing multiple enemies and don’t want to attract more with gunshots, you’re screwed unless you can climb to higher ground. Stand on a car, a bench, anything higher than your waist really, and the zombies will have a hell of a hard time getting to you, letting you to leisurely stab them all in the face (which will take ages).
This is all clearly partly intentional – zombies are best avoided in general – but these encounters are just so unendingly dull. It doesn’t help that there only seem to be about eight generic zombie models, or that they constantly swarm you at inopportune times. The encounters with zombies simply feel ill-conceived and irritating rather than intense, which is a problem for a game based entirely around fending them off.
There are very few areas to explore along the way, but some of them can take time to work through properly, especially if you concern yourself with the bothersome side-missions that pop up from other survivors. The fact that you can’t save mid-mission and come back later is intensely irritating, and if you die on your way to one of the ‘main’ areas, any progress you made during pit-stops is lost. It’s simply bad design through and through, and there’s really nothing to redeem it – no clever winks for fans, no interesting story elements to speak of, and no graphics that wouldn’t have been heavily criticised on the PS2.
But Survival Instinct’s worst crime, by far, is the way it peppers its campaign with moments and ideas that, while not brilliant, at least hint at a level of creative thought that went into the title. Were you able to pull aside one of the game’s designers, it’s not hard to imagine that they’d put the game’s faults down to budget and time restrictions, withheld resources, and trampled ambition rather than laziness. This is one of the most genuine attempts at survival horror we’ve seen in ages. There’s a low ammo count, few health pick-ups, an emphasis on evasion over confrontation, and a handful of horror-movie moments scattered throughout that kind of work, cheap though they are. The ideas of gathering resources and finding other survivors to assist on your journey, while not particularly well implemented, are also fairly sound.
For all its ambitions, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct simply feels cheap and tawdry. It’s ugly, dull and thoroughly unenjoyable. It looks like we’re going to have to wait for Telltale’s next effort before we get a Walking Dead worth playing again.