Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (PC, 2013, USA): Blissfully Ignorant
November 5, 2013, 3:10 am
Filed under: Walking Dead – Survival Instinct (PC, 2013, USA)

Well, here I am again defending another shitty first-person-zombie-shooter. Life truly is cyclical, isn’t it?

But I feel compelled to come to the aid of Terminal Reality’s TV-show-cash-in-gamelike-substance “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct” because it is not nearly as horrendous as the majority of reviews (and the painful 32 Metacritic score) proclaim. I mean, it’s bad (it’s being included here on the blog, ain’t it?) but it’s not that bad.

What appears to be a forgiving stance on my part is most likely simple, blissful ignorance though. By that, I mean I know practically nothing of AMC’s blockbuster television serial upon which the game is based. After sitting through three-quarters of the pilot episode, I changed the channel. The characters were just too damned stupid for me to continue watching. More ashamed, I’m equally ignorant of the Kirkman graphic novels—but I’m just not a “graphic novel” kinda guy. To date, my only familiarity with this franchise is the Telltale Games episodic “interactive stories” (I guess you could call them games), and, like many who “played” them, I found them immensely moving.

Having outed myself as a non-Walking-Dead-fanboy, I can safely say I had absolutely no expectations going into “Survival Instinct.” I didn’t expect the character models to look like those actual people starring in the show (whoever they are); I didn’t expect the game’s story to be gripping in the way millions of viewers apparently find the TV show to be; and I didn’t expect to feel like I was immersed in the detail of the universe the serial has created. I was just playing to see if the game was any fun…you know, as a game.

So, to answer that question, I instead brought to “Survival Instinct” my knowledge of and experience with (probably far too many) zombie shooters across the ages, such as they are. And when I ponder those zombie (and zombie-like) shooters, it is safe to say that the majority of them are bad, bad, bad. Thankfully, there are exceptions like “Left 4 Dead” (2007) and its various iterations. But I think we can agree and (lovingly) say that zombie shooter games generally are awful. (That’s why we like them). From the spectacular flops like “Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green” (2005) and “You Are Empty” (2007) to relatively unknown crapfests like “Evil Resistance/Moscow and Dead” (2008) and “Bloodline,” (2004), counting every single bad back-from-the-dead game would occupy all your fingers and toes—the ones that haven’t been bitten off, that is.

But as I’ve said in other posts here, there are those select few who have a dormant zombie-killing gene that suddenly reanimates whenever a zombie game appears on the market. And, like the zombies themselves, we shamble over to the game shelf, pull down a copy and begin helplessly groping for our wallets. And it is in this vein that I can honestly say I enjoyed playing “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct” the majority of the time. I couldn’t help it, but from my pretty well-informed gaming perspective, it was a bit like playing “Fiddler’s Green” all over again, but this time with updated graphics, some more bells and whistles, a much improved soundtrack and narrative. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Again, since I am a non-franchise-fanboy, the narrative here (if there is one?) is alien to me. But apparently the game covers a time period before the start of the television show, a prequel for all intents and purposes. It focuses exclusively on the hard-nosed hillbilly Daryl Dixon (and, later on, his brother Merle—neither of whom, interestingly, are very nice, likeable, smart, or sympathetic characters) at the apex of the zombie-making event. During the course of the game, you travel from town to town collecting supplies, avoiding or killing zombies, and meeting other survivors who can join your troupe. Ultimately, by the end of the game, the survivors are headed to Atlanta, which is where the first season of the television series takes place.

