Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct Review

Within the past seven years, the zombie genre has exponentially grown from its simple roots as a voodoo myth to become a monster for which the public is commonly aware of.  Although the genre had received prior attention through various films and games including White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, and Shaun of the Dead, it wasn't until 2010 with the debut of the television series The Walking Dead that the genre hit the big time.

Based off the still-running graphic novel of the same name, the show follows a man named Rick Grimes, a law officer who was critically wounded during a shootout and goes into a coma, and later wakes up to a world populated by the undead, resulting in him having to team up with other people to survive.  Featuring great character drama in addition to gory zombie action, the show has garnered much success.  Of course, from fame and fortune comes merchandising, including video games.  Although most people are familiar with Telltale Games' the Walking Dead series, that game takes more inspiration from the comic than the series, but in 2013, developer Terminal Reality and publisher Activision brought us The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, a game which aimed to explore the backstory of two of the show's popular cast members, Daryl and Merle.

Set before the events of the first season, the game follows Daryl Dixon, a local Southerner who gets word of the outbreak that is sweeping the country when him and a hunting party are attacked by the undead.  Daryl's father is severely injured, and with no other choice, he is put out of his misery by his son; afterwards, him and uncle Jess decide to heed the warnings on the radio and head to Atlanta, where an evacuation is taking place.  Yet, before they can head there, Daryl must figure out the whereabouts of his older brother Merle.  At one point, Jess, who was bitten early on, turns and is killed, but Daryl does find Merle, and the two then set out for Atlanta, hoping that the evacuation isn't a bust.
Although the idea of focusing on characters from the show and what they were doing before their onscreen debut is an interesting set-up, Survival Instinct's plot and characters lack any purpose.  The television series is best known for its engaging characters and their effort to work with one another, and though it is present, the writing simplifies much of the drama and offers nothing new that we didn't already know about the Dixon brothers.  In summary, Daryl is a good-natured person but his brother is reckless and has a short temper, yet they still look out for each other, despite their differences.  The remainder of the cast doesn't stand out and serves as nothing more than cannon fodder, and the actual plot is rather threadbare, it's just a series of scenarios in which Daryl and Merle stop at a place, find what they need, and then leave.  Thus, when the story reaches its conclusion, it lacks build-up and feels rushed, leaving the player with an empty sense of satisfaction.

Like the narrative, the gameplay has its share of interesting concepts, but most of them are not fully realized in this half-baked experience.  As Daryl, the main goal of the game is to reach Atlanta, along the way, he will scavenge for supplies, help survivors, and avoid an ever-growing undead menace.  Whereas other zombie-themed games such as Dead Rising or House of the Dead encourage gamers to freely kill zombies, this one flips that equation, and has them avoiding and sneaking around the infected.  Though stealth is your friend, it's not as fun as it should be, but more on that later.

Over the course of the five-to-six-hour campaign, you'll travel through various location in Georgia to reach your destination.  Each area, whether story-related or optional, features a multitude of tasks that must be completed to continue.  There are survivors scattered around which can be recruited to come with Daryl, and in turn, be sent out to look for resources such as fuel and ammunition.  Additionally, searching an area may also result in a brand-new vehicle to drive.  Each type of automobile can only hold a certain number of individuals and supplies, and if the number of people exceeds the maximum capacity, he or she must be left behind.  Yet, there are no repercussions for ditching them whatsoever, which is a missed opportunity.  Then again, survivors that are recruited don't impact the story as ones you send out are never seen in a level, and when they do return, he or she often comes back low on health and with meager rewards.

Vehicles take up gas to reach a location, and how much is consumed depends on whether the highways, streets, or backroads are taken.  Thus, there is the chance for your form of transportation to run empty or break down, if that happens, then you're given the opportunity to look for extra materials, but when you get such chances is inconsistent.  Sometimes, your vehicle may be fine on gas and in good shape, but will stop a few miles from the next spot, and other times, the car might continue its journey after Daryl has found a new part, only to stop after a few seconds because the newly discovered battery just died.  However, these issues don't hold a candle to Survival Instinct's greatest design flaw: combat.

As stated prior, this is a game that prioritizes stealth over noise, since running or firing off guns can easily alert walkers to your vicinity; therefore, Daryl will be crouching for 90% of the experience so he can get the drop on enemies more easily.  While zombies aren't the brightest creatures, their intelligence is wildly inconsistent in Survival Instinct.  Often, they fail to realize when there's a man with a knife or other weapon sneaking up on them, even when they can clearly see you, but there are also moments in which one walker may spot Daryl from a long distance away and start heading towards him, but due to the poor audio, you can't properly tell which direction its coming from.

Should he find himself in a struggle, the game's pitiful combat makes fighting the undead a chore.  Melee weapons lack impact and the animations look like Daryl is slapping them with the side of the object rather than properly using it.  Despite this, the player might as well let him perish if he ever gets grabbed by a walker.  When such an incident does happen, this triggers a mechanic where you must line up his knife with the walker's head, the problem is that the constant swaying can make it hard to line up your shots, and while this is happening, more walkers might start to show up and surround him.  Fortunately, the zombies are more than happy to wait their turns to grab and bite him, which results in a never-ending conga-line of death.

In addition to having a thin plot and mediocre gameplay, the title, like a zombie, is an ugly sight to behold.  Environments are drab and lazily designed, featuring repeated locations and a limited color palette consisting of brown, grey, and sewage green.  Character models are average at best, and there are numerous physics glitches such as dead enemies getting stuck on walls or debris flying ten feet into the air for no reason.  The audio doesn't fare much better; actors Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker reprise their parts as Daryl and Merle, but most of the time, they sound like they're just doing it for the paycheck, as does the rest of the cast.

There's a way to make a good game with the ideas of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, but that vision is not realized here.  The concepts are interesting, but they are lazily implemented and are more annoying than they should be.  The game is reminiscent of the infamous Governor, underneath the smiling face is a cunning, manipulative monster more than happy to manipulate you for its benefit.

Final Score: 3/10


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