Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (XB360): About as entertaining as the lost Sophia story arc....

During the running seasons of AMC's The Walking Dead, I log into facebook and watch the show in private group of about 110 people. Some I know, many I don't.  We comment and respond throughout the episode, and generally its a good time. But every so often, we get a few of those phenomenal idiots who flip their shit if there is more than 45 seconds of exposition taking place. "OMG WTF?! THIS EPISODE IS SO BORING! NOBODY IS SHOOTING ANYTHING." It makes me fucking insane, because after 3 seasons these people haven't figured out that its never been about the zombies, its been about survivors in the breakdown of modern society.

Luckily for these impatient babies, a new Walking Dead video game has hit the shelves and it seems perfectly designed for them. I always get very nervous when a game comes out based of a movie or a TV show, and vice versa but this game has been in production for quite a while so maybe it will be one of the few examples that break the awful tradition.


Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a prequel to the of sorts to the television show but where accurately in the timeline it takes place is never clearly defined. My guess is that its sometime after Rick was first hospitalized since it discusses the initial outbreak of the infection.  The game starts in somewhat of a introductory level to teach you the basic controls on a hunting trip with you and a bunch of rednecks. After tracking a deer and lining up your shot, your group is overrun with walkers. After a brief spat, you are quickly taken down.

You find out that for this intro, you were actually playing the Dixon brothers father. He is badly hurt and too far gone to save. Daryl unable to mercy kill his dad, leaves the task to one of the random friends they were with before cutting to a video game variation of the Walking Dead show theme. After regrouping in a shack and loading up on rifle ammo, you take over as Daryl and decide to head southbound to try to escape this infection and find his brother Merle.

Rooker keeps up with his acting tradition of being a complete and utter
asshole in every production he is a part of. And nobody does it better.
Sadly, as you can tell from the paragraph above, the story of this game isn't exactly stellar. Generally the gist of the game is you move from location to location and try to locate enough supplies be it ammo, food, and gas to drive from checkpoint to checkpoint. The main goal in the game is to reconnect with Merle but without "spoiling" to much per say, this basically happens about halfway through the game. On one hand I like it that because I like Micheal Rooker as an actor so if I get more of him I'm cool with that. But on the other, it leaves with surprisingly little to continue with. We've seen zombie apocalypse, we know how it goes.

Survival Instinct did start off incredibly positive for me though. Much of the beginning tutorial of the game basically teaches you how to move without being heard, and the first level of the game teaches you how to sneak up on zombies for an insta-kill. So with a rifle and knife I was ready to go. I arrogantly marched right out into the open, raised my rifle and gave a satisfying pop of the head of a walker in the distance. To which every zombie hiding in the level descended upon me and promptly ripped my ass a new one.

Shotgun for emergencies only. Firing without an emergency makes one.
OK, lesson learned. Much like the show and in current zombie lore, zombies still have functioning ears and firing off a gun will alert your location. So then I tried sneaking around a bit, and for me being a bit of stealth enthusiast I had a bit of fun with that. After upgrading to a pipe as a weapon I really enjoyed sneaking up on a walker and driving my knife into their dome. If I couldn't land the quick kill, no problem. Swinging your melee weapon gives you controller a little shake on impact, along with a realistic animation if you clocked a walker with pipe. The melee in this game and especially the stealth kills have a very satisfying realistic feel to them, think the kills in Dishonored for a comparative example.

The problem is, you have a to be fucking efficient. If you take too much time with one walker another one will be right on top of you. If they take a swing out at you and connect, it takes a fourth or fifth of your health, so you wanna get out of that situation fast. However if they catch you, you get locked into this aiming minigame where you have to line up a swinging reticule on the zombies head and then stab down. Its a cool idea, but if you miss too much it eats your health.

There is always more than one to kill.
The other problem is it takes way to long. So if it was just one zombie on you, there is at least 4 more when you get it off. It's incredibly frustrating because if you are caught, you might as well just let it kill you. There have been situations where I go caught by one and as I fought it off I got stuck with like 10 others. The second I'd make the kill and not lose any health, another would take its place. It basically traps you if you fuck up. If you are pretty good at it you can survive 4 or 5 without taking too much damage, but otherwise you are going to take some hits if not lose. It pisses me off because it basically ruined any chance I had to get away.

Graphically, the game isn't exactly triple-a, but its not so poor its distracting. Most of the environments are cities or buildings, so its hard to mess that up. The commercial for the game doesn't exactly do it justice as they look even more cartoony than they do in the actual game footage. I wouldn't stretch to say it was horribly animated either. The reactions to kills or interaction animation to NPC characters is somewhat believable. It was never so much to draw me out of the game.

What did draw me out was the just god awful dialog. Terminal Reality managed to rope in both Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Micheal Rooker (Merle) to play their characters from the show in the game. You would have figured that they might have put a bit more effort into the story focus. Daryl as a character has always been short of words, but his reactions to people don't feel natural. Not only that his lines are very short and his interactions are with NPCs are basically not meaningful, so there is not a lot of room for progression or growth.