As far as I could tell, there is no over-arching narrative here, however. There are, of course, mission objectives, but other than attempting to stay alive, the characters generally seemed to just be “on the move,” wandering down the road from map point A to map point B, from chapter to chapter. And speaking about that, the chapter structure of the game is both interesting and limiting in equal measures. Let me explain in a generic way: In many of the chapters, you begin by stopping in a small town. Your never-ending mission will be to collect enough gas to continue, since you are perpetually running low. (A “mission start” screen allows you to suit up for your resource run, showing you what weapons you are currently equipped with, which weapons you can yank out of the car’s storage if you choose, how much gas remains in your vehicle, and any passengers traveling with you. Once prepped, you enter the mission.) In my opinion, the maps are expertly crafted–in other words, they avoid feeling linear while they are, ultimately, completely linear. Unfortunately, the actual playable area for each town or area is limited (meaning that while visually you may be able to see several miles down the road or into the forests on your left and right, invisible walls keep you hemmed in). So, you walk down the road a bit into town, fight some zombies, then jog left, open a store door and investigate it, go out the back door and over a fence continuing to investigate, fight more zombies through some backyards, enter a trailer park which you also investigate, then backtrack to the main road which you continue down, through another storefront, and then down an alley, up a ladder, and across a roof. Along the way, you are collecting a variety of supplies—guns, ammo, new melee weapons, gas, food–and you may also meet other survivors (which I’ll discuss in a moment). Your character has 10 inventory slots to fill, and the car you drive has slots which you can transfer items into. (New cars, with more or less passenger seats, storage space, or better gas mileage can be unlocked if you find the keys as you investigate the various maps.) Anyway, while the movement is not completely linear and backtracking is common, the maps are condensed and walled in—you simply cannot wander anywhere you like. Typically, every chapter ends with you returning to your car (pursued by a horde of riled up zombies) to move on.

Although the locations change from chapter to chapter (while most of them are small towns, one chapter takes place in an eerie train yard, another in a super-dark campground, another in an abandoned CDC tent city, and there’s the requisite creepy hospital–this variety is welcome), ultimately the game as a whole feels disconnected. Each chapter does not feel integrated into the one before or after it—in essence this does not feel like a “world” as much as it does a series of discrete maps for you to puzzle your way through in first person. Don’t get me wrong—as mentioned, the individual areas themselves are fairly well constructed and interesting, but they all seem to exist in separate voids. (Some of this might be the result of how the game progresses from chapter to chapter—while you are, ostensibly, entering your vehicle and driving down the highway to your next destination, you never see or control any of that action. It all happens with a minimal animation showing a line moving across a hand-drawn map, with some forgettable voiceovers in the background from the main characters as they ride along in the car.) To me, this fragmentation, this lack of unity, is a weakness. However, this same structure allows for some slightly interesting choices: Once a chapter ends, the same roadmap appears on screen, and it shows where your next destination will be. However, to get to that destination, you can choose to either take back roads (which burn more fuel but provide greater chances at finding resources), regular streets (which burn medium fuel with medium chances at finding goods), or the highway (which burns less fuel but provides the least opportunity for scrounging). It is important to note that this is just a resource-management tactic, and the choice doesn’t actually change what happens or what you do (or even see) in the main story. You still always end up at the same point B on the map regardless of the chosen route. But if you choose the scenic route, for example, before you reach your final destination, you may be presented with an optional detour to find resources, such as scavenging through a zombie-infested truck stop, a short alleyway between some houses in a neighborhood, or a section of zombie-blasted highway—these maps are just like the main mission maps, but are scaled way down in size. These optional detours seem to be generated randomly, and they unfortunately do repeat themselves. (I found myself in the EXACT SAME truck stop three times during my playthrough, which felt kind of cheap). But the detours can be ignored if you choose to plow through the main missions only. (Note: If you don’t have enough fuel to reach your destination, regardless of what route you choose, the game will also force one of these resource-seeking mini-missions on you in order to proceed.)

Also, there’s one other resource-management choice at the beginning of a chapter during your “mission start” screen:  If you have picked up survivors along the way during your previous mission (there are usually one or two hiding out in various corners of buildings or alleyways) and they are riding in your car with you, you can arm them and send them out on missions to find fuel, food, or ammo (or you can simply have them stay at the car). Note that you don’t actually see them on their mission, which takes place concurrently while you are on your mission—nor do you cooperatively play on the same maps with them, or even bump into them along the way. Literally, you just assign them a weapon and a goal, and they disappear off screen as you begin your mission. You find out at the end of the chapter whether they returned to the car, and with what resources, or if they “never returned” because they were eaten (usually because you didn’t arm them or heal them properly at the start of the chapter). While this kind of mechanic seems ripe for gameplay opportunities, honestly it’s kind of dumb. It’s nothing more than a half-assed resource-management-minigame.

One of the reasons this mechanic fails is because none of the characters are fleshed out. If they get eaten when you send them on a mission, who gives a shit? And when they do die, you don’t even see it happen. Duh. You are just told by on-screen text at the end of your mission that so-and-so never returned. But it doesn’t matter: Other than having their own names, they are not distinct in any real way. The survivors you meet and who can join your group have the personalities of traffic cones, and you barely interact with any of them. When you first encounter them, they might relay some short, zombie-laden tale of woe, but then that’s it. They may ask if they can join you, but you aren’t given a prompt to reply. They just sort of automatically join you in your car. But note: Even this doesn’t happen right away! Instead, if you meet a survivor in mid-mission, they say they would like to join your group. Then you turn around to continue the mission, but they just stand there—they don’t follow and fight alongside you or anything complex like that. It’s only at the end of the chapter you are told that this or that survivor has joined your group. Dumb, disconnected, half-assed. There are a variety of other daft design choices that plague this game (don’t get me started on the too-infrequent checkpoints where dying sends you all the damn way back to the beginning of the chapter), but I’ll let you experience them for yourself.

Many reviews I read were quite disparaging of the game’s graphics. I am an unapologetic graphics whore, and I have to say that generally the look of this game—which falls somewhere between graphic-novel cartoony and realistic–did not disappoint me the way it did others. But I think I know why: I was actually able to compare, side-by-side in real time and on exactly the same 65” plasma screens, the graphical quality of the Xbox 360 console version of the game and the PC port of the game. And there is no comparison, simply put. The PC version, when played at 1920 x 1080, looks markedly sharper and clearer in just about every way. Some of the large texture areas—like massive brick walls or lawns of mowed grass—look cheap, too uniform, funky. But I play enough real crap that these details didn’t annoy me. There are ample opportunities to stealth-kill zombies when approached (in crouching position) from behind, and accompanying these kills are some decent-enough animations of up-close shivs through eyeballs, throats, and foreheads. As I mentioned previously, this felt like dancing with my old friend “Fiddler’s Green” who has undergone a significant facelift.

Above the acceptable graphics, there are a few interesting touches that help to make an overall positive impression. While none of them are revolutionary, these are random items that, in conjunction with one another, raise the game to a slightly higher level than the complete garbage most reviewers called the game.

First, with melee weapons (of several varieties), there are two attacks—one weak and one strong. The weaker attack, which is basically a baseball swing horizontally from right to left, is accomplished by quickly tapping the fire button. For a stronger attack that can take a zombie down with an over-the-head blow (the movement is a vertical strike), you lay on the trigger for a slightly longer time (of course opening yourself up to more damage by a zombie when one is in close proximity). I realize this isn’t revolutionary. However, the main reason I point this out is because these essentially different melee attacks, with significantly different amounts of damage being dealt, raise the game above a typical button-mashing experience that many reviewers seem to say it is. The two attacks truly can be used in conjunction with one another (if played carefully) for some effective, blood-smattering, face-to-face encounters (which is about every 30 seconds, by the way). To add further variety, there is a “shove” function which doesn’t deal damage but is a tactical maneuver which can be used to create space between you and those slathering jaws.

And permit me to say that this game actually understands the slowly mounting tension of having a decayed corpse closing in you. You need to swing that melee weapon, but when? Here he comes, Mr. Rotten, groaning and oozing and with his extended arms. If you swing too soon, he’ll get a hit in. If you swing too late, he’ll get a hit in. And you can’t simply turn and run—I mean, you can, of course—but you’ll just be running from one encounter and into another, similar encounter elsewhere. In this way, “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct” gets the job done. There is a thread of low-energy tension that runs through every encounter—whether it is a one-on-one smack-fest, or if you have sought false refuge on the hood of a wrecked car as a dozen of them encircle you. There are some areas in the game where running away is the only choice (the walkers are endless), and almost all areas will repopulate (to a lesser degree) once you are certain you’ve cleared them all out (a mechanic which irritates me to no end in any game). But overall, this is surprisingly not as annoying as it sounds, and it helps to keep you constantly on guard.