During missions, you find NPC survivors who give you little side missions to do. If you do them in the level, they come with you and can go out for supplies while you do the next mission. Problem is you almost never have a vehicle large enough to support more than one at a time, and the missions are always so high risk they almost never survive anyways. By the time you actually get a ride that can hold up to 3 survivors, you are pretty much done with the game.

Pick anything but stay in car, and they're probably dead.
When you talk to them it feels pretty stupid. Instead of having some kind of natural discussion given the setting, You can see in your head the voice actor reading the quest requirements instead of finding some sensible ad lib. Such as instead of saying "We need to find gas so we can get out of here!" an NPC would say something along the lines of "You need to find 3 gas canisters so we can complete this area". Some of them are less hokey than others, but none of the dialog is what I would call "inspired". It's like you can see the voice actor reading the walkthrough out loud into the microphone. 

As I said, the game started off positive for me, but sadly it just didn't last. After you play the first level of the game, you might as well have just played every level of the game. The objectives never change, its always just "find this specific item for this person". The surroundings change but you fight the same walkers, and you collect the same items. Yeah the story item changes to car keys, or a engine coolant, or a antibiotics, but it could easily send out to find a rubber chicken as well and mean just as much.

Man, just look at that high quality motion capture. Don't set the bar too high, guys.
In between story missions the game will stop you for scavenging missions to get more gas or an item to fix the car, which they'll drop you in about one of three generic (yes, just 3) maps for you to find it. And in many cases, they reuse the map but just drop you off on the other side. Its lazy, its boring, and ultimately you start skipping killing things just so you can be done with it faster. After doing these twice I immediately started picking the travel option to make me less likely to do these. Stealth is fun but it drags out the game unnecessarily and killing zombies is kinda the point here.

The difficulty curve is bass ackwards too. Most games start you at the low difficulty and work you up as you get better. Survival Instinct starts you off with a shitty knife and a slow rifle and lets you get your ass chomped relentlessly for half the game. It was frustrating but set an effective tone for the need for stealth. Although occasionally when you go to complete a mission they'd swamp you with a hoard of walkers so it just becomes a mad dash for the finish line. Those first few levels really whipped my ass to the point where I almost stopped.

But then you actually find Daryl's signature crossbow, the game becomes so insultingly easy that you'd think it was developed by Step 2. Suddenly your need for bullets is gone because you can retrieve you arrows (even if the zombie isn't down), you don't need to stealth as much anymore because the bow doesn't make noise. And on some of the maps you really only need to use the bow in a pinch because you can still walk up behind things and quick kill.

It gets even worse though because in the last few missions to raise tension they ratchet up the number of walkers, but they basically are throwing up shotgun shells at you and rapid fire shotgun to use. In the last mission you find an assault rifle and a box of like 120 bullets. Since you only need one per headshot with the zoom, mowing down a crowd is a snap.

With the bow? This barely registered as a threat.
You'll note I said "number" of walkers. Not types. There are no special walkers, their behaviors never change, there are no human characters to fight, no monsters or bosses of any kind. Massive disappointment in this area. I know I bitch about this a lot but seriously I'm completely fucking tired of the battle of attrition for the final showdown. I know the plan is to make it seem more tense and hectic but for fucks sake, use that to lead up to a showdown with a boss. I've used the whole game to establish these fodder enemies are not a threat, giving me more of them doesn't make it more fucking exciting. And hell, most of the shooters these days have this going on in every level. Think of how many games you've played in the past 2 years that ended this way, I came up with more than 8 right off.

There are some good ideas in this game, some of these concepts are solid in theory but were poorly executed.  Its biggest fault is it fires off all its great ideas pretty much the moment the game starts and then one level in it goes "whelp, that's all I got. Hope you like it for 5 more hours". It's a shame because it would have been nice to see a property successfully make the transition from show/movie to game for once.

I'm just left to wonder if a bigger studio such as Valve, Insomniac, or Naughty Dog could have taken the bones of this game an really made something of it. The game I've described above could have benefited greatly from any of these studio's niches. Valve pretty much set the bar on how to do zombie hoards. Insomniac could have just plunked the Resistance 3 source in here it and it would have been great. Naughty Dog has a great 3rd person base and they know how to use voice actors and dialog if you look at any of the Uncharted games.

But alas, that's all hypothetical daydreaming. The bottom line is The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is about as satisfying as eating a plain old Hershey bar. That first bite is chocolaty goodness and it makes you feel good, but after that you kinda wanna stop eating it because after a 2nd you are kinda sick of it and its really not that great in full size. I would have liked it more but there are just too many faults for me to give this game an honest recommendation.

Hardcore gamers will hate it, I doubt even Walking Dead fans would play it because aside from the occasional appearance of Merle it could be completely unrelated to the series. Could have been Cabela's Redneck Zombie Crossbow Hunt Jamboree and made about as much sense. I wouldn't even get this game at bargain price. I rented it from Redbox for $2.14. Did I get more than 2 bucks worth of entertainment out of this game? I suppose so.

But I'd still like my 2 bucks back. Pass on this one.

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