Anyway, what’s with all the melee stuff? There are several reasonable attempts at realism within the game. For example, any gun (pistols, shotguns, rifles) can take a zombie’s head off in one hit if aimed carefully. But guns are loud and will draw more flesh-eaters to your location (as will your flashlight in dark areas); for this reason, melee weapons are the preferred weapon of choice in most one-on-one situations. Even in relatively abandoned areas, I thought I could get away with a few headshots, but walkers would come out of the woodwork somehow in response to the shot. Generally, using a firearm should be reserved for emergency situations only. Of note, later in the game you do acquire a bow that can be used for silent headshots, but there are limited arrows (though they can be retrieved from your targets if you can find them). I found the bow kind of difficult (and slow) to use, personally.

Next, as is typical in almost every zombie game since “Fiddler’s Green,” zombies are pretty darn good at bashing down wooden doors to get at you. And they do so with relish in this game. However, attempting to tear down a metal door is a different story entirely. And this game has metal doors in it, here and there, in places where you would expect them: emergency exits at the theater, security doors in the hospital, and interrogation rooms in the police station. It is a creepy experience to walk closely to a metal door and here the hollow banging—like on an empty oil drum—and groans from zombies on the other side who know you are there but can’t remember how to turn a doorknob. Usually, going through the metal door is the only path through the level, so you brace yourself and charge in. It works to ramp up tension (at least for me), as well as providing a bit of breathing room to check your inventory before jumping back into combat.

Furthermore, there are some superior jumpscares in the game, some of which are not scripted. In essence, the game will punish you for attempting to run through a level at full tilt. Here’s what I mean: In the hospital level, I did my best to creep silently about and in the dark. However, after being cornered by five zombies, it was game over. Being sent back to the beginning of the level (irritated), my urge was to tear through the repeated sections at maximum speed—especially since I knew the location of all the danger zones and could proactively navigate them. But not so fast, Bucko! The location of some zombies (and also collectibles) are generated randomly and will inevitably catch you off guard. So, as I ran through the hospital corridors feeling perfectly safe to get back to where I had previously died, suddenly a zombie would tear out of a door complete with orchestra blast in my headphones (which didn’t happen the first time around), and I was suddenly in a grapple-for-my-life situation (usually ending in death)! More than once, these unexpected encounters had me jumping out of my seat and cursing loudly. I know in light of today’s software, this is not revolutionary. Still completely unscripted moments  like these provide genuine goosebumps. SMALL SPOILER: One other jumpscare (this one is scripted) takes place in a ranger’s station at a campground. As you talk to a petrified woman over the ranger’s radio, you are pretty darn sure the ranger is nowhere to be found in the abandoned facility…but then he VERY SUDDENLY  appears (again, right in your face–and, no surprise, he’s hungry). SPOILER ENDS.

Here’s another nice inclusion: Since noise plays a big role in alerting the zombies, stealth comes into play, as mentioned. And the stealth mechanic in the game works generally well. But the stealthiest of plans can be interrupted when someone in your party screams over the radio hanging from your belt, awakening every enemy in the room you are trying to tiptoe past! Or when you accidentally smack an abandoned car with your weapon, the anti-theft alarm explodes into life (I know, I know this is “borrowed” from “Left 4 Dead,” who probably borrowed it from someone else—but if it works, it’s worth stealing). The blaring noise in your headphones itself is enough to make you jump, but the real reason you run is because the approaching wall of walkers is not survivable. There are several moments like these in the game—which would be funny if they weren’t so dire– which really shine.

Another detail: Of course, some zombies appear inert (propped up against the wall in a sitting position), but when you draw near, they become animated and begin to rise (sometimes very slowly and sometimes more quickly). This is practically a given in a first-person zombie game by now, but there’s one nice catch, a sort of on-your-toes mini-game: If you can get close enough to deliver a head blow to a sitting zombie before it becomes completely upright, it is a one-hit kill. Otherwise, if you wait until it is on its feet and shambling towards you, you are looking at three or four hits to bring it down (depending on the melee weapon). This often entices you to rush forward to take a slowly rousing zombie down with one hit—but it can also be risky since you don’t know what else may be waiting for you beyond that very spot.

I guess for those who harbor that dormant zombie-killing gene (you know who you are), you probably already dismissed the bashing this game has received by just about every major review site. I presume you’ve already bought the game (shit, get it used, cheap), and wrestled your way through it. From my perspective as someone with generally low expectations of everything (and who has played some truly poor zombie-killing titles), this one isn’t nearly as bereft of fun as others would have you think. Of course, being blissfully ignorant of the source material here probably helps some too.